All week, I’ve been reporting in from the book tour for Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, writing about the questions I get and what I wish I would have said in response. I’m going to do that again today, but first I want to tell a story.
In early September, we were all sitting on the porch of our family’s cabin in southeast Alaska, watching a glittering morning, keeping an eye out for feeding whales. When I went around the back of the cabin to pick huckleberries, I heard a sound I didn’t recognize. I scanned the nearby forest, then the sharp peaks behind. Nothing that I could see. It sounded like a thousand trumpets underwater, playing Fanfare for the Common Man. No. It sounded like a thousand nestling ravens speaking German. No. It sounded like: Sandhill cranes, said my daughter-in law. Sandhill cranes, said my son. Sandhill cranes! said my granddaughter, Zoey, who is three years old. We ran our eyes up the forest, up the granite cliffs and tundra, past the clouds until we saw them, a thousand cranes kettling at the top of the blue sky. They swirled there in a disordered gyre, calling and calling. Zoey promptly lay down on her back so she could see straight up. I lay down beside her. We watched the cranes as they gained altitude, the wind cranking the big circle of flopping wings. People had told us the cranes would come on the first north wind in September. I should have been expecting them. The sky was so blue it seemed white. The cranes seemed enormous, even though they were tiny crosses, so high in the sky. Their calls shook down like autumn leaves. Next to me, Zoey murmured and laughed and called out to these astonishing birds who were flying south as they have done for nine million years. Oh, may there always be sandhill cranes, I remember praying. And may there always be children who delight in them. I worry about this. I worry that we have made the world unsafe for cranes and the delight of children. The poet Robinson Jeffers warned us, writing of the heart-breaking beauty that will remain when there is no heart to break for it. But what if it’s worse than that? What if it’s the heart-broken children who remain in a world without natural beauty? Which brings me to Question #7. A large man, crisply dressed, came up after all the questions were asked and all the answers were blurted out. He didn’t have a question. He had something to tell me, and he wanted to say it in my face: I love my daughter more than anything else in the world. I am not going to sacrifice her future. I am going to make as much money as I can, in whatever way I can, so that she can be safe and comfortable all her life. That’s all, he said, and he walked away. I too love my children and grandchildren more than anything else in the world, and by some kind of commutative principle whereby one instantly loves someone who loves what you love, I wanted to embrace this man. I wanted to talk about our shared love for children and what that asks of us. But he was gone, and so I will say it here. Sometimes I don’t know what to do, I would tell him: what to hope and what to fear, what to invest in and what to give up, what to insist on and what to refuse, how exactly to love my children. But I do know that whatever I do, it has to nourish the lives and the joy of children. But look at us. We are harming children, even as (especially as) we believe we are acting to provide for them. Think of what we do for our own privileged children. To give them big houses, we cut ancient forests. To give them perfect fruit, we poison their food with pesticides. To give them the latest technologies, we reduce entire valleys to toxic dumps. To give them the best education, we invest in companies that profit from death. To give them peace, we kill other peoples’ children, or send them to be killed, and build enough weapons to kill the children again, kill them twenty times if necessary. It’s a tragic irony that the amassing of material wealth in the name of our children’s futures – all these things we work so hard to do because we so desperately love them – will harm our children in the end and undermine their chances for a decent life. This says nothing of what our decisions do to the children who are not privileged. This is not just an irony, it’s a moral abomination. These children, in other countries and in the distant country of the future, will never know even the short-term benefits of misusing fossil fuels. But they are the ones who will suffer as the seas rise, as fires scorch cropland, as freshwater becomes desperately scarce, as diseases spread north, as famine returns to lands that had been abundant. The damage to their future is a deliberate theft, a preventable child abuse. If we have a moral obligation to protect the children, I would tell him, and if environmental harms and climate change are manifestly harmful to them, then we have a moral obligation to expend extraordinary effort to immediately stop those harms and redress the wrongs that we have already done in their names. What shall we give the children? Sandhill cranes, surely sandhill cranes. And the sweet whistle of the varied thrush in the morning. Frog calls, owl calls, trumpeting whales. Fresh cold water to drink at the end of a saltwater day. Deep green shade. Starfish, and a child’s delight in these. Blueberries and potatoes. Safe nights. A sense of decency and fairness that will last them all their lives. Far-sighted love.