From the comfort of our living room, we watched the world burn in high definition, a speechless father with his equally speechless young children, sitting on the living room sofa, watching the Amazon rainforest violently flame on a large screen television. The images were delivered to us from thousands upon thousands of miles away but were no less immediate for being so far removed. Intense fires tore through jungle vegetation. Massive, lunatic tendrils of smoke rose into an endless blue sky. And there we were, just an average American family watching the tube.
Save for some positive local segments, I don’t usually let my kids watch the news. I figure at six- and 10-years-old they’re too young to properly grasp the complexity and horror of politics, the bloody arithmetic of the most recent shooting rampage, or the mechanics of the endless rolling war machine. And I don’t want them to worry. I don’t want to them to think the world is ending — even when it might be.
But seeing the Amazon burn felt different. This seemed too important to ignore. Clicking through the channels that afternoon, I was struck by the images of the Amazon fires. They were terrible and captivating at the same time. I made a snap decision — maybe even a selfish one — that my children should bear witness to this particular story. This was something that they needed to know about, needed to see, and needed to feel. This was their planet, their environment, and their oxygen supply being systematically wiped out at 1,200 degrees.
“Why?” was the question my 10-year-old asked. This was the only question I should have really been prepared for and I just couldn’t answer it. Climate change debates, such as they are, aside, I couldn’t offer much of a why without going really, really broad with it. So that’s what I did. I told her that since the Industrial Revolution chasing paper has had severe environmental consequences that most of us have chosen to ignore. The destruction of our environment has long been blatant and obvious, yet we ignored everything, making any opposition to the relentless advancement of corporatism seem ridiculous and the mere suggestion that we protect our planet a political motive or even a conspiratorial scheme.
Those who denied the science were unapologetic. Hell, they even seemed proud of how easily they could easily and comfortably dismiss the work of people tirelessly pursuing the truth. The climatologists screamed into the void and a moral void screamed back. And when their warnings grew darker… nothing.
In 200 years it will be too late.
In 100 years it will be too late.
In 50 years it will be too late.
It’s too late.
Now for a commercial break.
I explained that their father is not a scientist, but that I listen to people who are and that I choose to do so because you can’t ignore the numbers and you should try to trust smart people that care. When the smart people that care are saying that very bad things are happening to the planet, we should listen. When they say that glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, animals are dying, and the weather is changing, we should listen.
I told my kids that my grandparent’s generation screwed up by starting it, my parent’s generation really screwed up by keeping it going, and mine totally blew it by taking the can that was kicked down the road to us and chucking the fucking thing as far as we could (I put it a bit more delicately). I issued my sincere apologies and told them that as they grow and enter this world, taking care of their planet is going to be the biggest issue they face.
They acknowledge this complicated reality and were able to process it better than I expected them to. They certainly cannot grasp the enormous implications. They don’t know how bad it’s going to get. They just want to have their childhoods and, well, I get that. But I worry their adulthood are forfeit or in flames.
I wonder if they’ll get to have the same talk with their kids that I had with them or if they’ll be able to be proud of what their generation did. I don’t know. I see some climate change activism, but nothing is given. Still, I told them never to give up and I think they listened. They think I’m smart and they know I care.
Christopher O’Brien attends the University of Maine where he is studying Mental Health and Human Services to become a substance abuse counselor. He is also a trained recovery coach, mentor, and works with incarcerated males re-entering into the community.