How do you talk to children about the enormous threats of global climate change, extinctions, water shortages…? How do you talk about a fearful future to those who will have to live through its worst?
A letter to my children, age 7 and 5
Do you remember the dinosaur footprints, my darlings, last summer on the beach? Big boulder monster feet – three-toed lumps left among the shingle, shell and shale of the out-tide. Coats over cossies in the drizzle, walking up and down, looking for bones, fairy wings, bits of treasure, eyes dazzled by a billion sparkles. And we found that piece of shiny black rock with golden crystals shimmering in its cracks: our very own piece of dinosaur forest! A time travelling tree from a different world, millions of years ago, before this beach was born, when this was a steamy swamp, stomped through by dinosaurs, a muddy bog in a long ago land. We found bits of fossil forest everywhere, then. Once you get your eye in, it’s easy to spot leftover bits of other worlds that help make our world. You said: “I can’t believe people burn these precious fossils.”
Our world is changing again, my darlings, much faster. It’s getting hotter, stormier, harder for people. We are moving from an Earth of ice and snow to one of fire and drought. The forests and oceans are emptying of animals. It’s becoming harder to grow food and there are more and more people.
Grownups have made a lot of mistakes, a lot of pollution and so many changes to the world and its weather that we call it the Anthropocene time. It’s not the dinosaur world anymore, it’s our world – it’s your world, and it’s still being made. You will be a part of making it, and you can make it better.
There will be difficult times but you are never alone. You are part of a huge group of helpers around the world, learning from grownups that lived before you, and working out new ways of making food and living in houses and moving around. I know you will do your best to look for ways of living that don’t pollute the world or hurt its animals. We are born into the world that those before us made, and together we make the world for those still to be born. I made you inside me from an egg that was formed while I was still inside your grandma.
At the end of this century, in 2100, you will be an old brother and sister, in your eighties, older than grandma and grandpa are now! What will that world be like? I hope, my darlings that it will be kinder and fairer than now. I hope it’s a world of sharing rather than owning: you share your toys now; one day there will be libraries for things like cars and breadmakers. You will eat different food, and wild forests will grow back over faraway fields. Our fossil beach will have disappeared under the sea and those cliffs may well sprout palm trees, but the sea will be cleaner because we won’t make things that are thrown away as rubbish.
But, if you ever think back to our summer on the dinosaur beach, as you breathe in the fresh air you helped to clean, you will still marvel that people ever burned precious fossils.
Gaia Vince. London, Jan 2021