It's taken me more than a decade of parenting to realize that having children makes me something more than a parent. It makes me an ancestor.
From my standpoint, we are at a crossroads of climate disruption. Climate change will define the world of my descendants. It will define what they eat, where they live, their wealth, their health, and their freedom. The world my children's children will inhabit depends a lot on how we address climate pollution, right now. So I need to step up for them, even though I've never met them, and never will.
I have ancestors, of course. We all do. But I never thought of myself as one. Ancestors, I thought, were my distant, long-gone relatives from Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and England, especially the ones who fled persecution looking for freedom. Through their choices, they gave me the privilege of living in this country that I love.
How can I be a good ancestor? What about my choices? What will I give to my descendants?
As it turns out, many of the things that make a good parent also make a good ancestor.
Listen carefully. Being an active listener is a skill. It's not easy to listen to what my children are telling me, especially with all the distractions of our modern age. Also, sometimes they are telling me things that I honestly don't want to hear. (Your brother called you a what?!) But listening to them with an open heart is part of my job as a mom. The same is true for climate disruption. Almost all the world's scientists know that climate change is real, it's happening now, and humans are responsible for it. The experts have spoken, repeatedly. Many of their messages are ones I don't want to hear. But it's my job as an ancestor to listen to them.
Cultivate optimism. In our house, a certain 9-year-old boy can find his whole day ruined when his big sister ignores him. "She hates me," he'll say. It's part of my job to sprinkle a little optimism into the mix. Her cold shoulder may be an opportunity for him to try something new, like playing with a friend in the neighborhood. There can be a good side to dealing with hard stuff. The same is true with climate disruption. Our changing climate is sobering, to put it mildly, especially when I am deeply and truly listening to what the scientists have to say about it (see above). But I try to embrace it as an opportunity – perhaps the biggest one of our era. The co-benefits of addressing climate pollution are enormous, and will better the lives of my descendants. They'll have less heart disease, less asthma, less obesity, and less of the world's major cities going underwater.
Set boundaries. My kids need to know where the lines are. They thrive when there are clear boundaries about things like bullying, name-calling, and whether they are allowed to smack their brother with a light saber even if they were playing Star Wars. I can't, and don't, always play nice. The same is true for climate disruption. I am not here to be everyone's friend. I have a moral responsibility to the future. Good ancestors identify the threats to their descendants, and insist that they be eliminated.
Take the long view. So much of my energies go into the logistics of here and now. But that isn't always the best way to parent. It's not my first preference to have my kids to do the dishes, when it would be so much easier, and faster, for me to do them myself. But I need to look ahead, to the big picture. Yes, it takes longer. Yes, they complain. Yes, the dishes aren't actually even that clean at the end of it. But if we all stick with it, they'll be able to, well, wash the dishes! And that will rock my world. The same is true for climate disruption. It feels like it will be hard to break our fossil fuel addiction. But the solutions are actually within our reach. If we all stick with it -- if we, as ancestors, insist that we all stick with it, then we will have a priceless reward on the other side: A safe, stable world, for our descendants. Cue the unicorns and rainbows.
As an ancestor, I now ask big questions. What will my children's world be like after I am gone? What will their children's world be like? Can my choices help lay the groundwork for a world that isn't burdened by climate disruption?
The days and years my children are here at home with me are but drops in the glass of the years that lie ahead of them, I hope. And someday, those glasses will become drops in the ocean of the years that lie ahead of their children. I am looking forward to swimming in that ocean.
Molly Rauch is Public Health Policy Director for Moms Clean Air Force. She lives in Washington, DC, with her family.