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Removing Our Kids from the Front Lines of Climate Change
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By WorldChanging Guest Blogger Elin Kelsey

"Spray the farm!" a young boy screams, trying desperately to wrench the plastic spray bottle from my son Kip's grasp. "I want to spray the cows!" The force of the contact threatens to send flying the large plastic diorama of a rural and urban streetscape, perched temporarily on a folding table at our local street fair. But Kip has too much experience as Esme's big brother to let that happen. With the quiet calm of an older, wiser and, perhaps most importantly, bigger child, he steadies the corner, casually aims the bottle at a car lot and sends a jet of water through a storm drain destined for the make-believe ocean beyond the table edge. He pauses to answer questions posed by the volunteer working the booth, questions about the health of the oceans and the problems we create for it every time someone dumps oil or car detergent or trash down the gutter. "It's a bad idea," he dutifully agrees. "It's terrible for sea otters. We're killing the oceans." Only then does he place the bottle down, just a hair's breath out of reach of the younger boy's desperately wiggling fingers.

I smile at the subtle way kids reinforce the pecking order. The fact that bigger kids, no matter how well socialized or gentle at heart, still lord it over littler kids strikes me as reassuring: it's the way the world works, the way it's always been. Perhaps that's why I find the educational point of the diorama so unsettling. It's messing with the age-old tradition that play is fun and that the good guys eventually win. For the next eight hours, each child who stops by for a friendly squirt of the bottle leaves with a single, simple message: the ocean is fucked and it's your fault.

It's not that I think the ocean isn't in trouble or that environmental issues aren't urgent. I feel those things so deeply that I've spent the past twenty years designing conservation exhibits and education programs for aquariums, writing books about nature and sustainability, and helping my graduate students earn master's degrees in environmental education. It's just that I think it is wrong to lay the worries of the world on the very young.

This isn't a new argument, but it's one that bears repeating in the current and, to my mind, welcome frenzy over climate change. "Children will be put on the front line of the battle to save the planet under radical proposals to shake up the way that geography is taught in schools," begins a recent article in the British newspaper The Independent. We have a war on drugs. A war on terror. And now, we're asking kids to lead the charge in the war on global warming.

For most of human history, people have lived lives that were not appreciably different from their parents. But over the past few centuries, and increasingly over the past generation, that pattern has changed: we are constantly dealing with change. Species extinction, logging of old-growth forests, elimination of wetlands and wild places, growth of the ozone hole: one essential response to these changes is a sense of loss. And we experience a sense of loss through, in part, the emotion of grief.

Yet, environmental education research is strangely silent about dealing with the emotional implications of the environmental crisis on kids. There is virtually nothing in the literature addressing appropriate ways to deal with the emotions associated with environmental degradation. words like grief, despair, or anger rarely appear in our writings. Do we have any ideas as to whether children grieve and mourn for the lost species, despair for us and the rest of the living world, and then take a stance of detachment or denial in response to the overwhelming-ness of the issue before them?

Nearly a decade ago, David Sobel, director of the teacher certification program at Antioch New England Graduate School coined the phrase "ecophobia" to describe what really happens when we lay the weight of the world's environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature. "Ecophobia," he writes "[is] a fear of ecological problems and the natural world.

Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength. In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don't want to have to deal with it.

Recently I attended an international summit of environmental and health education researchers from 14 countries; we met in Ascona, Switzerland. The urgency of climate change and the need for responsible educational reforms were much discussed at this meeting. So, too were a growing number of studies, such as those conducted by Dr. Albert Zeyer, a physician and health educator at the University of Zurich, demonstrating that high school students today are fully aware of the looming environmental crises, yet they feel powerless to change things. "They suffer latent environmental depression," he says, the result of decades of "gloom and doom" messages. This is a generation of informed but disillusioned and depressed youth. As one teenager in Dr. Zeyer's study put it: "We don't have a chance."

Presenting issues to kids that they can do nothing about and yet are held personally responsible for results in a loss of self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, depression and despair. In her book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Jean Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, claims those born after 1970 are more confident than previous generations, but more depressed. They lack social connectedness and fear the environment. Her findings suggest an element of learned helplessness, a well-established phenomenon in clinical psychology.

My concern is that something as apparently playful as having kids spray imaginary pollution into a make believe ocean inadvertently has all the attributes of the three "P's" associated with the theory of learned helplessness:

  • It's Personal. Kids are shown that they are the problem.

  • It's Pervasive. The diorama links the problem of ocean pollution to many aspects of a child's daily life, and reinforces persistent messages of environmental demise.

  • It's Permanent. By explaining how plastic remains in the ocean "forever" for instance, kids see the problem of ocean pollution as unchangeable.

So what's a parent at a fairground to do? Let the kid spray and pray it doesn't cause permanent damage? Clearly a one-off experience is no big deal; it's the pervasiveness of the message that worries me.

One of the most effective responses, according to research in the field of significant life experiences is to nurture connections with the earth. Spend time in nature with your little ones. Send your kids outside to play with someone who loves the woods or is happy to overturn rocks in the vacant lot in search of bugs. Create space and time for childhood adventures and share the wonder of their discoveries. "Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depend upon it," writes Richard Louv, best-selling author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In a world filled with well-intentioned parents driving their kids from Little League to piano to gymnastics, such moments of unallocated time may be difficult to find. Yet they are precious.

So too is the innocence of a child's imagination. "No tragedies before ten years of age," says David Sobel. "If we want children to flourish, we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it."

I do not mean to imply that we shield children from environmental threats, to create a Pollyanna view of the world. Environmental threats are too pressing for that. What I am calling for is an awareness of what is appropriate for young children, sort of a personal PG rating for environmental experiences. Paired with this sensitivity to the importance of wonder and hope must come a commitment to honesty. Just as kids know that a balloon can't expand forever, they intuitively understand what we adults try so vigorously to deny through all kinds of institutions. We can't expand forever on a limited planet. Yet the best we often offer kids is simplistic directives like "change the light bulbs" or "recycle cans". Our tendency to equate environmental education with behavioural modification is moralistic. Indeed it is so similar to religious castigation, an Italian senator once remarked "How come environmental education is so much like Sunday school instead of business school?"

Kids know much more than they can put into words. They understand, "I need to look after myself. I need money." Instead of condemning them for being bad each time they sin against the environment, we need to be more honest about the fact that behaviors exist within societal contexts. And we need to be more forthright about not only how ecology but also how world economies and political structures currently work. We need to invite kids to question what is and to imagine different futures. "How can we live a one planet life? What does it look like?"

But none of this is easy. We are becoming clearer about the nature of global environmental issues. We are becoming clearer about the causes of them and what needs to be done about them. We need to become clearer about the correct locus of action. That it is not always at the individual level, but instead there are necessary collective actions, actions taken by governments and by large corporations in the battle for sustainable environments. What we do not know is what to do about the kids who are inheriting this world. These are adult issues. They are ours to tackle. Our children are counting on us to rise to the occasion. It is we, not them, who belong on the front lines.

Elin Kelsey, Ph.D. can be reached at elin AT iname DOT com, or via his web site,

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I think what people tend not to realise, and which is rightly brought up in this article, is that society directs behaviour. Our current society directs behaviour that damages, or threatens to damage, the natural world. Children are growing up in that society and are indeed learning behaviours that are relevant to it. They cannot help but learn how to be functional in that way of doing things - one that is inherently environmentally destructive. So when they are told that these eco-problems need to be solved at some point, there is a dilemma, almost a paradox: prepare for life in current society (which is quite easy but would lead to environmental ruin), or prepare to work to change things (extremely difficult but has a chance of fixing things). So of course despair and depression arise.

My assumption in the above is that we cannot fix a problem with society within that society; it doesn't make sense. We cannot, in other words, carry on roughly as we are, with slight corrective action like recycling cans and turning off lights. It's like sailing a paper ship, and trying to solve problems by bailing out water, then handing over the navigation to the children. Someone needs to point out that it's time for a better ship.

Posted by: Justin on 28 Nov 07

Teaching kids to be aware of the consequences of their actions on the environment, and to berate their parents for not doing more, is a lot more encouraging than explaining to them about the "Fallout Shelter" signs on buildings and that they could be wiped out in a nuclear firestorm. Growing up during the Cold War-- now that was a feeling of helplessness.

Posted by: Max Kaehn on 28 Nov 07

I could write pages in response to this article. It touched on some of my deepest struggles with my current existence. I will try to keep it short, and convey my most relevant reactions.

I absolutely agree that the severity of our current environmental problems is not something to be laid on the shoulders of children. As I think is true of all education, we should be modeling and encouraging good behavior at every opportunity, not emphasizing or criticizing bad behavior. Where was the spray bottle filled with biodegradable soap that kids could have sprayed gleefully to their hearts content? It's not like that doesn't exist.

I appreciate your concern for today's children, and I urge you to consider today's young people who were children not so long ago. I am 24, and I'm terrified. At this point, some climate change is inevitable, and it will really start to hit us hard just when I'll be getting ready to marry and have children of my own. If global society pulls it together and drastically reduces carbon output in the next 10 years, then climate change will result in disruption and danger for many people, and a general continuation of the world as we know it. If, however, we don't get it together quickly enough or completely enough, I could be facing major disaster on a global scale. I feel so small and relatively powerless in the face of this problem.

I was born in 1983 to two avid environmentalists. My mother has been an environmental activist my entire life. I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of the damage we were doing to our planet. I am deeply grateful for all the wonderful outdoor experiences my parents provided me. I love the land I grew up on. I am at peace rafting the Salmon River in a way that I don't feel anywhere else. But as I get older and the situation gets more and more dire, I feel guilty and furious. I do everything a single person can do-I don't own a car, I buy used, I buy green, I recycle, I compost, I turn down the heat, I conserve water-and I know that none of it is enough.

In my heart of hearts I want to be a pastry chef, but I was gifted with excellent analytical abilities and a love of math so I became an engineer. It wasn't what I most wanted, but I knew I could make more of a difference to the planet changing how things are built. I work for a firm that specializes in energy-efficient building design. We do good work, but it is still so small and change is so slow. And I miss baking. I feel this constant sense of urgency and vague desperation.

I do the work I do because I am trying to save the world that I love, for myself and the children I might have. But sometimes I go to work and I just feel angry that I'm not baking scones because I have to solve a mess I had no hand in creating. And sometimes I feel like nothing I do will help anyway.

I had an joyful childhood relationship to the natural world, and loving hopeful parents, and I still feel helpless sometimes. I can't imagine how my peers must feel who didn't have those buffers. So thank you for bringing this issue up.

Posted by: Molly on 28 Nov 07

Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease... Sounds like my childhood. I grew up advocating for recycling in schools and silkscreening "Save the Whales" on T-shirts. Why are children being asked to do this again all over again 20 years later?

Posted by: Ethan on 28 Nov 07

My 10-year-old daughter thinks about global warming all the time. I really wish I could bring our political leaders into her room at bedtime when she's laying there worrying about it, so *they* could try to reassure her, explain to her what they're doing to help, rub her back, and get her to go to sleep.

As *I'm* pretty terrified about global warming myself (when I let myself think about it), I have a hard time consoling her. The most reassuring thing I've been able to come up with -- and it's not terribly reassuring, frankly:

"Well, when *I* was a kid, we were all sure the US & USSR were going to start world war three at any moment, and we'd all be destroyed by nuclear bombs... I was just as scared about nuclear war as you are now about this. But we *didn't* get blown up. Lots of people worked really hard to make sure that didn't happen. (And we were lucky.) Lots of people are working hard to figure this one out too. When you grow up, you can help. Heck, you can help now. And if enough people work on it -- and if we're lucky -- we'll find a way to solve the problem."

Posted by: Mikala on 1 Dec 07

Hey a great article. As an educator I found this discussion worth while and important regardless of how many times it has been said. In teaching we see a lot of issues get down loaded on to our students... heck my generation was even told that some day this place will be all yours! It was a scary thought then, and now 30 years later it's still a scary thought. I caution governments and others who are designing these educational programs to be sincere in there purposes and to outright ask the question: “Am I doing this to be a leader and to help prepare the leaders of the future or am I doing this to pass the responsibility on to our children?"

The part of the article that spoke of the stresses we put on children and youth these days seems very relevant for me. In BC, Canada we have a body called Student voice that meets twice a year to discuss issues faced by students in our schools. One of the topics that came up repeatedly was how do we guide students to “manage stress”? Do we give our students too many responsibilities without supporting them in solving or dealing with the issues that arrive?

Last semester I showed a video on nuclear reactions to my grade 10’s and I was surprised at the number of students that were shocked by the video experience. They hadn’t really experienced the nuclear world and there was a gamut of emotions (anger, sadness, confusion…) but one that stuck out for me was helplessness. What do you say when some one says they feel helpless?

One of the reasons I appreciate the work that this site does is that it tells of stories of hope. Hope is the only cure to hopelessness. We need to continue to empower youth and let them know that there is hope and opportunity. Humans have done awesome things for both the betterment and the determent of the world. Our capacity for improvement is limitless.

We need to teach students to act with compassion; to realize their potential; to understand the relative size of our planet; and that we as adults are leading the charge. Each problem is the world’s problem - ours and theirs. We can be advocates and build a better place.

With this said, we as adults have to believe there is hope. Children have an amazing knack of sensing our anxiety and worry.

Teacher and OD Consultant

Posted by: Paul Britton on 7 Dec 07



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