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On a stunning sunny morning on the way to school with my 9-year-old, I open the front door and exclaim: “Welcome to your beautiful world!”
My daughter retorts with a sullen look: “No, it’s a terrible, polluted world.”
Another time, I ask her 11-year-old sister, who has just arrived home from school, what she learned today (all kids love that question, right?). Her reply: “That your generation has destroyed the planet.”
So, that’s just great. The Debbie Downers of our time have quietly claimed my kids. And they are, unfortunately, not the only victims. By now, the study that shows a majority of young people believe humanity is doomed has topped every news site and the topic of climate anxiety has given birth to a new genre of despondent reporting.
“The level of anxiety can be crushing,” trembles the National Geographic in a newly written screed that kicks off with a millennial couple recounting how they wrestled for a decade (!) with the “ethical quandary” of whether to bring “another human onto an already crowded planet.” (she wanted to raise a “climate ally,” he feared for the child’s future).
The article keeps the gloomy personal stories coming. A 17-year-old in Brooklyn considers shelving his dream of becoming a history teacher; how is he going to be able to explain to his students why “we didn’t do anything” about climate change? Another teen in the same borough shares what it’s like to grow up “in the shadow of a ticking clock.”
For youth overcome by despair, there is a course on eco-grief at the University of Washington that teaches grieving rituals and mindfulness. But I pity no one more in the article than the 4-year-old boy who bursts into tears when he realizes his mom set the table with a container that can’t be reused or recycled.
“That hit me really hard,” the mom says, apparently not reflecting on who bears responsibility for scaring the bejesus out of her son.
Fortunately, for worried parents, the media also has an affinity for writing, “How to talk to your child about climate change.” I do a search myself and end up on Motherhood, a parenting site, where the “anxiety-inducing” topic is presented alongside “5 Powerful Quotes by Greta Thunberg,” including the classic, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic…” The next stop on my online journey is a national morning show that chose an image of a burning inferno to illustrate a segment on talking climate with kids (“Tell the truth” “Talk about feelings”).
Here’s my truth: The best scenario for kids is for the media to stop acting like a megaphone for the doomsday faction of the environmental movement and for adults to resist falling for every sensational headline. Taking the climate threat seriously does not need to be synonymous with treating every absurd claim as a profound truth. No, my generation has not destroyed the planet. No, humanity is not doomed within a certain number of years. There is — surprise — a whole bunch of people who actually “do something.” In fact, they do more than most people will ever know since what they do can’t be turned into panic-triggering storylines.
Until the media makes nuance a hallmark, I will tell my kids to treat apocalyptic headlines like tobacco ads (I borrow this idea from the journalist Matt Taibbi). To read another doomsday tirade by a one-note columnist is about as good for your health as chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes.
So, what happened to the couple that debated whether to have a baby? Well, their son arrived last year. The new dad even admits his baby boy has cured his “activism-depressing climate despair.” Nihilism, he has realized, is no longer an option.
Ulrika G. Gerth is a Swedish native who lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three daughters.