“Should I mark ‘Earth’ for ‘Which planet in our solar system can support life?’” the boy asks. He has a reputation as a class clown, telling those inscrutable made-up jokes that only other ten-year-olds find humorous. But this time he is serious. His brow is wrinkled. I can see that he’s already written his response and erased it. He does not want to get the question wrong. He knows as well as I that he cannot afford another failing grade.
“Do you know of another planet in our solar system that can support life?” I ask.
“No, but Earth won’t be able to support life in forty years, so I don’t know if it counts,” he says.
“Why do you say that?”
“Climate change,” he says nonchalantly. There’s even a hint of incredulity in his voice when I ask him why, as if he can’t believe that I, his science teacher, would play dumb to such an obvious reality. He believes, just as certainly as he knows that the school cafeteria will serve cold corndogs tomorrow, that Earth will become uninhabitable within his lifetime.
What am I supposed to say to him? Avoidance feels easiest, cheapest. Just write the answer you know will get you an A, and let’s move on. I’ve heard it so many times – in polite conversation, you always avoid religion, politics, and existential threats to life on Earth.
Or, I could lie. Tell him everything will be okay. Tell him to keep calm and carry on. Tell him that climate change is just happening, and definitely not caused by humans. The white lies that keep kids complacent, that stop them from asking tough questions. I can’t do that to him. Lies don’t change anything. And they only make you feel better if they’re not so obvious.
Or, I could tell him that despite anthropogenic climate change, Earth will still support life – just not his. After I write ‘anthropogenic’ in big chalk letters on our scientific vocabulary word wall, I could explain that while human civilization may not survive a rapidly changing climate, some kinds of life will. Not our friends, our mothers, our children. But something. Something technically alive. I worry about imposing my own existential eco-anxiety onto this kid, this towheaded jokester who cares more about missing a question on a test than the impending end of life as we know it. Maybe he can’t feel how unbearably heavy this is. Maybe crisis is all he knows. So, yes, I could say, you should mark ‘Earth’, because that is how you pass the test.
Or, I could say, There is still hope. I could tell him that the climate is changing and will continue to change, but there is still time to ward off the worst of it. I could project a life-sized image of Greta Thunberg on the blackboard and tell him, tell all of them, that kids just like them are finally waking up and taking action. That what they’re doing is working. That a movement is building. I could tell him that even a kid like him, a fifth grader in Nowheresville, Texas, can change things.
But if I tell him about hope, I must also tell him how hard it will be. That there will be adults who will discourage him, tell him he’s too young, that he’s only a kid. That grown-ups and companies and governments act like they have all the power, but really, they’re scared out of their minds – scared of losing the upper hand, of the unknown, of change that might not favor them.
Maybe it doesn’t matter what I say, because the world is already changing. Maybe I can let him know, in this stuffy classroom that smells of chalk and Clorox Wipes and crayon wax, that he has to find a way to be brave, and he has to believe that he’s not too young or insignificant to change a dying world. That he’s not alone. That I’m with him. So, “Yes,” I tell him, “Earth is the answer.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS/CALEB ROENIGK