Even here in wealthy northwestern Europe, our world is now being rocked by climate shocks and disasters. Last year’s summer fires across London demonstrated a taste of what is to come.
This is what concerns Elizabeth Cripps, a writer and moral philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Parenting on Earth: A Philosopher’s Guide to Doing Right By Your Kids – and Everyone Else. In this, her most recent book, she outlines why we should worry about the lives of our children in face of the climate crisis and, even more so, our children’s children.
Pointing to the increasing realisation that our offspring now face the likelihood of further droughts and floods, heatwaves, food insecurity, and a plethora of associated mental health conditions, Cripps advocates for a reconsideration of our lifestyles, and speaks about how we should teach our children the importance of the political engine and participation in activism for achieving environmental balance.
Conor Purcell interviewed Cripps via video call between his home in Donegal and the interviewee’s in Edinburgh.
You’ve been a philosopher and working on climate justice for 20 years. Why have you written this book now?
Sure, I have devoted a significant amount of time to writing, researching and teaching about climate change, but while I was already aware of the importance of the issue, my perspective shifted when I became a parent. Suddenly, the topic became personal as I realised that my children’s future was at stake.
This realisation prompted me to explore what it means to be a good parent in a world that is grappling with numerous crises, including climate change, antibiotic resistance, pandemics, and deeply ingrained systemic injustices, even in wealthy nations like ours.
As both a philosopher and a mother, I embarked on a journey to navigate these challenges and, drawing on my background as a journalist, I began to interview experts, activists and scholars to gain their insights into these pressing issues.
What do you think are the best ways we can contribute to environmental health as parents?
There’s a lot we can do in terms of how we raise our own children to be empowered and resilient in the face of these challenges.
There’s also a lot we can do in terms of the lifestyles we lead as families. But I think the most important thing we can do, or that we really should be doing, as parents, is to get political. Parents have incredible political and economic clout. Between us we constitute a decent chunk of the vote, meaning we have substantial economic power if we work with each other to develop political change.
We’ve seen this happen time and time again in the past, and there are many examples, which I talk about in the book, of parents who have worked together to fight injustices for their children.
Thankfully now we are beginning to see parent activists around the world starting to form grassroots groups to take a political stance on the combined issues of climate change and environmental degradation.
Why should this be the work of a philosopher like you?
Well, I work equally on environmental ethics and on our responsibilities towards one another and towards the global poor. In the book I don’t really adhere to one particular philosophical perspective: I’m mostly saying that we should be trying to follow the kind of rules that would be best if everyone followed them.
So no matter the philosophical perspective on environmental ethics – like animal welfare for example – we should still be able to broadly agree on some moral points around not doing serious harm to other people.
In fact, in a broad sense we should be able to agree that we should be helping people if we can, and that we have special responsibilities to our children, because they are our children. It’s a kind of common sense based on a moral perspective.
Do you think we should have children at all?
In the book I explore what it means to be a good parent in a world facing multiple crises, including climate change and social injustice, but I also acknowledge that some may question whether having children is responsible in the face of such challenges.
In this regard people have two main concerns: firstly, the impact of individual carbon emissions due to having children and, secondly, fears about the future world our children will inherit.
Regarding carbon emissions, I argue that while it is important to consider the environmental impact of having children, it is too simplistic and demanding to suggest that people should not have children to reduce their carbon footprint.
As individuals, our carbon emissions are only part of the problem, and the primary focus should be on changing societal systems and policies that contribute to climate change. While the decision to have children should be made with environmental impact in mind, it should not be a binary choice.
The fear of what kind of world our children will inherit is also understandable. However, I believe there is a third option, beyond having or not having children, and that is doing all we can to leave them a decent future in which they can thrive.
As parents, we have a collective responsibility to work towards creating a better world for our descendants. This includes advocating for policy changes, making sustainable choices, and modelling values of social and environmental responsibility.
How can we overcome the climate deniers we may know in our lives?
Well, there are psychological tools that we can use to move us forward. It’s not necessarily that the people around us don’t care. It might just be that sometimes we arrive at a situation where nobody can bring up these questions because they are actually quite scared and worried.
I think there is a smaller group actually dismissive of climate change, but complete denialists are few and far between. Most people are likely to recognise that these environmental and societal changes are happening, but feel powerless or perhaps don’t necessarily think it’s the most important thing to work on.
The good news is there is a huge amount of potential to change things through dialogue and communication. Amazing resources exist on how to communicate climate change and get ideas across.
It really involves opening up lines of communication with people, and groups of people, who are perhaps more open to thinking about it than one might assume.
Dr Conor Purcell writes about science, society and culture and is a contributor to The Irish Times on science and environment. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell – some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com