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In Search of an Eco-Ethic for Our Times

By Keith Kloor
Mar 7, 2012 12:09 AMNov 20, 2019 5:59 AM


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Several years ago, my oldest son (now 7) came back from preschool one day and announced that we shouldn't drive our car anymore. "It causes pollution and that kills animals," he said. I tried explaining to him that things were a bit more complicated than that. It didn't help that our family (which includes my wife and his younger brother, now 5) hopped in our Subaru Forrester virtually every weekend to drive all over Colorado (we were living in Boulder at the time), in search of majestic landscapes and wild animals at places such as Rocky Mountain National Park. We found much to marvel at during these mini-road trips, and didn't dwell on the mixed messages that my oldest son was already trying to process. Instead, we had fun teaching his precocious mind new words like "ubiquitous," which he quickly learned by pointing at every McDonald's that we passed in the car. ("Ubiquitous!" he would yell.) My boys are still not old enough to understand the contradictions between an environmental ethic and modern life. Take the recent news encapsulated in this New York Times headline: "Deepwater Oil Drilling Picks up Again as BP Disaster fades." Amy Myers Jaffe, associate director of the Rice University energy program, spelled out an uncomfortable truth in the NYT article:

We need the oil. The industry will have to improve and regulators will have to adjust, but the public will have to deal with the risk of drilling in deep waters or get out of their cars.

Yes, and since many Americans also like to fly to Disney World, take cruises to the Caribbean, and live in sprawling houses in the suburbs, it seems a safe bet that we'll deal with that risk. So how do my wife and I raise two young eco-citizens without going off the grid and living like the Amish? For starters, we moved back to New York City and live an urban lifestyle, which means we mostly walk/scooter/bike and ride the subway. (We still use the trusty, weather-beaten Forrester for weekend road trips out of the city and for bi-monthly food hauls to Fairway.) We live in--ahem--a cozy apartment, instead of the 2500 square foot house in the Boulder foothills (which came with a wrap around porch and menacing bears). We dutifully recycle, I routinelychase down neighborhood litterers, and my wife berates me when I forget to bring our canvass shopping bags to the supermarket. To stay in touch with nature, we try to go as often as we can to the local botanical gardens, parks, and sanctuaries. (N had his 5^th birthday party at the Audubon Nature Center in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Unfortunately, we weren't able to keep Chuck E Cheese out of the birthday rotation one year.) For hands-on ecological immersion, we planted a flower garden last Spring (on Earth Day!) in the tiny dirt patch outside our building's front step. But every few weeks a villainous thief would uproot one of our precious saplings. That was not a pleasant lesson for the kids, who looked forward every morning to seeing the progress of their plants. Dug-out holes were met with disappointment and puzzlement. All these experiences, however they turned out, are how my wife and I have sought to imbue our boys with some semblance of environmental awareness and appreciation. But what they learn from their teachers seems to trigger the hardest questions for us to answer. For example, recently my 7-year old came home from an after-school science program and described what causes global warming. He got the basic science right but then he also told me that not everybody cares about global warming and that this was why nothing was being done about it. Once again, I tried explaining to him that the issue was a bit more complicated than that. I said that lots of people cared about global warming, but that it was a hard problem for individuals to do anything about. I explained that the same pollution that comes out of our cars is partly responsible for creating greenhouse gases (a term he knew). The same, I said, goes for much of the energy that provides electricity for us to turn on our lights at home. I said that we needed to use cleaner sources of energy (like solar and wind) but that those couldn't as of yet replace the fossil fuels the world relies on for its energy needs. (I'm waiting a few more years before I complicate his world even more with the whole nuclear power question.) As I recall, my son thought about all this for about 30 seconds before asking if he could play wii Mariocart. Another teachable opportunity presented itself this past weekend, when I took the boys to see to the new hit children's movie, The Lorax. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic, here's a good primer from NYT movie reviewer A.O. Scott:

Since its publication in 1971 "The Lorax," by Dr. Seuss, has occasionally been caught up in squalls of controversy, most of it cooked up by people choosing to be outraged by the book's mild allegorical moral of ecological responsibility. In our own globally warmed, ideologically fevered moment there has been a minor flurry of predictable, pre-emptive bloviation aimed at Universal's movie version, "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax," which is supposedly part of a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy to brainwash America's children into hating capitalism and loving trees.

The bloviaters needn't have worried. As Scott (who wrote a scathing review) notes, the movie's simplistic anti-business/pro-eco message collides with the "reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension." Bryan Walsh at Time was similarly disapproving:

Universal Pictures wasn't content just to turn The Lorax into an incredibly valuable film property. The studio also inked more than 70 promotional tie-ins to the movie, with everyone from Mazda to the Environmental Protection Agency to XFinity TV.

Whatever. My kids don't pay much attention to product placement. For them, the movie was a gaudy entertainment that they seemed to enjoy. They're also too young to understand the irony of critics who lambast a movie for wanting to have its cake and eat it, too. After all, isn't that what green-minded consumers (with their latest i-pods) and their Whole Foods sensibilities do as well? Personally, I'm less concerned with brand tie-ins than I am with the movie's one-dimensional, cartoonish characters. Then there was this quote that appeared at the film's end, which echoes the message my son received several weeks ago about global warming:

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. Its not." -Dr.Seuss.

But what happens when caring is not enough? Moreover, can you still care and keep your cars and gadgets and airplane-enabled conferences and vacations? I'd like to see a movie that addresses that. It might even help me and my kids make some sense of the world we live in.

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