Another Long Blog Post about Climate Change, Social Movements Led by Children, Situational Deafness and a Changing World

Throughout history there have been several social movements led by children. The two that come to my mind are the Children’s Crusade of the early 13th century, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution0s of the mid 196, both of which were disasters for the very children involved.

Having forgotten the details of the Children’s Crusade, I had to look it up. Wikipedia has the most succinct explanation; The variants of the long-standing story of the Children’s Crusade have similar themes. A boy begins to preach in either France or Germany, claims that he had been visited by Jesus, who instructed him to lead a Crusade in order to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity. Through a series of portents and miracles he gains a following of up to 30,000 children. He leads his followers south towards the Mediterranean Sea, in the belief that the sea would part on their arrival, which would allow him and his followers to walk to Jerusalem. This does not happen. The children are sold to two merchants (Hugh the Iron and William of Posqueres), who give free passage on boats to as many of the children as are willing. The pilgrims are then either taken to Tunisia, where they are sold into slavery by the merchants or else die in a shipwreck on San Pietro Island off Sardinia during a gale.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of educated Chinese (no one knows the exact number). Essentially, it was a movement led by Chairman Mao (ostensibly started by Chinese youth). It’s main goal was the overthrowing of the “four olds” — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas.

Being led by children hasn’t worked out that well in history, though I understand the frustration that has led to children marching against climate change. I feel it too, all the time, every day. I’ve seen the effects in real life, the change in the climate in Southern California while I lived there, most pronounced during the time I lived in the Cuyamaca Mountains. When I moved there, September, 2003, the fields across from me were waist high green grass in which cows could hide. The field was filled with healthy oaks. That very year the second largest fire (the largest happened last year) came sweeping through those mountains. The field in subsequent years (though not destroyed by the fire) became incrementally dryer and dryer until the grass was green for only one or two months in a rainy winter. All the trees died. It was an observable shift in normal.

The temperatures rose, too, over that period. When I moved into my house, the hottest temperature during the hottest season of the year was 90 F/32 C. By the time I moved away in September of 2014, it was often 110 F/43 C by 10 am during the summer. That year there were new fires every day, most small and remote, but they were happening. All the rakes in the world won’t stop fires in those conditions.

So why does the marching of children yelling at us that “we” destroyed “their” world have such an impact? I really don’t know. No one listened to me when I yelled about this. Well, that’s not true. I was kind of a curiosity; a girl succeeding in a competitive speech event in which boys usually won. I got to give my speech to lots of civic groups in Colorado Springs.

I was 17 when I wrote this speech. That was 1969. The big issues in the world were the Viet Nam War and The Bomb. Those were not, to me, the biggest issues, but they were the most gruesome, the most scary (in the short term) the most accessible to most people, the most easily sensationalized by the news. Of course, I mistrusted the adults, too. After all, hadn’t they “allowed” all this to happen?

I was doing competitive speaking in an effort to overcome my terror of speaking in front of people (never completely succeeded in that but I never stopped trying). This speech (and my delivery of it) took second place in the state of Colorado. I lost to a speech about the Viet Nam war.

The speech begins with a little dialogue between a teacher and a student. A student has found an aster growing in a crack in the pavement and brought it to class. The teacher has an allergic reaction and doesn’t know what the flower is. (Youth is truth). Then…filled with youthful cynicism (faux sophistication):

Then, having gotten my audience’ attention, I got real (for 17)…

“The human race, that’s you, for one, and Americans in particular, are racing toward total annihilation with, at last, no exceptions made as to race, creed, gender or nationality. Man abuses the air he needs to breathe, the water he needs for sustaining his life, and he is brilliantly (as usual) devising technological advanced ways to destroy the delicate food cycle of which he is the ultimate beneficiary.

Adlai Stevenson compared Earth, our plant, to the several satellites that have, at certain intervals, circled our world. In these words he explains the necessity for preserving Earth the Beautiful (I got over love of country early):

We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil, all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only but the care, the work, and the love we give our fragile craft. (Stevenson was born in 1900)

At that time, the population of the earth was beginning to be a concern. Paul Erlich was writing articles on this topic and they would soon appear in a book, The Population Bomb. I was very affected by his argument and it entered my speech, too. It’s still a problem, but…

“As any American will agree, empty space is wasted space. With the population of the world doubling every 5 years it is illogical that even the most radical conservationist would want to you a river for anything except a source of power or would want a hunk of forest to just sit there making trees. The words of the Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle, bring this idea close to home:

“You won’t have any trouble in your country as long as you have few people and much land, but when you have many people and little land your trials will begin. Thomas Carlyle (Carlyle was born in 1795)

So how did I end this bit of juvenile satire on the subject that has been closest to my heart since I was eight? With a call to action that was based on individual personal responsibility.

Back in 1969 many, many of our current problems had not come into existence. Soda was sold in bottles (cans were only starting to show up) that came in cardboard cartons. Until the early 80s, food came home in paper bags. Detergent came in a cardboard box. There was no recycling partly because there wasn’t a lot to recycle. In the 1950s (and before) we had backyard incinerators. Burning in the backyard was banned and that ended (though now we have fire pits???) leading to more trash going to landfills…

But there were gravely serious problems such as Lake Erie being dead and unbreathable — and dangerous — “air” in LA, NYC and Denver. A good article about the environmental crisis in the US at the late sixties is here.

Throughout my lifetime technological development has moved faster than our understanding of the consequences. The Dead Kennedy’s masterful album, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (1987) is well titled and descriptive of our lives.

So, should we be led by these children? Why not? We haven’t listened to anyone else so far.

From the musical, Hair, 1967
I gave it to my junior year English teacher, Roenna Cohen, to read — then the yearbook adviser. Her comments, my response.

16 thoughts on “Another Long Blog Post about Climate Change, Social Movements Led by Children, Situational Deafness and a Changing World

  1. You got me to thinking last night. I haven’t written the piece yet, but I will. Not today. Doctor and tomorrow a wake for a friend. Before the weekend, anyway.

    This catastrophe in which we find ourselves is not new and we saw it coming. We were working on this material more than 40 years ago in Jerusalem. The country was much smaller then … fewer than 7 million people. We traveled from Kibbutz to kibbutz and to every mossad from the Golan to Elat. We were unable to convince a single kibbutz to stop using nitrogen-based fertilizer in the fields … or to do what was necessary to clean wastewater for use for watering plants.

    This crisis was inevitable. I think I never imagined it would come to a head so suddenly or that I would live to see it. But for as much as I loathe hizonner, he didn’t cause it. Yes, he isn’t fixing it and is probably making it worse, but it would have come no matter who was in office and it would have had the same effects regardless.

    We knew. We saw. We believed. We didn’t do anything substantial to fix it and so, here we are. I personally knew. I was the editor who edited the reports to the EPA (who were funding the studies), so I KNEW. And yet, here we are.

    • Again I disagree — we tried to do something, and we did a lot to fix it. There was no way we could know how fast other things would develop, especially plastic (IMO). I don’t call cars getting 35 mpg (and more) nothing. I don’t call the development of renewable energy nothing. There’s a lot more that we’ve accomplished that is not nothing.

      As for Jerusalem, I don’t know much about it, but I know that for thousands of years it had covered cisterns surrounding the city that supplied water to the people, again, something we “used to know” like the adobe potato cellars and the acequias brought to the new world by Spanish settlers in the 16th century.

      Another small thing people used to do routinely (including my grandma) was use the wash water on the garden. In those days, detergents did not have sulfates… There’s a lot to learn from the past if only people would look.

      • Maybe. But I think we didn’t really understand the impact this would have. We tried and some of us tried harder than others … but did I imagine the crashing of the ice at the poles? Or the changes in wind that have altered the Caribbean storms? I don’t think I had any gut-level understanding of the impact. I thought to recycle and lower car emissions while getting rid of coal-burning generators would be enough. When we got eliminated the smog of LA ad NY … and we cleaned up the Blackstone and the Hudson, this would be enough.

        But for all I knew and I knew a lot more than most people, yet I really didn’t understand the intensity of change and how frightening it would be. And that in a laboratory surrounded by environmental scientists.

        There is a lot to learn from the past, but were are also warnings in the past.

        Jerusalem still has covered cisterns and they work, but they are also the breeding place for a lot of water-born ailments too. Mostly non-lethal ones, but extremely unpleasant. Those cisterns are several thousand years old and I doubt they can be repaired. Nothing lasts forever.

        I don’t think anyone imagined how CROWDED this world would become or how quickly it would happen. We knew but we didn’t grasp what our knowledge meant. I knew and yet somehow, I didn’t know. I am as guilty as anyone in thinking that what we were doing was “enough.”

        • There was no way we COULD know about the “crashing of ice at the poles.” No one could know that. I’m pretty sure it was just US that caused climate change. I suspect it is a tragic congruence between a naturally occurring phenomenon and human fuck ups.

          And people DID warn us about the crowding of the world — lots of people — and some people in developed nations made the choice to limit the size of their family, but what are you going to do about the third world where the biggest problems of population lay? What are you going to do with people who’s religious beliefs insist that the Lord wants them to “go forth and multiply” like rabbits in a lettuce field? I think NOT using birth control ought to be a crime, but no way is that ever going to happen. The best I could do was not procreate. Pretty small effect, that…

          Our tendency to think that we knew more than our ancestors has caused us a lot of problems. I think we need to look back as we look forward. Like Chairman Mao during the Great Leap Forward (ha ha) ordering that sparrows be killed because they ate grain — a stupid move that led to an out-of-control proliferation of flying pests. It’s important to examine reality — something I wonder about plastic. Did no one TEST it to see what happened if you bury it in the ground? Did no one think about how the petroleum from which it was made had been down there for MILLIONS of years? Didn’t that give anyone a clue? Yeah I hated it when my shampoo bottle broke in the shower, but…

          And hemp? THOUSANDS of years people made things from that fiber and suddenly cotton was better. Why? bBecause there was a market in England and Indian cotton was expensive. So NOW people resist the cultivation of hemp because they are ignorant of history…

          As for what we were doing being “enough”? Seriously you thought that? I discovered long ago that what I could do was pretty small in the grand scheme and that this was a Sisyphean task, but if enough people kept pushing SOMETHING would improve (and much has that I didn’t imagine ever would happen). It’s always puzzled me, though, why when we could OBSERVE changes to the atmosphere that WE were causing, we didn’t go, “Whoa we’re like 10 active volcanoes. This can’t be good” but then I realized that only recently have understood the causes of things like the “little ice age” of the 15th through 19th century. We are pretty ignorant.

          Ultimately, the two biggest enemies (IMO) are ignorance, willful and otherwise, and religion, political and otherwise.

  2. It is easy to be passionate when you are young. There are high levels of hormones that lead to passionate emotional responses. This is just as true of politics as it is of love and sex. Plus young people haven’t met the world yet. Everything is tangled, everything is interconnected. You can’t just do something without everything else sticking to you and dragging you back.

    You have to compromise and think strategically and at least pretend to honor your opponent’s concerns or you’ll have a war on your hands.

    Neither of the two power blocks running Congress is interested in that anymore. Parties have moved to a model where the most extreme elements are in charge and they “appeal” to the center by being the lesser of the evils. I understand the mathematical model but it is also an unstable model. So we have whipsaw changes in policy from one political swing to the next.

    Even the most idealistic notions will hurt somebody somewhere. They will fight back and it isn’t because they are evil. It is because they have livelihoods that depend on what you are trying to end and they have no viable alternatives.

    Coal miners can’t just shift gears and become IT professionals. Large corporations, states, and entire regions benefit economically from those coal miners along with the coal power plant operators across the country and the railroads that transport the coal, etc. Even air pollution control device manufacturers benefit. No matter how good your intentions are, if you try to steam roller a sufficiently large number of people, it won’t happen. (Small groups can easily be crushed, though.)

    It is interesting that while (some) young people are the most passionate about their causes, they appear to be a small segment of the demographic. Overall, apathy rules. In the 2018 mid-terms, 18-29 turnout was 35% which was historically fairly high for that group. In 20i4 it was only 19%. OTOH, it was 66% for the 65+ crowd in 2018 and 55% in 2014. Consistently high turnout vs. a turnout ranging from pathetic to abysmal.

    And that was just as true 50 years ago as it is today. Maybe even more.

    High school and college would serve us better if they tried to clue students in on the complexity of the world they are entering. I don’t think that is what students want to hear nor what the political and academic intelligencia want them to hear, so it ain’t a gonna happen.

    • Exactly. It’s a paradox. One of the reasons it’s so easy to recruit young people to the military is they are filled with passion and ignorance and can believe what recruiters tell them. The church made bank on this during the Crusades — young people were terrorizing peaceful villages and towns so the Pope sent them to the Holy Land to save the True Cross.

      I got pretty fed up with young people at the end of my teaching career, partly because of the major changes in the way they had been taught in elementary and secondary schools by then. The typical 19 year old had changed during those 30 years. They were no longer interested in anything, really. NCLB etc. had denuded them of curiosity or patience for complexity and left them with the idea that there were answers to everything. The questions no longer interested them but questions really are the interesting part of anything. I think this is why they don’t turn out to vote in mid-terms. They probably don’t understand that those elections determine what the president can and cannot do to a large extent. Too complicated.

      And would little Greta have jumped on this bandwagon had there not been, finally, a fire in Sweden? I don’t think so.

      Youth can’t be different, but, to me, that makes it all the more important for adults not to give them too much attention, but guide their passion and enthusiasm into curiosity about how they can take meaningful action to change the future world. But we don’t live there. We live in this world of sensationalism and social media. I’m so glad I’m old.

  3. By the way, the whole issue of waste-water reuse is more complicated than the presence or absence of sulphates. We did a major study on it. It IS doable, but complicated. Our world is not a backyard garden. We reuse our wash water to water our backyard — but we don’t EAT that stuff. We do have a VERY green backyard. but food is a different issue.

    • I was talking about my grandmother and the habits of dry-land farming during the depression in eastern Montana, but, for that matter, responsible backyard gardening is good for “our world.”

      I used greywater in CA from my laundry to water my yard. Anything else would have been irresponsible in that drought plagued area. It was fine. I educated myself, but it was a system everyone employed.

      I also lived in a 3rd world country in which human waste was used to fertilize crops. There was a thing called “cooking” that rendered food safe to eat and a thing called “boiling” that cleared contaminates out of water that had been stored in water tanks for drinking. 🙂

  4. Emissions are rising despite national commitments to cut them. Ideally commitments should reflect an agreed international objective (I understand this is zero carbon emissions by 2050), and it can help with planning and implementation. The geological record provides good data on how species adapted (usually not well) to (much slower) climate change and what type of world we might expect to be living in. History, including pre-history, provides clues, but not answers. Humans are ingenious. We can work on solutions. Some might even get broad public support for some of those plans. Many are already doing a lot. Yay.
    Kids should be curious, questioning and demanding, especially when adults cannot agree that there is a problem or what to do about it. My child wanted to kill himself but I urged him to be a part of the solution. I’m not sure that either of us agree that is possible anymore, but we can only do our bit plus a bit more (because it is within our capacity) and we’ve made it our priority. Good people are working on fixing a litany of environmental disasters. We (governments) should be doing more to support them, rather than let naysayers demonise them and pander to the naysayers by slashing the budgets of those trying to help. There will be more technological fixes and natural solutions, which gives me great hope, but miracles? Pigs might fly.

    I don’t know about the role of children in the Children’s Crusade or the Cultural Revolution. But I do know that there were plenty of brainwashed Brown Shirts and that betrayed their parents. I would ask who was pulling their strings? I don’t think that is where we are. However, there is a lot of despair and anger. Rightly so, but are national leaders (especially those leaders of countries that are doing most of the polluting) listening and giving climate action the priority it needs? Probably not (except if those same leaders think there is something in it for them). I’m such a cynic (it was in my job description), so I think a little idealism is a good thing because maybe it can crash through a few barriers. Maybe.

    My own view is that young people need to be included in the conversation at the very least.

    • I remember how in the late 60’s one of the Great Lakes died. By the early 70s it was back to life and industry had been forced to change what it did with its waste. I think a lot can happen when governments get behind environmental responsibility. My country, currently, is struggling with the “leadership” which is, IMO, bizarre. California (and the auto-makers there) committed to maintaining and improving clean-air technology, and Trump fucking sued them saying they were breaking the law! HIS law rolls back regulations…

      Politics shouldn’t even enter in this, but…

      I really appreciate your response, Tracy. I’m with you. Hope is more useful than despair. Curiosity is more useful than resignation. Idealism is where inspiration comes from. Once more, I wish you lived across the street. ❤

  5. I’m beyond delighted there are “children” are interested intrigued and care. That is as it should be. It’s scary that so many hide behind their phones ipads etc. hiding their heads in the sands of technology and the latest games instead of becoming aware of the world around them and the reality of it all.

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