On marriage, children and the future

Maybe we’re not completely screwed, after all.

Last week, among close family and friends, I saw two young people married in a ferny glade on our wonderful mountain.

It was a happy event as every wedding should be. Weddings are the most social of occasions, about the ties that bind us all and the generations to come. At times like this you can’t help but think ahead to lives beyond ours and the world they will live in.

Many things that beset our lives today – struggling leaders, crumbling institutions, war, famine, erratic weather and a badly ailing biosphere – lead us to expect the worst.

There is an alternative. US environmental thinker Paul Hawken told two engaged audiences in Hobart a fortnight ago that we should not see today’s many environmental distress signals as the triumph of industrial pollution, but as an invitation to take up a challenge.

In his new book, Drawdown, Hawken urges us to stop seeing ourselves as victims of global warming, a mindset that tends to impotence. Instead, we should see climate change as a transformation “that inspires us to change and reimagine everything we make and do.”

In thinking this way, says Hawken, we begin to live in a different world: “We see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion, and genius.”

For anyone who has spent time looking at evidence of change around us, these can seem like brave words. Science’s pictures of doom, those countless graphs with trends all heading in the one direction, tell us that we’re losing the war. Some scientists say we’ve already lost it.

That is the dispassionate position, supported by the objective evidence. But it assumes that certain things will remain constant, that “business as usual” will remain in place and that we will simply continue to do what we’ve been doing until everything falls in a heap.

It does not account for what Hawken calls “the human agenda”. That implies action, a response to the situation we face, with the view to changing how we’ve done things to adjust to an entirely new reality.

Drawdown lists and describes one version of that agenda, which I looked at briefly last month – 100 actions put together by multiple experts in each relevant field, aimed at bringing atmospheric carbon down to safe levels by the middle of this century.

Many scientists are sceptical. A leading figure on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told me at one of Hawken’s Hobart events that the notion of drawing down current atmospheric greenhouse gas levels was orders of magnitude more ambitious than simple mitigation.

Being sceptical is a scientist’s job. But there are dimensions to the human experience that cannot be factored into scientific projections, and therein lies the tantalising idea that we may not be completely screwed, after all.

Back to marriage, now back in the spotlight after the same-sex debate. What can this veteran of an ancient and august institution say to young people just entering into it?

Life’s pressures, external and internal, ended my first marriage. The fact that I’m still in my second after 37 years I put down to three things: having a patient partner, having children, and good luck.

This may be my generation in play here, but I can’t help thinking that couples who stay together, especially if they are rearing children, contribute to a greater good. I believe lasting one-to-one adult relationships are the centrepiece of cohesive communities.

Most people entering marriage aren’t preoccupied with such things; they just love a person with whom they want to share their life. But the passage of time adds layers to that simple beginning.

The arrival of children is the big one: it changes marriage and the people in it, fundamentally and forever. Most of us manage that change but some don’t. Children can cement relationships, but for all its rewards family life is also very hard work.

That makes marriage seem a bold step in these uncertain times. But fortunately for the species’ future not everyone sees it that way. We’re programmed to be optimistic. Young newlyweds who decide to bring up children are making a statement of faith in the future.

They’re right to think like this. It’s the only way to deal with the odds that are stacking up against us. We need, with some urgency, to share that positive attitude with the school-age people in our lives and help them see why they need not fear the future.

Many of these young people, heedless of what their parents say, are raising their own strong, clear voices for climate action on the basis that joining with others is the best way to counter isolation and fear.

They need to be encouraged, and we all need to listen.

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