The Planet’s Still Warming, Covid or Not

From an article by Bill McKibben, whose work I’ve been following ever since he founded and started writing the New Yorker’s Climate Crisis newsletter:

Seventh Generation, the recycled-paper-towel and household-products company, commissioned a survey, released in April. It showed that seventy-one per cent of millennials and sixty-seven per cent of Generation Z feel that climate change has negatively affected their mental health. How upset were they? Four in five people in the eighteen-to-twenty-three age cohort “aren’t planning—or didn’t want—to have children of their own as a result of climate change.” Even if the survey were off by fifty per cent, that would still be an astonishing number.

Let us think about the children. Please.

In The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, children have been enfeebled by an unnamed disaster, Japan has been sealed off from the rest of the world, and language has begun to vanish. The elderly remain curiously strong as everyone contemplates a reality in which children will not make it to adulthood.

There’s a kind of frail beauty in the book, and I was especially fascinated by the course of the shifting of language–Tawada herself writes in both Japanese and German–and in the horror of the young Mumei’s growing inevitably sicker.

There was a time when a novel like this would have been thought-provoking but safely in the realm of fiction. These days, not so much. We’re living in a dystopia, and storytelling’s not going to be enough to get us out of it. As McKibben puts it, One Crisis Doesn’t Stop Because Another Starts:

For perspective, April was the four hundred and twenty-fourth consecutive month with temperatures above the twentieth-century average, meaning that, if you’re under thirty-five, you’ve never lived through a cooler-than-usual month.

Is there any good news on this front? Paradoxically, McKibben writes:

…a burst of installation of new solar and wind power last year meant that, for roughly forty straight days this spring, the United States produced more electricity from wind, water, and sun than it did from coal.

All right, hold that thought, and let your elected representatives know it matters, for the sake of young people.

How Many More Ways Will America Fail Children?

Pashminacover-450x635In this Nib cartoon strip, graphic novelist and cartoon artist Nidhi Chanani shows us what it’s like to parent her mixed race child.

In Pashmina, Chanani fictionalized her own experience growing up in America with freshness, humor, and intensity. Her Nib reflection on life, language, and identity choices will feel familiar to many who are trying to raise children in an inclusive society.

Is that a vain hope? Because I think America was learning to be an inclusive society once, not so long ago, in an eight-year era that some apparently saw as less “hopey changey” than might be imagined. Maybe that whole hope change thing was delusional. Or maybe it’s just that democracy can be rigged and hijacked as much as any other system can and we’re watching a crook-in-chief do just that.

Still, I was moved by this New Yorker article by Dave Egger about a church in Connecticut that has decided to open its doors to immigrants seeking sanctuary. Moved for so many reasons. Here were fellow South Asians from Pakistan, whose troubles had all started with caste barriers in their homeland. Caste, I should add, is the identifier that makes me weep for my own people. Its horrific taboos have migrated from their source traditions into converts’ communities in South Asia, even when their adopted religions are supposed to abhor such differences. Moved as well because in the land where I arrived in 1979, immigrants were seen as welcome additions to society, not infestations to be removed.

The article quotes the Bible:

Here’s how Americans can do the right thing: first, more churches that, like the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, want to embody the words in the Bible—“Welcome any alien into your land, for you were once an alien in the land of Egypt”—can consider their roles in protecting families who have committed no crime other than wanting a safe place to live.

But the churches can’t fix the rigged and broken system. Voting might help but only if enough people with intelligence and honesty run for office, and tell me where the incentive is for that?

Finally where, I wonder, does all this leave the child in the church who just wants to play and go to school and be a child? Or Nidhi Chanani’s daughter, whose parents are trying to expand her linguistic world in the passionate belief that this will help her make sense of the real one?  What about the loosening of regulations that will put children’s health at risk? And how come a public shrugging of the shoulders has become the last word on those other children separated so recently from their parents at the border?

How many more ways will America fail children before something shifts?


The Effects of Childhood Reading

We know why it’s important to read early and often.The neurological reasons, the psychological ones, the skill-sets we gain, and so on. But what about the long-term effects, so exquisitely subtle when they act upon a malleable mind? Some adults react to this with a shudder, leaping to the task of scouring through their children’s shelves and making sure they’re only getting wholesome fare.

But what if you read a book as a child, read and reread it, were fascinated by it, and then left it behind in the careless manner of children? What if you forgot all about it. What if years later you reread the book, and it was horrific? Written in a dark era by a polished, cruel mind? Its full impact hit your grownup self upon that second reading.

adichieI’ve long been a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I find her fiction rich and rewarding. I  recommend her TED talk on the dangers of a single story to everyone, and now the talk and related book, We Should All Be Feminists.

This article by her in the New Yorker has once again given me, the ex-child reader, plenty to think about.

To return to the books of my childhood is to yield to the strain of nostalgia that is curious about the self I once was. What could I, at the age of ten, have found so engaging in the memoir of a Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s de-facto No. 2 man?

Today, there are plenty of books for young readers about the horrors of the Third Reich. But Adichie is talking about a primary text, a work of both memoir and propaganda: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. She reflects on that long-ago reading in incomplete snatches of memory combined with nothing more than speculation, surely, because what can you really remember of something like the effect of a book upon your own mind. Layer memory with interpretation and you have so many layers of subjectivity that you can’t draw logical conclusions. But you can remember the visceral effect of a book, the sensory memories of the time and place you read it. And you can absorb its subtext without knowing what it is you are really taking in.

I suppose it can poison you. But it can also be a kind of inoculation, taking effect long after that first reading, tempered by the life experience of the reader.

Speer demonstrates a slick honesty whose goal is to disarm. If it disarmed me as a child, it repels me as an adult.

Children are often drawn to the frail dividing line between truth and lies. They can often sense the contradictions simmering beneath the words, even if they can’t name them. The astute child reader can store away the impact of a book, only to make meaning of it years down the road.

Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies.

The writer looks for lessons in a text that may well have shaped her in a curious way. And she makes the point that the books we read in childhood, incidental as they seem to us at the time and beyond, are capable of being interpreted and reinterpreted for years to come. She suggests that history too comes around in circles. With populism on the rise, we would be wise to look for the past’s reflections in the mirrors of our own time.