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How to Tell Your Child About the End of the World

We can still avoid total catastrophe. But eventually kids will realize that we’re not on course to do that.

Two children in masks sit on bleachers.
Children in the Australian town of Bega, New South Wales, amid widespread bushfires in 2019.

My baby is 4 months old today, as I write these words. He’s been smiling for weeks already, but it has just started feeling like his smiles really mean something. When you enter his field of vision, it’s like his face splits in half—he crinkles up his eyes in a way that makes them sparkle and throws his mouth open in a grin so forceful it pulls his tongue up. It’s hard to describe how it feels when he smiles, without falling back on clichés (it lights up your heart) or pedantry (it triggers an evolutionary dopamine hit). He’s been making more sounds, too. Coos and bwahs and gurgles that feel increasingly intentional. I can hear him straining to find the right way to shape the air passing through his mouth, trying to unlock the mysteries of deliberate communication—a riddle his brain isn’t quite ready to grasp.

It’s a viscerally fascinating process to experience. But among the excitement and wonder I feel at his progression are other emotions: worry, guilt, fear. And, overwhelmingly, grief. Because I know that the closer this child comes to thinking and understanding and communicating complex ideas, the faster he approaches the Moment when he will discover something that I wish with all my heart he never had to know: that his mother and I brought him into existence on a world that is dying.

What a birthright that is. What a lesson to have to learn. Surely any lesson like that must divide a young life into a Before and an After: Before, when thoughts of the future can exist without an asterisk, and After, when they cannot. Before, when it is possible to have lunch and take a vacation and watch a movie and laugh and plan and go for a hike without a shadow hovering there, ready to flood outward at any instant. And After, when it isn’t.

My own Moment didn’t hit me fully until I was 24, though I’d known about climate change at an earlier age. I remember feeling fury when George W. Bush announced the United States would not sign onto the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. I remember my nightly prayers throughout elementary school, which had to go in decreasing order of importance and so always began with “please stop global warming” before they could proceed to world peace, wishes for my family, an A on tomorrow’s test, the girl I liked liking me back.

But it was also an issue that I didn’t want to fully absorb. “Existential threat” and “societal breakdown” were just words, without much meaning behind them—and wouldn’t it be easier if they stayed that way? Even when I started engaging in political organizing as a teenager, I mostly avoided climate activism. We’re all taught as children not to stare into the sun. The reality of climate change felt similarly blinding—something to glance at out of the corners of your eyes.

I finally had my Moment after being elected to the state legislature, when I felt I could no longer put off studying and grappling with the full scientific reality of our ecological position. And it was, as feared, just like staring at the sun. So much so that, since that Moment, I have often felt resentment toward older people in my life. They got to enjoy so many more years of Before (many are still enjoying them, in fact). Recently, though, resentment of my elders has been replaced by sadness for those younger than me—the brilliant, daring, prematurely hardened members of Gen Z who resent me for the luxury of waiting till my twenties, who had their Moments crushed into them as children by the staccato rhythm of droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves, and floods; the new normal of tragedy and loss.

So how could I be here now, looking down into the trusting, liquid brown eyes of my son, who I brought into existence at a moment in human and geologic history when Before can barely survive the earliest stages of infancy? I have grappled with this question since my then partner, now wife, first made clear to me that she wanted children. There were other, age-old concerns, as well—are we making enough money to have a kid; how will it affect our relationship, our careers; are we ready to start living for someone else? But the climate questions were the ones that haunted me when we started talking about trying to conceive.

I remember asking older friends—smart, wise, compassionate mentors of mine—for advice. But they never had the answers I was looking for. One assurance I heard often: “You’re not the first generation to fear for the future. We asked the same questions—how can we bring children into a world that could face nuclear holocaust at any moment? Remember the Cuban missile crisis? Duck and cover drills? Still, we raised families. And we taught our children to work for peace.”

There are lessons there, certainly. But the analogy is fundamentally inaccurate. Knowledge of a real but small chance of apocalypse at any time is dreadful, but it’s not comparable to knowledge that the apocalypse is coming, is certain, has in many ways already begun. While the climate apocalypse exists on a spectrum—a world of difference separates three degrees Celsius of warming from four degrees, and four degrees from five, and the policy choices we make today and next year will save or condemn countless lives—there is something unique about knowing that some substantial amount of Armageddon is already baked into the ecological cycles of our planet.

So it was with much hand-wringing but without answers, in the midst of unprecedented wildfires, during the hottest summer ever recorded (until this one), that my wife and I chose to have a child.

I still don’t quite know how to justify our decision. Other questionable choices I’ve made in my life have been ones I made for myself—I alone suffered the consequences. But my wife and I made the choice to bring our son into existence for him. Without him. And I have no idea what he will think about that decision once he understands its significance, here at the ignition of the Anthropocene.

I think of what his moment of realization will be like practically every time I look at him. That sounds like no way to parent, or to live, but I can’t escape it. This perfect, hysterical, constantly changing little person, whose face lights up with such brightness every time he looks at his mother, who screams with frustration when his hands don’t quite handle objects with the dexterity he’d hoped for, whose farts can rumble out with the incongruous force of an adult man’s. Who hasn’t yet done any harm to any other living being on this planet. How can I let him grow up in the shadow of After?

But, of course, how can I not?

Subterfuge is one option. I always disliked the idea of parents lying to their children to shield them from awkward or painful truths—about sex, about racism, about death. But doesn’t my son deserve to have his Before extended as long as possible?

We could forbid any television or social media, so he won’t see the images of pain and disaster flooding in from around the world. And when the disasters make themselves known in our state, our city, our block? We could say it’s always been this way. There have always been weeks when the sun gets blotted out by smoke. It’s always been normal to have these stretches of heat too extreme for you to play outside. We’ve always had this many storms that scour our roads and collapse our buildings and wash away the homes of our neighbors. The trees here have always been dying.

We could say, this is just the way things are. And in some respects, we would be telling the truth.

But denial would rob us of the opportunity to provide, in his Moment, whatever information we might have that could ease his transition from Before to After. I want him to hear that none of this is his fault. That this is the work of monsters. Oil and gas executive monsters and politician monsters who have consciously chosen to sacrifice everything we love and cherish so that they can lead momentary lives of opulence. Monsters who are very powerful, but not all-powerful—monsters we can still choose to fight, and even defeat, at least in some sense of the word.

I want to tell him that we are the lucky ones. This crisis is already destroying families and communities and even whole countries that are more vulnerable than us, because of their skin color or poverty or location on the planet, and because of the systems of exploitation that allow so many to be chewed up and spit out for the benefit of so few. And this means it’s especially important that, however he chooses to live his life, he must never sacrifice others for his own security.

I want to tell him that we love him. That we are heartbroken that this will not be the world that he deserves. But that we will do everything we can to fight for and alongside him, to make it as close to that world as we can. And even if, as seems likely, as close as we can is still very, very far indeed, life will go on. Things may get harder. And when they do, we’ll figure out how to keep going, and he’ll still be able to find beauty and light somehow.

In my synagogue when I was a child, my Sunday School class devoted several weeks to studying Jewish life cycle events—the landmarks that divide up one’s life as a member of the Jewish community. We put on a little play for each milestone. Our teacher invited our families to come watch us one Sunday as we role-played a bris, a bar and bat mitzvah, a marriage, even an end-of-life ceremony. We were supposed to understand that while these were moments of significance for an individual, they were also public events. In a bris, a baby is welcomed not just into one family but into a covenantal community. In a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, a young person marks their transition to adulthood by leading the entire congregation in prayer. Similarly communal rituals exist in nearly all religious traditions.

I suppose the Moment must become another life cycle event on the list—one not tied to any one culture or group but universal across our species. Ideally, it will become more communal, not less. I don’t want my son to have a Moment like mine—alone, studying the crisis or observing its aftermath, when in a brief flash the enormity of it all comes into focus, and with it the enormity of his grief, racking his body with sobs and washing the words in front of him with tears.

Instead, I’d like his passage from Before to After to be a landmark shared by those who love him. I’d hope it could be a collective dialogue that assures him, at the very least, that he is not alone.

Perhaps, even, we might make of this Moment a mutual promise. A new covenant for the Anthropocene era, different from its Biblical counterpart—Abraham making his pledge, leading Isaac to the altar—but set in a similar scene, as a father considers the sacrifice of his son: a solemn, tragic, loving pact that, whatever is coming, we will face it together.