What makes a good parent? Most would say that a good parent loves and cares for their child with the ultimate goal of helping them thrive – now and in the future. A good parent will nurture their child, give them space to play and time to use their imagination, make sure they receive education and medical care, listen to their problems, and teach them to be autonomous adults one day.
But does being a good parent entail more than this?
Review: Parenting on Earth: A Philosopher’s Guide to Doing Good for Your Children—and Everyone Else—Elizabeth Cripps (The MIT Press)
In her book Parenting on Earthphilosopher and mother Elizabeth Cripps argues that in order to do good for their children, parents must also try to do something about the problems caused by climate change.
Many affluent parents, says Cripps, make two assumptions. The first is that their children will grow up (and grow old) to avoid environmental catastrophes. They will not experience famines, famines and wars over natural resources. Their future will be secure. The air they breathe will be clear and the water they drink will be clean.
The second assumption is that broader institutions – such as governments and the World Health Organization – will resolve these issues. Both assumptions, she says, are incorrect.
Read more: Thinking about having a baby as the planet collapses? First, ask yourself 5 big ethical questions
With regard to the first assumption, consider the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to prevent catastrophic climate change by preventing the world from warming by 2℃ compared to pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, we are not on track to do this.
Failure to achieve this goal will result in tens of millions dead in the 21st century and an immeasurable amount of suffering that does not lead to death. Heat extremes that previously only occurred every 50 years will now occur every three. The number of people living in poverty will increase significantly as basic human rights to food, water, shelter and security are compromised. Every child on earth at least one climate-related hazardduring their lifetime.
Simply put, Cripps points out, future generations — the people who give birth to parents — may not have the same opportunities to thrive as many of us have had.
As for the second assumption, the broader institutions we rely on are not doing enough to combat climate change. In a more organized and just world, governments and international bodies would prevent climate problems on our behalf. However, the fact that they are not has consequences for parents. Indeed, Cripps explains that the world’s collective failure to adequately address climate change is “changing the rules of the parenting game.”
For example, imagine your child running down a road with a giant hole in the sidewalk. Even though it’s the council’s job to plug or fence off this hole, you wouldn’t sit back and let your kid crash into it while claiming it was someone else’s job to fix it. You have an obligation to intervene and try to keep your child safe.
The same, argues Cripps, applies to climate change. While it should be someone else’s responsibility to handle it, the child’s protection ultimately falls to the parent. To benefit their children, parents should therefore also try to do something about climate change.
Being a good parent means being a good ancestor who fights for the earth that their descendants will inherit. It can become impossible to help your kids thrive without doing this. Climate change threatens their health, livelihoods and human rights.
Cripps goes so far as to say that not trying to protect their future by tackling climate change is a mockery of all the other things parents do to protect their children. It is equivalent to reading a bedtime story while the house burns down.
Three climate change obligations for parents
According to Cripps, participating in the fight against climate change involves at least three things.
First, parents need to make lifestyle changes that minimize their family’s contribution to climate change: do things like eat less meat, drive less, fly less, and be more mindful of how much stuff we buy.
These small-scale actions may seem fruitless, but, as Cripps explains, how we live must not contribute to the global climate change crisis. Otherwise we would fan the flames of the burning house. Lifestyle changes can also cause companies, governments and our colleagues to pay attention.
Second, Cripps says parents have a duty to raise their children to be good ecological citizens aware of global climate injustice. This duty is particularly relevant for families in affluent countries that have benefited from centuries of environmental exploitation. When parents in famine-stricken Gambia cannot feed their childrenand many of us in the UK (where Cripps is writing from) or Australia (where I am writing from) have enough food to spare, there is climate injustice.
We are rich thanks to colonization that has robbed people of the wealth that could (and should) have been theirs. We use a disproportionate amount of natural resources for which others pay the price. This is deeply unfair and children should grow up to be better global and environmental citizens than we have been. Climate action must include climate justice.
Read more: Climate change is white colonization of the atmosphere. It is time to address this deep-rooted racism
Third, and especially for Cripps, parents need to become climate activists. When governments and corporations fail us in climate action, parents should campaign for and demand better collective action from the institutions and structures in society that can make significant differences.
This could be anything from advocating legislation that moves away from fossil fuels, switching to banks and pension funds investing in renewable energy, attending protests or signing petitions.
It can also include participation in collective movements campaigning to make it easier for people to live ‘greener’ – for example, movements to improve public transport to make it easier to live car-free or to reduce plastic packaging.
Parents alone cannot make big differences. But by joining groups trying to promote change and campaigning for more action by governments and other institutions, she argues they can do good for their children.
Cripps does not claim that this will always be possible. (Climate measures must be weighed against other tasks involved in raising a child.) It can sometimes seem pointless. But if parents do nothing, they abandon their children.
The ‘hardest question’
This book is an important read for every parent. It is challenging and deeply confronting. But it’s also full of hope for a future that could emerge if enough work is done to make it happen. Cripps does not judge parents, talk to them, or make them feel guilty.
Instead, as an ethicist and mother of two girls, she brings her professional expertise to a subject of deep personal concern. She worries about the future of her (and other) children in a fragile world that also includes pandemics, extreme poverty, inequitable and racist institutions. She actually says to other parents:
I see you; this is a very stressful situation; here is some help on how best to raise our children under the circumstances.
In her Note to Readers, she says this book is also for those who are considering having children. There’s an interesting chapter on what she calls “the hardest question”—that is, should we become parents at all, at least biological parents? As Cripps acknowledges, this is a vital question that precedes all others on how to parent. She says we should be able to have children – it can be a uniquely valuable life experience – and try to build a better future for them, but there are good moral reasons to think carefully about the issue.
For example, she explains that by bringing a new person into the world in a highly polluting country, another person is created with a high CO2 footprint. There are already children living without parents who will suffer the consequences of climate change. Therefore, people without a strong desire to be a biological parent might try adopting instead.
Nevertheless, more space could have been devoted to this decision. Indeed, as someone who doesn’t have children considering whether it’s ethical to parent in a time of climate change, it’s a living question that I would have loved to read more about.
Parenting on Earth reads as much more relevant to those who have already become parents. While anyone can gain valuable insights and become better environmental citizens by reading it, parents concerned about climate change should therefore put it at the top of their must-read lists.