Ben James: Parenting in geological time: Answering a child’s questions about climate change

Last modified: Tuesday, September 09, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — I’m driving in the pickup truck with my 8-year-old. He’s worried. He has recently skimmed an article in a scientific journal about the earth’s gravitational force — how it is weakening — and he has worked himself into a rather anxious state.

Not having seen the article myself, I do my best to reassure him, saying it’s nothing he needs to worry about. “This is geological time, bud,” I explain. “These are changes you’ll never see. This isn’t happening in human time.”

“Well, what is an example happening in human time?” he asks.

“Global warming,” I say. “Climate change. Happening as we speak.”

And there you have it. I have just attempted to talk my son out of worrying about the weakening of the Earth’s gravitational field by reminding him of the imminent terrors of human-induced climate change. I bet there’s a diagram in the Bad Parenting Handbook illustrating that maneuver.

But it’s true. Climate change is happening as we speak, and its early effects are becoming apparent to many of us who are involved in agriculture here in New England.

There is plenty to be concerned about. Farmers throughout the region are dealing with growing seasons that are both too wet and too dry, a significant reduction in native pollinating insects, erratic storms of great intensity, new infestations of pests like the spotted-wing drosophilia and a slow but undeniable increase in seasonal temperatures.

Farmers are a resilient bunch, so it is informative to spend time with them as they begin to accommodate their growing practices to these changes. Not too long ago, at a workshop about cover-cropping, I was part of a conversation about climate change and planting zones, which are shifting north as the planet warms.

For a moment in the midst of this conversation I was filled with a surprising sensation. It was a kind of awe — a sudden awareness of being present during a period of profound change, among a group of intensely practical people who were continuing to do their work right in the midst of these changes.

Part of dealing with trauma is the act of bearing witness, and the farmers I have learned from are deep in the thick of it, experiencing these vast, global transitions on a daily, weekly, first-hand basis.

So now back to the pickup truck, where I’ve just reassured my son that climate change will transform the Earth long before he floats away due to a lack of gravity. He asks some detailed questions, and — although he’s heard most of it before — I can feel his anxiety rising. He is an intense lover of wildness (as are so many kids I encounter). He knows the peril faced by the creatures of this planet.

Now he wants to understand better what it will take to stop the warming of the Earth immediately.

And here it is again — right in the pickup — another moment of awe. To be in the presence of this child who will grow to adulthood in the midst of the most tremendous changes the planet has seen for thousands of years. To be responsible for this child. To help him learn the skills and resolve and flexibility that will be required to thrive in a fluctuating world.

To ride next to him in human time and geological time simultaneously.

The 8-year-old and I are making ourselves ready to go down to New York City for the People’s Climate March later this month. If all goes as intended, it will be the largest rally for the climate in history.

We are going because we want our world leaders to do everything they can to get real about the imminent and undeniable impacts of global climate change. Not just to talk about it (although even that would be an improvement on the current state of affairs), but to take bold and transformative action.

We are also going to make a stand for Climate Justice, knowing that whatever effects we in New England experience due to climate change, the people of the world’s poorest nations will be impacted in far more devastating ways.

I personally am going to the march with complicated feelings of fear, exasperation and remorse about what’s already been done to our atmosphere. But I wouldn’t be going if I hadn’t also experienced these moments of awe — the thrill of being here, now, at this fraught moment in history.

The People’s Climate March is Sunday, Sept. 21. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Ben James is co-owner with Oona Coy of Town Farm in Northampton and they jointly manage the Tuesday Market.

Information on local transportation to the People’s Climate March can be found at


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