Last November I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Kurt Johnson, a radio producer and presenter in Melbourne, about being a parent aware of climate change.
Below you can find a recording of our conversation, and also the notes I wrote in response to Kurt’s questions (not all of which we were able to get through on air – I’ve tidied these up for clarity but they are a bit briefer than they might be if I was writing an essay!)
I’d like to thank Kurt once again for having me on the programme. Our conversation starts at 8m30s, but I hope you can find the time to listen to the whole programme.
On Resist episode 1 we spoke with Marc Hudson, a man who is relentlessly honest about the state of the world and the prospects of protest to improve it. I had him on so we keep a clear head and do not underestimate the obstacles that the climate strike and IMARC blockade have preventing them from creating real change. We also spoke with Marc about a vasectomy he got back in 2009 and when I wanted to chat about children he suggested I speak with Calum McFarlane. Calum is a father of two boys who has thought and written very deeply on the subject of climate change and being a parent. In particular his piece “IF YOU’RE FREAKING OUT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE (ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE A PARENT)…” . I have three sisters that have had four children between in the past 2 years. It’s a subject that’s very difficult to bring up and some parents get quite offended. Calum a very big welcome to the show:
- Climate change is a multigenerational civilisational threat – yet the responsibility for inaction sits squarely on the few generations living now – specifically the two that are in the driver’s seat at the moment. How do you manage the feelings of watching your children grow with an understanding of what sort of life they can expect?
Honest answer – day to day, I functionally ignore it, from an emotional POV. Like having a psychopath chained up in a room in your house. You know they’re there, but day to day you pretend everything’s normal!
Interview with Susanne Moser in “If you’re freaking out…” – if you’ll permit me to read a short extract
The denial part is what we all have. It is incredibly hard to look the realities we have created in the eye. The functional part is that we have to keep going regardless. I function as if the world were just the regular old world in which everything stays the same and I don’t have to worry too much about anything.
If you look more carefully, you might see changes or choices I’ve made to try to avoid adding to the problem. But by and large, I get out of bed, I drink my tea, I do my life as if nothing else was going on.
And at the same time, every single day, I face what we have created. If you ask me to stop for a minute and say, How do you feel about that? it can paralyze me. I have so much grief about it. I have such anger about it. It’s all one big morass of emotions that I have about what we, humans, had the audacity to create out of blindness, and then out of greed and whatever.
So it’s that simultaneity of being fully aware and conscious and not denying the gravity of what we’re creating, and also having to get up in the morning and provide for my family and fulfill my obligations in my work.
For me, functional denial is actually a form of hope.
Say more about that.
I’ve come to the conclusion we have very little hope literacy in this country, and in the world, actually. There are many different flavors of hope.
One is sometimes called grounded hope, active hope, or authentic hope. That’s where you are not at all convinced that there is a positive outcome at the end of your labors. It’s not like you’re working towards winning something grand. You don’t know that you’ll able to achieve that. But you do know that you cannot live with yourself if you do not do everything toward a positive outcome.
And then there’s ‘radical hope,’ a term coined by a man named Jonathan Lear, an anthropologist. With radical hope, you don’t know at all whether the outcome is positive or negative. Neither the means nor the ends are clear, and you have to reinvent yourself completely to come to peace with whatever that new future is. Between grounded hope and radical hope, that’s what we’re going to need for climate change.
I attempt to equip them with what they might need – emotional literacy, understanding, helping those less fortunate, working with others, “resilience”, and a sense of justice (since it seems likely to be in short supply in the future)
- Climate change and how far we are in the hole is such a difficult subject to connect on because it is rendered in so many shades of black. Even discussing it exacts such a high price. Does your partner appreciate our predicament? What conversations did you two have before committing to having a child?
My wife is aware – we share a state of “functional denial” – she is perhaps more “glass half full” about things. My awareness of the severity of the situation is relatively recent, although I was aware of broader environmental and “energy descent” issues when we had our first child. We chose to have a second as my wife is an only child.
- How do you discuss climate change with your two sons?
We talk about how burning fossil fuels creates CO2, and what activities in our daily lives cause this to happen, and how we can avoid them. Don’t consider climate in isolation – consider impacts of buying new things (resources mined, cut or taken) vs 2nd hand, habitats of animals, people in factories. Trying to help them understand that in many ways, looking after the planet and looking after other people can be the same thing. Youngest is 4 yo and obsessed with superheroes so we talk about what “baddies” his favourite hero could be fighting against. Needs to be age appropriate so always lots of reassurance.
- Where have you arrived at with regards to climate change and the hope for humanity in the long-term? and how has that influenced how you raise your boys?
In December 2018 I had just turned 40, in a very bad place. Waking up in a panic, not eating (not like me!), morose, irritable. Long talks with wife. Reading a lot of climate “doom porn”. I ended up talking to a “collapse aware” life coach – helped enormously – not to be happy about it per se, but to feel agency in building local community, taking action (with Marc and others).
Since this experience I’ve read very widely (most I’ve done since I was at university!) – there are many perspectives, we need to have our principles and axioms challenged.
I try to steer my lads away from finding happiness in things or stuff, a lot of the principles about how I talk to them about climate, not all technical stuff about carbon, things like not being scared of spiders, or bees, because everything living matters. We put out food for birds, plant bee friendly flowers, don’t mow part of the lawn – visible things that they can see having some effect.
Beyond that I try to help them appreciate doing the right thing – because it’s the right thing to do, not because you expect a reward or even any appreciation for it. Live according to your principles as much as possible, but appreciate you’re part of a deeply imperfect society, and as an individual what you can do is limited by that.
- Do you ever try and talk with other parents or people thinking about having children and relating it to climate change? How does it turn out?
I have two brothers, niece aged 15, nephew & niece aged 4 and 1. Very hard to have “the” conversation, even though I enjoy a very close relationship with brothers. I don’t know any people who are thinking about having kids – my “cohort” all had their kids a few years ago…it’s a conversation I am trying to have – recently become a parent governor – we’ll see…it’ll start preying on more people’s minds, I suspect it already does…
- Perhaps I just started paying attention to it but I felt this year there was a growing number of people abstaining from having children. There is a growing anti-natalist movement for two conflicting reasons – first because having a new child in a developed country is the single most damaging act you can perform emissions-wise – which assumes all is not lost, the second is what sort of life a child will have – this reason fears the worst. Is this a debate you have thought about much – what conclusions have you reached?
Birthstrike in UK – it’s a very potent symbolic protest as (voluntary) limits on reproduction (and to be honest, most forms of consumption) remain a taboo in our society.
Having children can increase future emissions – but that depends on assumption that future lifestyle same as current – we must act to stop this being true – both personally and collectively. In large part lifestyles of richest that make the average so much worse
There are many places where life is not certain around the world – people who have children in the shadow of so many dangers – the white Western world is not familiar with this idea. Mary Heglar is my personal favourite of a number of black authors exploring facing climate from the point of view of communities of colour in the US; “This ain’t the first existential crisis” is an essay that cracked my shell of mental privilege that so many people carry around them without knowing it. We all need to do this. None of us should expect privilege over others, even though many will get it.
- What I loved about your writing was that you explain despair as part of the process to change. It informs powerful action. I talk with so many people that expect hope to come as a result of willpower and despair as a character flaw. This feels like such a coercive stance to me. I think you characterise human nature as something that needs to be treated with compassion rather than brutal willpower. How did you arrive at this place?
I came to where I am from a process of grief – of losing the certainty of any particular future, other than the expectation that things will be “better” for my kids, or for theirs. Knowing certain beautiful places are now doomed, even in a “best case” scenario. My Dad passed away in 2015; the experience of losing him after a difficult period of ill health helped me to realise in December (2018) that I was grieving, but not the life of a good man well lived, but the destruction of something both intensely personal (the future lives of my children), and also completely unknowable (the earth’s biogeochemical system as hyperobject). The loss of so many beautiful places and so many lives (human and non-human) – very different sort of grief.
I am an atheist so I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife – so we should live in this life as best we can, show as much kindness as possible, be furious about injustice, but also try to find joy – because this is the only life I’ll get, so try to find joy, especially among so much grief. It comes from a father’s love for his sons, for wanting to be the best possible role model for them.
Thanks so much for your time Calum, especially at the beginning of such a busy day getting your sons ready. All the best to your family in the future.