In January, a group of environmental researchers led by Will Steffen of Australian National University published an update to their earlier work on “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of nine fundamental ecological processes — like climate regulation, ocean acidification and freshwater use — which, if crossed, could potentially trigger a collapse of human civilization or at least a whole lot of human suffering.
Hopefully, we’ll correct course and prevent potentially cataclysmic ecological disruptions — including a five to six degree Celsius warmer future — “that won’t be good for large mammals like us,” as Steffen notes. But realistically, the window to prevent this path may have already closed — or at least is so politically nonviable that anyone bringing a child into the world today needs to recognize that the future of their children will in all likelihood be unstable, violent, and ugly — as 8 to 10 billion humans fight to survive as droughts and disasters disrupt food supplies, access to fresh water and energy is limited, and as fertile lands and cities are consumed by a rising ocean.
When my wife and I decided to bring a child into the world (just one, as humanity needs to quickly stabilize and shrink its total numbers), part of the agreement was to raise him to be a future ecowarrior. One who, hopefully, could help steer us toward a more sustainable path so that the nasty collapse that kills off several billion people and countless other species will be averted or at least cushioned. Or if that is impossible, at least provide him with the skills and wisdom to increase his odds of surviving the ugly transition ahead, and help others to do the same.
Let me acknowledge right from the start that the freedom to raise my son, Ayhan, this way reveals a level of privilege that only a minority of people around the world have. The fact that I can take care of Ayhan half of every day instead of working 12 hours a day mining gold, assembling iPhones in a sweatshop, or foraging for valuable scraps in landfills is a luxury many will never have. But being part of the American middle class, I do have that luxury — especially as I have made economic choices to make the math work, such as owning no car and no home, and yes, having only one child — and with it I have the freedom, and even the responsibility, to prepare my child for the radically different reality he’ll grow up in.
As Ayhan is only two and a half, I’m still navigating what it means to truly raise an ecowarrior, and a lot of my hopes and plans for how to raise him are just that. Already we’ve learned a lot, especially on how to lay a strong foundation — and just how important that foundation is, not to mention how much work it takes. Below are the key discoveries of my first years of fatherhood. I hope when you read these, you think “duh,” but in reality, I’ve met so few parents, also of the American middle class variety, that are conscious of these facts and realities, and instead simply follow blindly the cultural norms of the unhealthy, unsustainable, socially disconnected consumer culture they’re part of. Without first breaking through that mindlessness, I can’t imagine much success in teaching the more challenging ideas, skills and lessons that will need to be part of bringing up children to survive the stormy century ahead. Sometimes the first step is simply to identify what is so difficult to see.
Birth and Infancy
The first and most important lesson to learn as an expectant parent is to not blindly trust in the medical system. This seems obvious considering the levels of corruption in the American medical system, but I’ve found that many soon-to-be parents spend more time researching which smartphone to buy than how to have a safe and healthy birth. Instead, invest your time in researching what a safe, healthy, and natural birth entails. A third of American women give birth via Caesarean section — with their babies pulled from a slice in their wombs, oftentimes for controversial reasons due to a dysmal American medical system. This can cause all sorts of complications — from slower healing in mothers and challenges with breastfeeding to a changed microbiome for babies (interesting fact #1: a baby’s gut bacteria is partially established from the mother’s birth canal). Increase the odds of a natural birth by eating healthily during pregnancy (goodbye white flour and sugar); choosing to deliver with midwives; writing a birth plan; having the support of a good doula; making sure your partner plays an active advocacy role during labor; and most importantly doing your homework — reading books like Pushed and watching documentaries like The Business of Being Born. If you aren’t aware of the “cascade of interventions” that can be triggered by doctors administering Pitocin to accelerate a woman’s contractions (often just for their own convenience), you may end up as part of the C-Section statistic.
Birth, however, is just the first moment of parenting. In the first two formative years, the role you play is critical — from breastfeeding your baby (or supporting your partner in this essential practice) and feeding him real, home-cooked foods rather than overly processed packaged baby food, to raising your baby yourself instead of outsourcing his care to low-paid workers. Granted, all of this takes significant time and sacrifice. And it is especially difficult in a country like the U.S. (as compared to Europe), where the culture completely devalues the role of parents, rarely providing paid maternity care or even follow-up support after birth, and instead equates getting parents back to work and growing the childcare industry as beneficial to economic growth. But the joy of watching Ayhan grow, and building such a close relationship with him far exceeds any costs endured.
One of the most challenging steps so far in this childraising process has been to avoid raising my son as a “space age baby”. Children today are surrounded by layer upon layer of plastic: wearing disposable plastic diapers, fleece onesies, and nylon jackets. They play with plastic toys; swipe plastic iPad screens with hands coated in hand sanitizer; suck food from plastic baby food tubes; ride in plastic strollers that are even sealed in vinyl covers on rainy days. Just the toxic burden of all that plastic should break us of this mindless activity. But perhaps a worse side effect of suiting up our children like astronauts is that from infancy on they are completely separated from the natural world.
Few children are regularly exposed to plants, birds, dirt (interesting fact #2: ingesting dirt may be necessary to prevent asthma and autoimmune diseases), wind, rain, the sun, even the stars in light-polluted cities. If nature is absent in children’s lives, they may suffer immediate and long-lasting psychological effects, as Richard Louv describes at length in Last Child in the Woods. The odds are high that they will no longer value, defend, or even understand their dependence on the Earth and its myriad ecosystem services.
Back in 1949 Aldo Leopold said, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” And today, we have far more gadgets and middlemen. We even have unlimited access to an addictive, virtual world readily accessed at every turn through smartphone and computer interface. Limiting your child’s access to media is as essential as feeding her well. Of course, it’s not easy finding the time to read 40 kids’ books a day instead of plopping a child in front of Sesame Street, but then again, it can be quite joyful, especially after your two year old starts walking down streets and points to tree stumps exclaiming “broken tree, thneed!” making the connection between the ecocide portrayed in The Lorax and the ecological destruction he witnesses in his own home city.
Beyond the Toddler Years
This is all foundational, but what about with older children? How do we go about combating misinformation and consumer socialization at every turn — in school classrooms and cafeterias, from friends, from extended family with conflicting values, from the media, which I can only imagine becomes harder and harder to protect a child from as they get older? I do not yet have answers. I daydream of homeschooling Ayhan so that I can prioritize the knowledge and values that I think will be relevant — math, languages, and ecosystem sciences, of course, but also wilderness survival, basic medicine and first aid and martial arts. I consider what it will means to raise my child as an ecowarrior — teaching him to understand that all ethical norms and choices should stem from healing our living Earth and protecting it from further ravages of Man gorging beyond his ecological niche.
Right now, I am just setting the groundwork. My son is learning English from me, Russian from my wife, and we’ll add other languages later. He’s gardening, composting, and foraging fruit from street trees with me, and will attend his first primitive skills training this spring. We’ll enroll him in a martial arts class when he’s ready, and have already taught him a bit of yoga — surely, mindfulness in this increasingly mindless world will be a valuable skill to lean on.
Whether my son rebels against all this is an open question, but even if he does—as many more experienced parents tell me he will—when the collapse comes, he’ll still be able to forage wild edible plants, purify water, process acorns to make flour, and hunt, increasing the odds that he’ll survive as others go hungry when climate change disrupts the global food trade and grain prices skyrocket. And he’ll take the knowledge and wisdom he’s learned—and hopefully a deep-seated reverence for the Earth—and share that with others as well, perhaps even helping to sow the seeds for a new ecocentric civilization centuries from now. But no matter what comes, I understand that it is my role—as a responsible parent in this changing time—to do my best to prepare Ayhan for the daunting new reality he will grow up in. I invite others to do the same.