Jul 052015

A few months back I wrote a reflection on raising an ecowarrior thus far for Adbusters and thought I’d repost here (with corrections and paragraphs that somehow fell out in the editing process….).

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Professor Will Steffen, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute

In January, a group of environmental researchers led by Will Steffen of Australian National University published an update to their earlier work on “planetary boundaries,” thresholds of nine fundamental ecological processes — like climate regulation, ocean acidification and freshwater use — which, if crossed, could potentially trigger a collapse of human civilization or at least a whole lot of human suffering.

Hopefully, we’ll correct course and prevent potentially cataclysmic ecological disruptions — including a five to six degree Celsius warmer future — “that won’t be good for large mammals like us,” as Steffen notes. But realistically, the window to prevent this path may have already closed — or at least is so politically nonviable that anyone bringing a child into the world today needs to recognize that the future of their children will in all likelihood be unstable, violent, and ugly — as 8 to 10 billion humans fight to survive as droughts and disasters disrupt food supplies, access to fresh water and energy is limited, and as fertile lands and cities are consumed by a rising ocean.

When my wife and I decided to bring a child into the world (just one, as humanity needs to quickly stabilize and shrink its total numbers), part of the agreement was to raise him to be a future ecowarrior. One who, hopefully, could help steer us toward a more sustainable path so that the nasty collapse that kills off several billion people and countless other species will be averted or at least cushioned. Or if that is impossible, at least provide him with the skills and wisdom to increase his odds of surviving the ugly transition ahead, and help others to do the same.

Let me acknowledge right from the start that the freedom to raise my son, Ayhan, this way reveals a level of privilege that only a minority of people around the world have. The fact that I can take care of Ayhan half of every day instead of working 12 hours a day mining gold, assembling iPhones in a sweatshop, or foraging for valuable scraps in landfills is a luxury many will never have. But being part of the American middle class, I do have that luxury — especially as I have made economic choices to make the math work, such as owning no car and no home, and yes, having only one child — and with it I have the freedom, and even the responsibility, to prepare my child for the radically different reality he’ll grow up in.

As Ayhan is only two and a half, I’m still navigating what it means to truly raise an ecowarrior, and a lot of my hopes and plans for how to raise him are just that. Already we’ve learned a lot, especially on how to lay a strong foundation — and just how important that foundation is, not to mention how much work it takes. Below are the key discoveries of my first years of fatherhood. I hope when you read these, you think “duh,” but in reality, I’ve met so few parents, also of the American middle class variety, that are conscious of these facts and realities, and instead simply follow blindly the cultural norms of the unhealthy, unsustainable, socially disconnected consumer culture they’re part of. Without first breaking through that mindlessness, I can’t imagine much success in teaching the more challenging ideas, skills and lessons that will need to be part of bringing up children to survive the stormy century ahead. Sometimes the first step is simply to identify what is so difficult to see.

Birth and Infancy

The first and most important lesson to learn as an expectant parent is to not blindly trust in the medical system. This seems obvious considering the levels of corruption in the American medical system, but I’ve found that many soon-to-be parents spend more time researching which smartphone to buy than how to have a safe and healthy birth. Instead, invest your time in researching what a safe, healthy, and natural birth entails. A third of American women give birth via Caesarean section — with their babies pulled from a slice in their wombs, oftentimes for controversial reasons due to a dysmal American medical system. This can cause all sorts of complications — from slower healing in mothers and challenges with breastfeeding to a changed microbiome for babies (interesting fact #1: a baby’s gut bacteria is partially established from the mother’s birth canal). Increase the odds of a natural birth by eating healthily during pregnancy (goodbye white flour and sugar); choosing to deliver with midwives; writing a birth plan; having the support of a good doula; making sure your partner plays an active advocacy role during labor; and most importantly doing your homework — reading books like Pushed and watching documentaries like The Business of Being Born. If you aren’t aware of the “cascade of interventions” that can be triggered by doctors administering Pitocin to accelerate a woman’s contractions (often just for their own convenience), you may end up as part of the C-Section statistic.

Birth, however, is just the first moment of parenting. In the first two formative years, the role you play is critical — from breastfeeding your baby (or supporting your partner in this essential practice) and feeding him real, home-cooked foods rather than overly processed packaged baby food, to raising your baby yourself instead of outsourcing his care to low-paid workers. Granted, all of this takes significant time and sacrifice. And it is especially difficult in a country like the U.S. (as compared to Europe), where the culture completely devalues the role of parents, rarely providing paid maternity care or even follow-up support after birth, and instead equates getting parents back to work and growing the childcare industry as beneficial to economic growth. But the joy of watching Ayhan grow, and building such a close relationship with him far exceeds any costs endured.

CellophaneBaby31Plastic Wrapped

One of the most challenging steps so far in this childraising process has been to avoid raising my son as a “space age baby”. Children today are surrounded by layer upon layer of plastic: wearing disposable plastic diapers, fleece onesies, and nylon jackets. They play with plastic toys; swipe plastic iPad screens with hands coated in hand sanitizer; suck food from plastic baby food tubes; ride in plastic strollers that are even sealed in vinyl covers on rainy days. Just the toxic burden of all that plastic should break us of this mindless activity. But perhaps a worse side effect of suiting up our children like astronauts is that from infancy on they are completely separated from the natural world.

Few children are regularly exposed to plants, birds, dirt (interesting fact #2: ingesting dirt may be necessary to prevent asthma and autoimmune diseases), wind, rain, the sun, even the stars in light-polluted cities. If nature is absent in children’s lives, they may suffer immediate and long-lasting psychological effects, as Richard Louv describes at length in Last Child in the Woods. The odds are high that they will no longer value, defend, or even understand their dependence on the Earth and its myriad ecosystem services.

Back in 1949 Aldo Leopold said, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” And today, we have far more gadgets and middlemen. We even have unlimited access to an addictive, virtual world readily accessed at every turn through smartphone and computer interface. Limiting your child’s access to media is as essential as feeding her well. Of course, it’s not easy finding the time to read 40 kids’ books a day instead of plopping a child in front of Sesame Street, but then again, it can be quite joyful, especially after your two year old starts walking down streets and points to tree stumps exclaiming “broken tree, thneed!” making the connection between the ecocide portrayed in The Lorax and the ecological destruction he witnesses in his own home city.

Beyond the Toddler Years

This is all foundational, but what about with older children? How do we go about combating misinformation and consumer socialization at every turn — in school classrooms and cafeterias, from friends, from extended family with conflicting values, from the media, which I can only imagine becomes harder and harder to protect a child from as they get older? I do not yet have answers. I daydream of homeschooling Ayhan so that I can prioritize the knowledge and values that I think will be relevant — math, languages, and ecosystem sciences, of course, but also wilderness survival, basic medicine and first aid and martial arts. I consider what it will means to raise my child as an ecowarrior — teaching him to understand that all ethical norms and choices should stem from healing our living Earth and protecting it from further ravages of Man gorging beyond his ecological niche.

Right now, I am just setting the groundwork. My son is learning English from me, Russian from my wife, and we’ll add other languages later. He’s gardening, composting, and foraging fruit from street trees with me, and will attend his first primitive skills training this spring. We’ll enroll him in a martial arts class when he’s ready, and have already taught him a bit of yoga — surely, mindfulness in this increasingly mindless world will be a valuable skill to lean on.

Whether my son rebels against all this is an open question, but even if he does—as many more experienced parents tell me he will—when the collapse comes, he’ll still be able to forage wild edible plants, purify water, process acorns to make flour, and hunt, increasing the odds that he’ll survive as others go hungry when climate change disrupts the global food trade and grain prices skyrocket. And he’ll take the knowledge and wisdom he’s learned—and hopefully a deep-seated reverence for the Earth—and share that with others as well, perhaps even helping to sow the seeds for a new ecocentric civilization centuries from now. But no matter what comes, I understand that it is my role—as a responsible parent in this changing time—to do my best to prepare Ayhan for the daunting new reality he will grow up in. I invite others to do the same.

— Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute and a contributing editor to Adbusters.

 July 5, 2015  Posted by on July 5, 2015 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 312014

Fill ‘er up? (Image from Danjam via Brickipedia)

That LEGO is partnering with Shell is nothing new. From 1966 to 1992 LEGO regularly produced Shell-themed LEGO sets. You might even remember them from your childhood:

  • There’s the 1981 Shell Gas Pumps set;
  • And the Shell Service Station from 1983;
  • And then there’s the rare, cross-over Pirates/Town set, “The Shell Pirates’ Illegal Offshore Exploration Ship” (see below);
  • And the even rarer Shell Death Star commanded by Shell CEO Darth van Beurden.

Well, as you might have heard, LEGO has recently renewed its partnership with Shell, producing a new line of Shell branded LEGO sets.

Fortunately Greenpeace has rocked the oil platform a bit with its excellent cartoon about Shell’s destruction of the Arctic (made with LEGOs of course), claiming that “Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations”:

Greenpeace’s cartoon and campaign raises the important question of whether LEGO should partner with an oil company or not. But without too much reflection it seems clear that this type of partnership is not appropriate—for the very simple reason that LEGO blocks imprinted with the Shell icon help create a positive association in children’s minds between Shell and the enjoyable hours spent playing with LEGOs. The more positively oil companies are viewed (at a primal, deep brain level) the harder it’ll be to convince people that fossil fuels (and the companies that profit from their extraction) are not compatible with a survivable future. So in other words, yes, Shell—and LEGO through its partnership—is polluting our kids’ imaginations.

Shell Pirate Ship-6285

“Ahoy maties! Let’s go find some new offshore oil deposits to exploit!” cries out Captain van Beurden from the crow’s nest.

So should parents stop buying LEGOs? Notice that not even Greenpeace suggests that—LEGO is a powerful brand, one that kids love. So parents would be reluctant to abandon this reliable brand, let alone try to explain to their kids why they can’t play with their LEGOs anymore. Probably why Greenpeace simply encourages parents to sign this petition to LEGO. Perhaps enough parental anger will make LEGO reconsider whether this brand taint is worth the $116 million its deal with Shell is estimated to be valued at. But then again, considering what LEGOs are made out of, I don’t imagine LEGO is really averse to oil drilling and might as well find a partner to make its company even more lucrative (at least until the end of the fossil fuel era takes it down).

But yes, parents should probably think twice about supporting LEGO and honestly, all toy brands. My son, Ayhan, is only 2 and already we have two big boxes of toys (and that’s with aggressive efforts to discourage people from buying us any new stuff). The key for me will be to redirect Ayhan beyond the exaggerated period of extended childhood that Americans prefer and get him playing with/building real stuff sooner. Why assemble LEGO sets when you can assemble a meal to serve to your family? Why arm a hundred LEGO knights when you can build your own bow and arrows? Why wage LEGO battles when you can hunt down a squirrel and make stew from its meat and a pouch from its hide? Yes, Ayhan is a few years from that, but by six he should be a competent squirrel hunter or at least a squirrel trapper and at that point hopefully any LEGOs we’ve accumulated will be collecting dust in the closet.

I admit all that sounds primitive, but then again, primitive skills will probably be an integral part of the post-oil, post-plastic, post-LEGO future that’s speeding toward us like a derailed LEGO train (probably loaded with unreinforced Shell oil tank cars). “All aboard! Next stop: New Miami” (since old Miami will be long submerged by then).

 August 31, 2014  Posted by on August 31, 2014 Tagged with: , , , , ,  No Responses »
Sep 072013

Reposted from Worldwatch’s Is Sustainability Still Possible? blog.

In his recent book, The World Until Yesterday, author and professor Jared Diamond explores “what we can learn from traditional societies.” Being a new dad, I picked it up mainly because there is a chapter on parenting. I figured it would have tips on how children have been raised through the ages, rather than modern tips that are so often shaped by marketing and product pitches (just think of Baby Einstein). And I did find some useful points—about child autonomy, about multi-age playgroups and how that facilitates learning, about “allo-parents” (non-parental caregivers who have been mostly commodified in western societies, in the form of nannies, babysitters, and daycare providers).

But in reality, I found the book even more useful for its exploration of the challenges of life in traditional and modern societies. The leading causes of death in traditional societies are infections, falling from trees, predators, and getting wounded from hunting weapons and tools (poison arrows and axes, for example). Many of these dangers stem from the fact that to survive, traditional peoples have to take more-frequent risks. To get enough calories, trees must be climbed, scratches from brambles must be endured during foraging efforts, poisonous arrows must be shot, and predators must be confronted when claiming the antelope that the tribe just hunted down.

Modern society has its own daily-endured threats, of course. Busy streets must be crossed, cars must be driven (with accidents being a real and significant risk), and dangerous factory work must be done. But caution will help increase the odds of surviving these. And the risks of dying from these dangers are often significantly smaller, which is one reason that populations abandon traditional lifestyles for modern ones (even if other risks come with this transition—soda and fried foods bring new dangers of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes).

Shavante Indian making art crafts with the fiber from the Buriti tree. (Photo from United Nations)

Shavante Indian using the fiber from the Buriti tree to make cordage (much more sustainable than buying rope at Walmart). (Photo from United Nations)

But the difference between these two models is not just what leads to the end of life. It’s that modern livelihoods, unlike traditional ones, are rapidly undermining the Earth’s capacity to sustain 7 billion human beings. So, it’s worth asking the question: rather than facilitating the transition to modern lifestyles (as international development schemes often do), how do we enable those living traditional lifestyles to sustain their lifestyles in ways that they embrace, and also encourage more modern people to adopt these types of lifestyles?

As Jennie Moore and Bill Rees note in their chapter in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013, “Getting to One Planet Living,” in order to live within the planet’s biocapacity, people on average will have to own 0.004 cars per person, fly 125 kilometers per year, have an average of 8 square meters of living space, and so on. Of course, some will still live far beyond that threshold, so finding ways to enable traditional lifestyles for those who choose to live this way will be an essential part of getting to a sustainable future.

As Diamond notes, the average lifespan of traditional peoples and Europeans 400 years ago was about the same. Only when a centralized state became able to prevent mass famines, implement public health and sanitation measures, and provide antibiotics did the average lifespan of Westerners grow significantly.

So providing public health measures—basic sanitation (knowledge on hand washing and how to safely compost human waste), a traveling field medic, training for traditional healers on how to deal with infectious diseases and providing them a basic store of antibiotics and antivenins—could be a major step in sustaining traditional societies and keeping their members healthy and rooted.

Providing basic safety gear (or even better, the knowledge on how to make this gear) to facilitate safer tree climbing might help, too. And perhaps some basic permaculture knowledge that offers a complement to traditional agricultural knowledge to increase the range of calories available (if offered in ways that communities embraced, rather than in ways that came across as neo-colonial). These, too, could reduce mortality, morbidity, and emigration from these lifestyles.

Two 17-year-old Heiltsuk girls beating their deer-hide drums before a cedar totem which is protecting an ancient midden on Calvert Island (Photo by United Nations)

Two 17-year-old Heiltsuk girls beating their deer-hide drums before a cedar totem which is protecting an ancient midden on Calvert Island. (Sacralizing the land could be a key way to ensure a sustainable relationship between people and nature.) (Photo by United Nations)

Granted, not all governments want traditional societies to be sustained, particularly those communities that may be situated atop rich mineral deposits (just look at U.S. history to see how readily movable native populations are when they are in the way of ‘development’). But globally, there is an ecological benefit not simply to sustain, but to increase, the number of people living traditional lifestyles—not just because they consume fewer resources, but because they can be good stewards of their lands (as Chapters 18 and 19 in State of the World 2013 discuss).

Maybe it’s even time to make land in national parks available to those who wish to live more traditionally. I dream of the day when national governments offer land grants for small communities wanting to live off 500 acres of national forest—offering them that land in perpetuity if the community sustains the land, improving its condition annually by active management of the trees, understory, and wildlife. That would be a much cheaper way to protect that land than paying logging companies or forest services to manage it (or firefighters to deal with unmanaged land every few years as massive fires rage). Plus, it would reseed a diversity of knowledge and cultures that may be incredibly valuable as the climate warms up 2, 3, 4 or even 6 degrees Celsius over the next three or four generations. These communities could offer hundreds of small-scale experiments in sustainable conservation schemes and even serve as the front line in helping to transform today’s forests into ones that will survive a hotter future.

By facilitating traditional lifestyles now, we can make them into a driving force of the transition to a sustainable future. This may prove a more viable solution than incorporating these peoples into an ever-growing consumer class that will be ill-equipped to deal with the global disruptions that a warming world will bring.

 September 7, 2013  Posted by on September 7, 2013 Tagged with: , ,  No Responses »