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Are you a good parent? OK, so what are you doing to protect your child from climate collapse? | Elizabeth Cripps

Are you a good parent? OK, so what are you doing to protect your child from climate collapse? | Elizabeth Cripps

Parents do a lot. We spend hours reading stories or freezing on the edges of sports pitches. We buy food, clothes, buggies, car seats, bikes, music lessons, gadgets, parties, holidays, not to mention hundreds of toys. But here’s the bad news. While we obsess about our kids as individuals, we’re missing a last-ditch collective chance to save them from environmental catastrophe.

Take that seriously, and being a “good” mum or dad is about much more than what you do with your child or the opportunities you buy them. It becomes political.

There are some things we owe our own children because they are our children, over and above whatever we should do for other people. That’s commonsense morality; it’s also what most philosophers think. Some say this is because most parents bring new people into the world, rendering them vulnerable to its dangers. Others ground this duty in a special commitment: a promise, implicit or explicit, to take on this incredible role.

Whichever of these you start with, good parenting means doing two things. It means looking after our children as children – feeding them, sheltering them, loving and caring for them, and giving them scope to play – and empowering them to thrive as adults. When we cajole our kids to clean their teeth, teach them times tables or referee play dates, we’re not just looking after them now: we’re trying to secure their future.

Only we aren’t securing it. Even in the UK, our children face floods, droughts and heatwaves, food insecurity, spreading disease and a plethora of mental-health conditions. Then there is the wider toll: an ecologically devastated world, denuded of countless non-human species and rife with devastating injustice; and the still-worse future awaiting our children’s children.

Some philosophers think this iterates. Just as my wellbeing is caught up in that of those I love most – my children – so they cannot truly flourish unless their kids can lead a decent life. Put another way, we wrong them terribly by leaving them the choice between not having kids of their own and bringing them into desperate suffering. But the same is true of our grandchildren, and so on into distant generations. Reason back, and our kids need us to protect the planet for all their descendants.

A poster at the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, 2021.

Whether or not you accept this last philosophical twist, one thing is clear. Our own kids risk a broken future because, between us, we’re destroying the world they will be adults in. Ignore that and we make a mockery of everything else we do to set them up for health, happiness and success; we’re reading bedtime stories in a house that’s burning down. Face up to it, and we may just become truly good parents.

Of course, I can’t save my children from the climate crisis alone. Nor can you. But in our interdependent world, morality is unavoidably collective. As parents, we can – and must – protect them all between us.

This means doing some things differently with our kids. It means bringing them up motivated and empowered to fight the climate crisis, not hooked on the things that feed it. In other words, more communication, more bikes and trains, less meat and dairy; more time outside and fewer throwaway gadgets or plastic toys. (In the process of focusing on outdoor play, incidentally, we could directly boost our children’s physical and mental health.)

Most crucially, though, it means becoming advocates for them: acting together to challenge corporations and governments. Parents have economic clout. The global kids’ clothing market alone is worth $170bn globally; the baby food market close to $90bn. There are also an awful lot of us. Four out of five UK women born in 1975 had had at least one child by 2020. We have a loud collective voice – and some parents are already shouting.

In the 1980s, a group of Black mothers who lived on Carver Terrace in Texarkana in the US discovered they were bringing up their children on houses built on toxic waste. Led by Patsy Oliver, they demanded redress, ultimately getting Congress to buy out the homes. In London, mothers on both sides of the divide successfully objected when a developer tried to exclude poorer kids from a play park.

In the climate emergency, grassroots parent-activist groups are growing, building networks and doing what harassed mums and dads do best: responding to crisis creatively, with love and determination. They target fossil-fuel enablers with Mary Poppins or Mother Earth song-and-dance routines outside Lloyd’s of London offices, or superhero protests at the home of BlackRock’s chief executive, Larry Fink. They march, petition political and corporate leaders, and speak directly to them as parents.

I’m not saying this is easy. Parenting is already a precarious juggling act, especially given childcare costs. But I am saying it’s necessary. I know it takes herculean efforts for some parents just to keep their kids fed and warm, especially single parents or those caring for disabled children. They cannot take on more. But the rest of us could think very seriously about our priorities.

I never wanted to be an activist but I’ll be demanding climate justice this weekend in London with other parents determined to turn fear into hope. I’ll be there because it’s what I should do for my own kids, as well as everyone else. And I’ll be there because everything I just said as a philosopher can be more simply put as a mother. I love my children, and I’m desperate to protect their future.

  • Elizabeth Cripps is a writer and moral philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Parenting on Earth: A Philosopher’s Guide to Doing Right By Your Kids – and Everyone Else

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