As a single mother whose life’s work has largely focused on solving the climate crisis, I’m often in a quandary. How much should I share of the work I do on this issue — which overwhelms those rare adults who immerse themselves in the details with grief — with my 11-year-old son?
When I posed this question in an interview with NASA’s top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, who often speaks of his grandchildren as his motivator for speaking out on climate change, he advised me that it’s more important to let a child be a child. Let them experience the wonder and beauty of nature, not fear it, he said.
And so I was a bit perplexed as to what to tell my son as I prepared to get arrested for the first time in my life. It turned out I’d be joining over 1,000 people from around the United States and Canada in nonviolently protesting a pipeline that President Barack Obama is poised to approve.This isn’t just any pipeline: It is, as Dr. Hansen calls it, a pipeline that, if opened, would ignite the “carbon bomb,” a move that would signal “game over” for the climate.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, my son and I watched the movie Avatar on DVD (for the nth time). As it ended, I thought: This might be a good opportunity to explain my plans for that week.
“You know, this movie is very close to what’s happening in Canada right now,” I explained. “And it’s one reason I’ll be getting arrested this week.”
As my son took in my explanation for my planned act of civil disobedience, he quickly concluded that he, too, wanted to be arrested. But, after some hours of contemplation, I had to reluctantly tell him no.
Why “reluctantly”? Because I felt I was denying my son the right to act, politically, on an issue that would very likely have a much larger impact on his life than on mine. He, far more than the adults who were weighing in, should have a vote on this issue. Yet he, and all our children, have little say on the world they’ll inherit, one that may be changed utterly, in ways we can’t even comprehend.
As I stood before the White House gates a few days later, listening to the police issue their warnings of our impending arrests to our group of over 100 demonstrators, I thought of what I would say as they carted me away — what cry I wanted the president to hear.
And I recalled the day Obama stood before the American people, in those days and months as BP’s deepwater well billowed millions of barrels of oil from that horrifying wound in the Gulf of Mexico floor. I remembered him remarking that, yes, he was very concerned about the spill because, while he shaved one morning, his 11-year-old daughter Malia had asked him, “Did you plug the hole yet, Daddy?”
Children have a way of speaking to our hearts. And so, I mused, even if President Obama didn’t hear the songs and the chants of the more than 1,000 people who were arrested over the course of two weeks, even if the prayers of religious leaders and Native American elders went unanswered, even if he didn’t read the editorial opposing the Keystone XL pipeline in The New York Times, even if he ignored the advice of his very own EPA, perhaps, in this instance, Sasha or Malia might see us outside the White House gates, and ask him, “Did you stop the pipeline yet, Daddy?”
As the police handcuffed my hands behind me and led me off to a white school bus, I shouted: “For Sasha and Malia!”
I don’t think Obama or his daughters heard me, I thought, as I watched my fellow protesters be cuffed, searched and photographed through the bus’s caged windows. But perhaps, if we keep this up, they will.
Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, and host of Earthbeat Radio. www.ips-dc.org