I failed to fix the world before my kids got here
I remember it clearly, taking a walk with my dad in the field behind our 1860s farmhouse. We caught frogs and crayfish in the creek. We wandered back home along the freshly-plowed mounds of dirt, which would soon become sand traps and obstacles in the golf course for the housing development that was going in.
I was mad about the golf course. Granted, we’d known it was coming since we moved into this house. My dad had been elected to the township board that approved the development, with some zoning changes to reduce lot size and sewage needs, some greenspace around the creek, a large berm to protect our houses from stray golf balls. But eight-year-old-me was passionately angry about watching all the farmland around us turn into subdivisions, about the deer and birds and frogs and crayfish that would be displaced or killed when the bulldozers came through.
“You’re absolutely right,” my dad assured me, with his signature over-the-top fervor, “and I agree with you! I was the original environmentalist! I’ve been an environmentalist for thirty years, we’ve changed the world.”
But it’s not changed, I told him. You didn’t fix it. We’re still destroying habitat and filling landfills and ruining the ozone layer (at that point, in 1989, we didn’t even know about climate change, even though the previous summer had had one of the worst droughts Michigan had ever seen.)
I remember my father agreeing with me again. quietly, reluctantly this time. I remember him saying that he had thought that by the time he had kids he would have fixed it all. I remember thinking, and maybe even saying, that my generation wasn’t going to fail on this. By the time I had kids, I would have fixed the world.
I know, that naive eight year old had no idea what she was getting into. But I actually tried. for years. My dad got me a book called “going green” and I turned off faucets and got the family to recycle and wrote letters to the President. I joined environmental clubs all the way through college. My first “real” job was lobbying on air quality issues. I even got a master’s in environmental science (which I am not currently applying, but the job change cut my commute by 90%, so it felt like an okay trade off.)
25 years later, I can safely say that I have failed. I didn’t change the world. In fact, the world is far more fucked than it ever has been. Climate change is real, storms are different than they used to be, my metro Detroit neighbors just experienced the worst flood in decades, damaging thousands of homes, and I know these floods will keep coming. It’s not just environmental. Socially, we’re actually going backwards. The working class have been getting consistently poorer since the 1970s, and the South keeps proving over and over again that a black man still can’t walk down the street without fear of being beaten or shot… by law enforcement officials, no less. And that’s just the news this week. And I’m sitting here in tears over all of it with a laptop perched awkwardly on my legs because there’s not much lap left with my big round 24-weeks-pregnant belly in the way.
My daughter’s going to be here in four months, and suddenly I’m feeling incredibly guilty about the kind of world that I’m bringing her into. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true. I want to turn off all the news and get lost in pinterest boards planning her nursery and the paint colors for the house we’re buying and all the ways I’m going to build a great future for my family, but I can’t help but feel that it’s all just a distraction from the fact that we’re all completely fucked. The world she’ll grow up in won’t be like mine, in all likelihood it’ll already be past the point of no return. I can take some solace in the fact that despite all this she’ll probably be fine, she’ll be inoculated against the worst of it by her white skin and blond hair, her educated American accent and her U.S. passport and her growing up in a stable home where people have the time and money to worry about things like paint colors. If she wants to, she can ignore it all, everything going on around her, and live a happy life.
I hope she doesn’t. I mean, I want her to be happy, most of the time. but I hope she doesn’t fall into the temptation to ignore the world’s problems, and that instead she gets angry, passionately angry in spite of how much more it hurts. I hope she vows to fix the world by the time her own children arrive, when she’s still too young to feel that it’s impossible. I truly and deeply hope that she succeeds. But all I’ll be able to do is smile sadly and wish her luck, and buy her some books about activism, and hope for the best.
In the meantime, I guess I’ll serve on some boards and someday run for office and try to get the right people elected and work on making some zoning changes and other decisions that will push our little corner of the world in the right direction. Part of me feels like I’m abandoning my idealism, my mission, because people with children and houses and responsibilities don’t just go blowing up Fox News and starting the Revolution. Because raising kids is going to involve a lot of compromises, a lot of distractions, a lot of days when getting dinner from the drive-thru at McDonalds just makes sense because holy shit today was crazy and I just don’t have the energy to fight it. But maybe on other days, I’ll fight it, and once in a while I’ll can some tomatoes from the garden and try to teach my daughter what little I know about how to make good things happen in the world.
And maybe, if we’re all incredibly lucky, my daughter won’t fail in her promise. Maybe in 30 years when she sits down and reaches over her pregnant belly to write, she will be able to honestly say that the world is better than it was when she got here, and that some small thing she did helped make that true. I hope, at the very least, she’ll know that she tried.
(Here’s a link to the gorgeous image included. via Lawria on Flickr.)