On a visit to a Black woman healer that I see often, I heard the sounds of climate change wafting down the corridor—warnings of storms and fires, rising temperatures, ruptured ecosystems, and broken supply chains. I turned to her, perplexed. “Is that your baby?” She nodded: it was, in fact, her seven-year-old child watching videos on YouTube. “That doesn’t scare them?” I asked. “It doesn’t give them nightmares?” No, she assured me. In fact, the information in the videos empowered them: it helped them understand how to plan for disasters, when and where to evacuate. The videos told the truth, after all: Climate change is here and it is getting worse. Predictability is but a mirage.
In the climate communications field, we debate constantly and bitterly about the ways we talk about climate change. Our stories can’t be too depressing—then people will shut down. They can’t be too rosy—that would be misleading. And that’s just when we’re talking about how to communicate to adults. When it comes to children, even the communicators seem to shut down. No one wants to think about looking into those sweet, innocent faces and tell them the truth about the world they’ve been brought into. But, as James Baldwin once said, “the children are always ours. Every single one of them. All around the globe.” And it is our job, as their elders, to make them ready to face the world that awaits them. It is our responsibility to tell them about climate change. After all, they can see it with their naked eyes. If we don’t tell them, they will tell us.
I wasn’t born into a perfect world either. And no one told me that I was. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1980s and ’90s. I was in kindergarten when I learned about the blood that was spilled by children not much bigger than me as they stood up to fire hoses and police dogs and the entire white supremacist machine just one generation before me on the very streets I walked. Back when four little girls were blown limb from limb and the city was renamed Bombingham. I knew about Desert Storm and pollution and the disappearing ozone layer. I knew about child abductions and molestations. In fact, I learned about rape before I learned about sex. No one painted a pretty picture of the present and no one sang me a lullaby about the future.
Hearing this child listen to videos about a grim and unpredictable future with curiosity and flexibility made me wonder if there could be lessons in the messages I received as a child about the world that awaited me. After all, I was part of a unique generation that grew up with the knowledge that the planet very likely was teetering on a tipping point. While I couldn’t see and feel climate change the way today’s children can, I could hear it rumbling in the distance, even if I didn’t have the language for it then.
By far the loudest and most consistent message I heard about the future was the classic Bible Belt message about the apocalypse. It was apparently, and conveniently, scheduled for the year 2000, when I would be a ripe 16 years old. By the time that date drew nigh, I had moved from Birmingham to Mississippi’s river region, which felt like a tighter notch in the Bible Belt. That’s where I was for the panic and nothingness of Y2K, and the subsequent rumors that the world actually had ended but we were the ones left behind. Soon, those rumors morphed into assurances that the apocalypse was definitely coming in 2012, but by then I was good and grown.
From church to school assemblies, I heard the conflicting, but unmistakable, signals that the world was going to end before I graduated high school—and that I needed to get good grades so that I could get a college scholarship. The contradictions were too much for my still-developing brain to hold. Essentially, I was being told to strive for a future on a planet I was told would not exist. It didn’t take long before I learned that these same people had made these same predictions before. Proverbial and perpetual Chicken Littles. From my vantage point today as a 39-year-old woman, it is a marvel that I didn’t completely shut down. Instead, I simply shut all those predictions out, and learned to distrust anyone who spoke with so much certainty about the future. How could they know? They’d never been there.
Then, there were the cartoons. Almost any elder millennial who grew up in the United States will remember after-school classics like Duck Tales and Tiny Toons and Tail Spin, spliced with classics like Looney Tunes and The Mickey Mouse Club. We reached adulthood stunned to find that the Bermuda triangle and quicksand and molten lava are, actually, not much of a concern.
There were other cartoons, though, that taught us about more pressing and real threats to our future. Things like acid rain and deforestation and, again, the vanishing ozone layer. Chief among those cartoons was the vaunted Captain Planet. I remember enjoying that six-season series as a child, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I saw it with my grown-up eyes and fully formed frontal lobe.
Captain Planet did not mince words about how much trouble the planet was in or even who was responsible. In fact, the very first episode is about the dangers of oil and the second is about coal! Two of the main villains are “Hogwash Greedily” and “Rigger.” (I am choosing to ignore how similar that last name is to a certain slur.) That stands in sharp contrast to the debates we have about children’s programming today—from Netflix to Nickelodeon. And, Captain Planet was crystal clear about the power of collective action—it taught us that no one person can save the planet alone.
However, Captain Planet did draw some disappointing lines around generational responsibility. In every single episode, the kids worked with a superhero and the spirit of the earth to fight off coal barons, loggers, miners, and all sorts of evil villains who wanted to exploit the planet for profit. In fact, it was rare to see an adult human outside of the role of a villain. The message to children was clear: adults are ruining the world before we had a chance to be part of it. No one told us that most of those same adults were also victims of a system they didn’t control. Captain Planet taught us that in the fight to save the planet, adults didn’t have much of a place. As a Black child in the South who was raised to respect and revere my elders, that message didn’t make sense. So it didn’t stick.
But to get to the most powerful message about the future, we have to go back to the very, very beginning. To my great aunts and great uncles, the people who first taught me to love this planet, and what it feels like to let it love me back. I come from a very big, very connected extended family and, for a brief and glorious period, I was the baby. My grandmother passed away before I was born and my grandfather lived in Washington, D.C. So, their siblings, my great aunts and uncles, were effectively my grandparents. When my mother was at work and my brother and all my other cousins were at school, they were also my day care. In this, I was a very, very lucky child.
During the day, they taught me how to tell when a plant needed watering, and when to leave it alone. I helped them pick peaches and plums and pecans from the trees in the yard. Since I was small and agile, it was my job to get the ones that had fallen on the ground but hadn’t yet spoiled or been picked at by birds or worms. They taught me how to crack the pecans open and feast on the flesh inside, and I watched in wonder as they spun our bounty into pies and cakes. On one of my grandfather’s visits to Birmingham, he taught me how to grow a watermelon in a pot, much to my mother’s chagrin.
From this generation that had grown up in the Great Depression and had known the former slaves I descended from, I learned that my relationship with the earth was not that of a savior or an assailant. It was harmonious, interdependent. We fit into each other like a river into its ridges.
I learned that it wasn’t my business to predict the future. My job was to do my best today to make a better tomorrow. In other words, I couldn’t control the future, but I could control what I would contribute to it, and who I was going to be and how I was going to face it. That message stuck, and I go back to it again and again today.
As any Gen Zer will tell you, the 1980s and ’90s were a long time ago. In fact, whenever I reveal my age to anyone under 25, they are overcome with the urge to comfort me about it. However, I think there’s something to learn from this elder millennial’s childhood memories. First of all, children are not nearly as fragile as we think. Secondly, they can tell when you don’t know what you’re talking about. But if nothing else, I hope we teach them that the planet is not their burden to bear all alone. In fact, it is not a burden at all. It is a gift.