Teach your children to be well
My grandson’s nickname is Gunny. What a joy it is to escape the complexities of adulthood to focus on him, just playing. One day when he was eighteen months old, I had to muck out the compost on a typical Vancouver winter day—it was pouring rain. So I dressed Gunny up in boots, sweater, gloves, and rain slicker, and out we went.
As each shovelful turned up worms, I encouraged Gunny to pick out the big ones to feed to the turtle. He dove in with gusto. Anything moving and colourful immediately attracted his attention. It took a while to empty the fully composted side of the box and turn over the newer material, but he kept digging away with his toy shovel and never lost interest or wandered off.
I cannot imagine what is going on in my grandson’s brain. He is learning about an entire world with no reference points to start from. A while back, his other grandfather was chopping wood, and, as he was piling up the pieces, there was Gunny, barely able to walk, struggling to carry a piece of wood to the pile! Composting? Piling wood? One might wonder what meaning those activities will have for a child who is going to grow up in a big city, parked in front of a computer screen or text messaging on a cellphone. I believe they have everything to do with that child’s future. You see, I am as alarmed by the astonishing rise of childhood obesity as I am about the ecological crisis. Children learn by the example set by adults.
When my daughter Severn was twelve years old, she gave a speech at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, appealing to adults to think more about children and the kind of world we are leaving them. Her words struck a nerve and created a media flurry. At one point, a reporter commented, “Yeah, we’ve done a pretty lousy job of taking care of the environment, but you kids are different; you’ll lead the way.” It was an attempt to compliment her, I suppose, but I was astonished by her reply. “Oh,” she said, “Is that the excuse for adults to do nothing? Besides, you are our role models. We copy what you do, so how can you expect us to be any different?” I was dumbstruck by the depth of her response. She was absolutely right. How many parents who smoke are successful when they tell their children not to smoke? “Do as I say, not as I do” is a pretty weak way of trying to influence a child’s behaviour.
That brings me back to my grandson’s generation. If they are surrounded by role models who are too busy to spend time playing, who watch television or play computer games to pass time together, how are they going to know that walking, jumping, and moving are what our bodies need to stay healthy? We evolved from the natural world where everything we did involved our muscle power. Harnessing the power of animals was a huge advance, but on an evolutionary scale, it was extremely recent. Our bodies must move to stay healthy.
Exercise is an important factor in reducing a number of our major health problems, from diabetes to stroke, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and cancer. Our bodies evolved to be active. But since we started harnessing cheap, plentiful energy in oil, we’ve used machines to do our every bidding. Exercise, like concern for the environment, shouldn’t be a special activity for which we need experts, gyms, and equipment. It has to be a part of the way we live.
Moving, walking—anything involving the expenditure of energy—is exercise. Driving a few blocks instead of walking or biking, or using escalators and elevators instead of stairs deprives our bodies of what they need to stay healthy. Even though I prefer to get my exercise from everyday activity, I go to the gym—but not to look buff. (At my age, that is a long-gone hope.) I do it for my health. Exercise is my medicine. Now that energy prices are rising, we have a chance to rethink the way we live. We must include exercise as an important health component. In the meantime, as a caring grandfather, I want to spend more time hiking and playing with my grandchildren.
We shouldn’t expect kids to clean up our mess
I turned seventy-five in March 2011. That means I probably won’t be around to see the worst impacts of climate change or any other looming environmental disasters—or the much brighter future that may emerge if we get off our butts to address the problems. But I’m also a father and grandfather, and because I care about my children and grandchildren, and all of the world’s children, I continue to work and to speak out about environmental challenges and solutions.
Climate change is already having noticeable impacts around the world, including food shortages, increasing extreme weather events, shrinking glaciers and ice caps, and rising sea levels. We’ve already upset the atmospheric carbon balance, so the more we ignore the problem, the worse it will get. It’s unconscionable that we would condemn our children and grandchildren to an increasingly bleak future, especially when readily available solutions would help to resolve many other global problems. Cleaner sources of energy would reduce pollution and the health problems that go along with it. Improving social justice would help give people the time, resources, and inclination to focus on considering environmental issues and improving their quality of life. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels would resolve crises that threaten political and economic stability.
It shouldn’t be up to young people to clean up the messes we have made. After all, we don’t even allow them to vote—to choose who will make decisions on their behalf. And they will be most affected by the decisions made today. But because so many adults have abdicated their responsibility to the world and its children, youth are taking matters into their own hands.
One young person in the U.S., Alec Loorz, even took his government to court over its inaction on climate change when he was just sixteen. He and others launched actions against state and federal governments in an attempt to have the atmosphere declared a “public trust” that must be protected, a concept that has been used to clean up polluted rivers and coastlines. “We will let the world know that climate change is not about money, it’s not about power, it’s not about convenience,” he said. “It’s about our future. It’s about the survival of this and every generation to come.”
Alec Loorz started an organization called iMatter when he was just thirteen. He has rallied youth from around the world to march during the second week of May every year to raise awareness about climate change. He argues that children have “the moral authority” to ask their parents and leaders, “Do I matter to you?” It’s a question that deserves an answer. For many adults, the honest answer would have to be, “No, we’re more concerned about cheap gas, the economy, profits for the fossil-fuel industry, and having more stuff.”
Reading about Alec Loorz reminded me of my daughter Severn’s speech at the Earth Summit. She asked the delegates, “Are we even on your list of priorities?” She also reminded them that “losing a future is not like losing an election or a few points on the stock market.”
Severn is now a mother herself, and I’m proud that she takes her commitment to her child and to all children seriously. As well as being a great mom, she works hard to raise awareness about environmental issues through her writing, speaking, and TV appearances. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to help clean up the messes we’ve made. We also owe them respect and support when they get involved and push us to do more for the world. Parents must become eco-warriors on behalf of their children, because their future should be as important to us as it is to them.
Excerpt from the book Everything Under the Sun: Toward a Brighter Future on a Small Blue Planet, by David Suzuki & Ian Hanington, published in 2012 by Greystone Books in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.