Duty of care for the Anthropocene

Most schools in Switzerland now take their students on European trips by train instead of plane, a great decision that reflects both the science and a professional concern for students’ future.

But as soon as school’s out, flying season is on. Summer holidays are looming in Europe and the rush to book a flight is on. The reflex of schools to factor in the ecological harm of their activities seems to be lacking at home.

Caring for young people, whether as parents, relatives, godparents or professionals, focuses almost entirely on preparing them for their future. We plan for and invest in their health, educational needs, hobbies, social skills and professional development. Those privileged enough plan to leave some inheritance to help them in their future. I still can’t believe the amount of money I paid out for orthodontal care to avoid the vaguely worded threat that my kids might get headaches when they’re old. It’s a well-intentioned process, filled with love and some crazy decisions, aimed at trying to give them the best possible future. Resilience is the latest goal – something they’ll definitely need to deal with climate change.

And yet we are failing to safeguard the very cornerstone of all these plans – the environment they will inherit and inhabit.

This is no surprise. Our system actively encourages us to raise young people to survive individually in the ultra-competitive world of our consumer capitalism – to get a good enough job to pay for their health care and their rent – if they’re lucky a home of their own and some holidays. We outsource mitigation measures to governments, but then vote down necessary legislation. We shy away from bearing the costs now because we won’t have to pay the costs of doing something later. Our kids will.

Most families are trying their best to raise their children to function effectively and happily within our current system. This omission of caring for their physical world is not intentionally harmful. However, the science proves that it is harmful. And so we have to recognise this harm, acknowledge our mistake of omission, and take steps to correct our course.

Expanding the discourse

Bequeathing a liveable planet should become intrinsic to planning and decision making in the family: not just which French beach will be the least crowded, but which one we can get to without flying. What would it mean in the family to shift to a plant-based diet? What happens to the 2-year-old phone and computer when we replace it and where and how were the minerals for the new ones sourced? And then there’s the clothes, electricity consumption, Mum’s taxi, sports equipment, blah, blah, blah.

To make amends for the harm we have caused, we need a new discourse about raising kids that guides our actions towards reducing our consumption and voting for transformative change.

It will be easier if we don’t expect it to be easy. Opting for local holidays and not keeping up with the Joneses probably involves saying ‘no’ more often and putting up with some moody kids. It’s really annoying when you think you’re doing the right thing and your neighbours aren’t. We must vote for new models and stricter regulations, which may also be more costly – and clearly not everyone can afford to take these steps. But those of us who can must factor into our thinking the costs our kids will bear if we don’t take this action now.  

We must extend our discourse about raising children to include a perspective of handing over more than just the family history, a good education and some inheritance. The importance of these will be diminished if we don’t hand over a liveable planet.

Parenting within planetary boundaries. Duty of care for the Anthropocene. A discourse that influences all of those who have some responsibility for and relationship with young people.

Leave a Reply