clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How to raise kids in the face of climate change

A conversation about parenting, our planet, and holding onto hope.

An illustration of two people trying to carry the Earth while it’s on fire. Getty Images/fStop

There are a handful of topics that I almost force myself to not think about because the thoughts lead to a dead end. At the top of that list is climate change. It’s one of those problems that starts to overwhelm me when I consider the scale and the implications and all the barriers to tackling it.

I also know I can’t ignore it, because it’s real and it’s getting more urgent. In fact, the average temperature was as hot as it’s ever been, or at least as hot as we’ve ever recorded it to be, several days already this month. And if you live in the northeast United States, you’ve probably noticed the smoke blanket looming over you in recent weeks thanks to wildfires in Canada.

The question a lot of us have asked ourselves at various points is: What is my responsibility in this situation? What can I, as an individual, do?

There isn’t an easy answer here, in part because the problem is too big for any one of us to solve. But if you’re a parent — as I am — the climate predicament takes on an additional dimension. You have to wonder not just about the ethics of raising children in an unstable world. You also have to decide, in a very concrete way, what you really value and whether or not you’re willing to live in accordance with those values.

I spoke with Elizabeth Cripps for The Gray Area (full episode below). She’s a professor of political theory at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and she’s the author of a new book called Parenting on Earth: A Philosopher’s Guide to Doing Right by Your Kids — and Everyone Else.

Cripps writes about issues like climate change and the ethics of collective responsibility, and her work has always emphasized the real possibilities for political reform. In her new book, Cripps makes what might seem like a strange turn to parenting, but it’s not strange at all, because it’s about the responsibilities we have as parents and citizens to build a sustainable future. The book walks the reader through the real-life choices we’re all facing, whether we have kids or not, and it explores what it means to be a climate activist in a world that forces us to make complicated — and sometimes contradictory — choices.

Excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity, follow. You can listen to the whole thing on the Gray Area podcast.

So this is a book about parenting. We’re gonna talk a lot about parenting. You have two daughters. How old are they?

They are 10 and nearly eight. Having them was what inspired me to write the book and made me think about climate change and these other emergencies in a new way. I’d already known how important climate justice was and then suddenly it was my own children whose future was at stake. And it seemed to matter to me in a whole new way, and I felt it was really important for me as a philosopher, but also as a person to try and figure out what it actually meant to be a parent at the moment.

Is this a space where your academic interest and your private life as a parent sort of converge?

They do very much converge. I’ve written and thought about climate justice since I started my academic career. But then when I had my first daughter, I just couldn’t stop making the link between all these new responsibilities that I had to her and the state of the world for the next generation. There was surprisingly little that was written about the direct question of what, as parents, we should be doing about climate change because we owe it to our own children. There’s a lot about intergenerational justice generally. But this specific question, which seems so important to me, hadn’t been massively discussed, and I thought, “I really need to figure this out.”

It’s a gigantic question, but what do you personally think we most owe our children?

I mean, it’s a huge philosophical question, what exactly we owe our children, but most people who have thought about this relatively recently tend to say, we owe it to our children to give them a good childhood. So, to give them all the things they need while we are caring for them, but also to prepare them to be adults, to enable them to live flourishing lives as adults.

I think that makes intuitive sense: what I owe to my children is to give them a good shot at a decent, flourishing human life. And that means caring for them now. It means thinking about what they’ll need as adults and helping them to get that.

But I also think now, when we can’t rely on our governments to protect our children’s future because they’re really not acting on climate change, being a good parent inevitably then has this other element of trying to think about what we can do to change that.

But you also push back against this parenting style that you call the parental saint. That sounds like such a good thing to be. What could possibly be wrong with being a parental saint — which is obviously a play on the idea of a moral saint?

Absolutely it is. So there’s this great quote from Susan Wolf who says, I don’t know exactly what a moral saint is, but I’m glad that neither I nor anybody I care about is one. The idea being that we wouldn’t be able to do so many of the things that give our lives enjoyment and meaning if we were focused entirely on doing what we could for others all the time. And equally, she says, if we always did that as a society, we would lose other things that are incredibly valuable: great works of literature and art and so on.

I think similarly we could say, as parents, if we throw everything we have at our children and deny ourselves all our other interests, then it seems that a lot of value would also be lost. And it’s also unclear that that would be what’s best for our own children.

Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift, who talk about this a lot, talk about the fact that it can be good for our own children to see their parents having their own interests. Although, of course, it’s also important to have this family relationship and to do things you value together. So it’s a balancing act.

Part of the conflict here is between well-intentioned parents wanting to help build the institutions that will protect us and our kids in the future from things like climate change. And something you say explicitly in the book: “When it comes to protecting our children … the buck stops with us.” This is something I feel pretty intensely because I’m not sure how much faith I have in our institutions moving forward. But I think that you are right to caution parents against assuming that our institutions will safeguard our kids’ futures.

And if we are right to be worried about that, then, how do we balance the desire to protect our kids as much as possible against the desire to sacrifice in service of institutions we think are failing — and in many cases have already failed?

I think it is a mistake to think that we can rely on current institutions to protect our children. I think it’s quite clear that our governments aren’t going to act adequately on climate change unless a lot more pressure is put on them. I also think it’s really worth stressing that it’s a very privileged position to be in, only just to be realizing that.

Only a middle-class white parent could be saying, “Oh my goodness, I’ve just realized that our government isn’t looking after my children.” For parents of color, that’s something that they’ve been dealing with for generations.

In terms of the institutions themselves, I think we are in a position now where it’s not a straightforward case of saying, my government’s not gonna protect my child, so I’m going to protect them as an individual, because we can’t do that. Nobody — possibly if they’re a billionaire building a bunker underground — can ensure some kind of future life for their child, even in extreme climate change situations. But for most of us, even privileged people, this isn’t something that we can do alone.

So we have a third option. Which is changing and challenging these institutions on behalf of our children. And that is why I end up saying the most important thing that we need to do as parents is to be activists. And I don’t say that lightly, but I think that’s a kind of unavoidable position when we’ve got to this point.

What does that mean really, to be an activist? That’s a term, at least in our discourse, that’s a little loaded. What does it really mean at this moment in history, about this issue in particular, to be an activist?

As I use it, it means working with others to try and change what’s happening collectively, to get a just response to these global emergencies. So that could involve anything from petitioning banks and pension funds to change what they do to being part of some kind of coordinated lifestyle change movements to move away from flying or driving, or campaigning to reform the public transport systems. It can also mean directly trying to lobby with or work with, or even become a politician and change what happens politically. It could even involve civil disobedience.

I think there’s a huge range of actions there, and what it makes sense for individual parents to do is very much going to depend on not only what’s most needed, but also what opportunities they have, what talents they have, what skills they have, how much money they have, how much time they have.

There’s gonna be lots of different things that people can do, from donating huge amounts of money, to well-chosen charities, to spending their time in certain ways.

You mentioned civil disobedience. Are you familiar with Andreas Malm? His book, How to Blow up a Pipeline? He was on the show. In brief, he’s making the argument that, given how dire this problem is, if you really want to be an effective activist on this front, things may have to get a little dicey, a little less safe. We may have to take certain measures beyond civil disobedience. Not necessarily blowing up a pipeline, but more subversive acts in order to instigate the sorts of changes we need. How does that argument sit with you?

To start with, I would say that there’s evidence that a wide range and combination of tactics can work well together. So, what different people do is gonna depend on the situations they’re in.

But for me, I think the key moral distinction is between violent and nonviolent action. And by that I mean, there’s a key distinction between civil disobedience and violence against property, on the one hand, and violence against people, which is just a clear moral no-no.

Yeah, I said this to Andreas and I’ll say it again here to you. Even though I certainly grant the distinction between violence to property and violence to people, purely as a political question, I think taking those sorts of measures now will probably undercut our efforts more than anything else.

You talked about your daughters earlier. They’re still a little young for this, but, in a few years, how would you react if one of your daughters came to you and said that they have decided that they’re gonna engage in subversive activities in defense of climate efforts, what would you tell them? That’s a tough question, I know.

It is a tough question. I’ve taken them on climate protest marches with me. I think that there is a clear philosophical defense of civil disobedience when the government is essentially not doing its part in the social contract, it’s not protecting children, future generations’ basic rights.

So that does give this clear justification for principled lawbreaking. But as you say, there is then this further question of what works.

So I think what I would be saying to my daughters is, have you done the research on what’s gonna be effective? Have you thought through the impact for yourself?

But ultimately it’s up to them. I think that key difference is between violence against property and violence against people, the latter of which I would never, ever condone, but I want to bring up my children to understand the challenges that face them and to be aware of the range of options there are for tackling them.

And they will then have the autonomy to work with others and decide for themselves what they want to do.

There is a giant, awkward, looming question hanging over these kinds of conversations: should we even be having kids at all? Now, I think this is a ridiculous question, but lots of people don’t.

Yeah, I thought it was really important to discuss this question. For me, the important question is really, what do we owe our children when we have them? That was the one I really wanted to tackle in this book, but this is a live question for a lot of people. People are asking this and they’re asking it for various reasons.

There’s the concern, about the world that you would be bringing this child into. And I understand that concern, and I think one of my fears of not acting on climate change is of leaving the next generation in a situation where they really do face this stark choice between not having children at all and those children having a terrible future.

But I don’t think that’s where we are now, because I think we still have this option of, well, have children and do all we still can to protect their future.

We can still do something about this. And then there’s the other sort of main argument, which is the carbon impact of having children. It’s one of the biggest carbon impact decisions that we make as an individual. What I do in the book is reflect on choices that I made and my husband made there, rather than try and dictate to anyone else, because I just don’t think it would be appropriate to be doing that.

As with all other individual choices, like not flying and not driving, there are moral reasons not to do something that has high carbon impact, but on the other hand, not having children would be such a huge sacrifice for many people. I mean, it’s a really fundamental part for many people of living a flourishing life. It’s a really amazing and valuable relationship.

This crisis is caused by governments, fossil fuel companies. It is not caused by individuals. To be saying to individuals — including individual women whose bodies are ultimately in question here — “Oh, you shouldn’t be having children,” just doesn’t seem like the right response.

I do think there are questions to ask oneself about family size and carbon impact; and the time that we have for our other children and things to do for them is morally relevant.

But I don’t want to say that there’s some kind of universal rule, that everyone should stop at some set number of children, because people have very different reasons for valuing different family sizes. It’s just not reasonable to say there’s some rule that everyone should just stop at some fixed number of children or choose to do that. I don’t think that makes moral sense.

Yeah, and look, I should say, while I think the answer to the question “Should we stop having kids?” is very obviously no, I understand the anxiety out of which that question springs. My son is four. Sometimes I do think about what might await him in the future, and it scares the absolute shit outta me to the point where I kind of just stop thinking about it, really.

The premise beneath the question is what upsets me a little bit, because it’s both counterproductive and also fatalistic in a way we have to reject. We don’t know the future. We don’t know what’s possible. We have no idea how much happiness may come to our kids in the future. To have a kid at all is already an expression of hope. And if we’re done with hope, then we’re just done.

I do agree with that, and I think if you’ve got a child, you can’t be a kind of doomerist or fatalist about this. You have to hope.

I think there’s a really important difference between a passive hope, and what I call active or earned hope. So yes, in having children, it is, as you say, a kind of declaration of hope.

But I then think that we owe it to our children to try and work together to protect their futures rather than just sitting back and having the reaction you sometimes see, which is middle-aged people looking at youth strikers and saying, “You give me hope. You’re amazing as a generation.” Because it’s not just their job to do that. It’s our job as parents to be protecting their future.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.