Saturday, January 21, 2006

Children, Growth, and Extinction

When I was taking care of my nieces for a week recently, I couldn't help but examine how I (and the media) influenced them as little consumers. The 2-year-old seems to fly under the radar by still having one foot in babyhood. The 4-year-old, however, with her bright and curious mind, is ripe for the messages of wanting and consuming. It would be nearly impossible to shield her from a culture of stuff and prevent her desiring things. Her parents are committed to buying secondhand for toys and clothes, which is great, and of course she doesn't know the difference. Something new to her is something new, period. But she is beginning to exhibit a consumeristic side. One instance occurred while we were watching a children's video. She likes to watch the previews; rarely do my attempts to surreptitiously fast forward through them escape her vigilant eye. One preview was an advertisement for a computer game related to the movie we were watching ... her eyes brightened and she exclaimed, "Look at that game! We should get that for our computer! We need that game!" Naturally my heart sank a little. The period of innocence before our materialistic society turns us into buying and wasting machines, is so painfully short. We're not greedy in our heart of hearts, I truly believe ... but we are simply incapable of resisting such bombardment from the media, and we have a powerful urge to fit in with everyone else. As children, we don't yet have the information and ability for abstract thought that enables us to see the more sinister purpose behind these messages and products - to make rich companies richer, at all environmental and cultural costs. I offer these questions to earth-conscious parents: How do you address these issues? Do you allow television and movies in the home, or must these mediums be avoided in order to raise children who are less swayed by materialism? Do your children feel "different" from their peers? How do you reconcile your own desire for stuff with your desire to set a good example?

T. (my other half) and I attended a community meeting the other night, held by a group called Citizens Against Sprawl / Save Downtown Ellensburg. Wal-Mart wants to build a major retail center at one of two freeway interchanges a couple miles outside of town, and the townsfolk are concerned, naturally, about how this will impact Ellensburg and its businesses. It's obvious to all of us that despite claims to the contrary by the plan's proponents, this will not draw more business to Ellensburg, but will have the opposite effect. Wal-Mart is all about cheap one-stop shopping, and there's nothing to encourage customers to travel a couple more miles into town. Also, a big store like Wal-Mart will attract other businesses to build adjacent to it; so even the employees of the store won't travel into Ellensburg to eat lunch or do their own shopping ... they'll stay right there at that major interchange, which will have become a strip mall when it's all said and done.

There was a lot of talk at the meeting about growth: how growth is inevitable, how we must "own" the change that will inevitably come, how we must expand as a town and attract tourists and businesses, while maintaining our historical charm and appearance. This is where I get confused. Is it necessary for a town, or any place for that matter, to grow? If you have a community committed to maintaining the town exactly how it is, with the exception of changes that lessen environmental impact and encourage sustainability, isn't that enough? Or do inflation and the larger economy dictate that we must always be growing economically, generating increasing revenue? Building more businesses? I don't know enough about it. I do know that "no growth" is a radical enough idea that I don't dare bring it up at these meetings. I'm sure it would seem especially outlandish coming from some young chick who's only been in town a few months (I'm not that young really, but T. and I were among the youngest there). Does anyone out there have some insight for me on this? Capitalism is based on unchecked and infinite growth, which, as far as I can tell, is a doomed proposition. There is no bottomless well of resources, so at some point (now, I hope) we must decide we've got plenty, or more than plenty, and find a way to reduce our impact. At the meeting, folks kept talking about keeping growth in the town, building up instead of out, encouraging local business and light industry, etc. But no one asked, why do we have to build or grow at all?

I just finished an article in the 1/9/06 New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert, entitled "Butterfly Lessons," about the impact of global warming on butterflies in particular, but a number of other species as well. It's not an encouraging article in the least, and though I've read so many things about extinction, it never fails to pierce my heart to the core. Extinction is a natural process that would happen over time with or without human influence, but the rate at which it currently occurs and the causes of it are truly heartbreaking. The most frightening prospect of all, is that we don't even know (or care?) what we are destroying. Two quotes that struck me:

"Over the past two million years, even as the temperature of the earth has swung wildly, it has always remained within certain limits: the planet has often been colder than today, but rarely warmer, and then only slightly. If the earth continues to warm at the current rate, then by the end of this century temperatures will push beyond the 'envelope' of natural climate variability."

"A few years ago, nineteen biologists from around the world set out to give, in their words, a 'first pass' estimate of the extinction risk posed by global warming. They assembled data on eleven hundred species of plants and animals from sample regions covering roughly a fifth of the earth's surface. Then they established the species' current ranges, based on climate variables such as temperature and rainfall. Finally, they calculated how much of the species' 'climate envelope' would be left under different warming scenarios. The results of this effort were published in Nature in 2004. [I believe this is the article.] Using a mid-range projection of temperature rise, the biologists concluded that, if the species in the sample regions could be assumed to be highly mobile, then fully fifteen percent of them would be 'committed to extinction' by the middle of this century, and, if they proved to be basically stationary, an extraordinary thirty-seven percent of them would be."

Food for thought. Every tiny percentage of greenhouse gases we save by walking instead of driving, or hanging clothes on a clothesline, or reusing a cloth napkin instead of purchasing paper towels, gives us a little bit more time to figure this out.


At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On Kids: We don't own a television and are not too fond of it when we pick our kids up from playdates, and the kids are watching one. I don't, however, think our kids, at 4 and 6, feel that different from their peers. Of course, most of their peers come from families similar to ours, (except that we're the only ones who are carfree, but for the kids, that's a point of pride. I tell them not to be too hard on other people because other people just don't know what they're capable of doing).

On capatalism: Unfortunately, there are plenty of jobs predicated on the producing and selling of junk no one really needs, not to mention the important issue of ruining the planet we depend on for hairdryers, cosmetics, plastic flamingos, etc. Ideally, I would say we could all move toward a local economy, where local craftspeople made most of the stuff we needed, and local farmers grew most of the food, while still maintaining a reasonable level of import and export. But, would that employ everybody? I read last year that 1 out of 10 jobs worldwide are connected to the automotive industry. If everyone decided to be carfree, which would definitely be a step in the right direction, what would happen to that 10% of the population. We should certainly all boycott Walmart, (and most other non-local stores), but if everyone did it, where would all those people work? What would happen to all those people churning out all those cheap plastic toys in China? The world population is certainly overextended on cheap natural gas for fertilizer and cheap oil for pesticides, and that may come crashing down on us, but in the meantime, we have built an economy that is not easily replaced by a sustainable model. How are we going to get whole populations to embrace a local economy when so many jobs are now dependent on a global one? It is an important question. I'm not sure you can convert people by direct confrontation. I don't go around telling my friends they should get rid of their cars. I hope that teaching by example will expand outward. Who knows?

On Global Warming: I saw a brief article on Polar Bears in the Washington Post while I was on vacation. Evidently they are worried about the bears because they expect there to be no Polar Ice Cap at the North Pole in the summers by the year 2040. It was mentioned as a sort of run-of-the-mill problem. Doesn't it strike anyone else that it is VERY disturbing, and not just for Polar Bears?

At 6:01 AM, Blogger Andrea Rusin said...

Green parenting/green relationships..... now there's a topic for some consideration. For a long time, we had a tandem bike and a burley -so all 4 of us were on one bike. But THAT stops being fun PDQ; the little buggers GROW ;)

Anyway... enjoy your week with your nieces. THey'll wear you out, but what great ages! You have a great blog. I'll cisit often.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger madgeneral said...

Sustainable Girl,

This is a sad and beautiful post -- the best thing I've read in a long time. I lament that I cannot effectively answer any of your questions. In some way, it seems that a single person cannot. They speak directly to our collective consciousness; they mourn the absence of decency in our society; they wonder at our cruel and complacent ambitions.

Your mention of the New Yorker article, and your thoughts on extinction, reminded me of the Carolina Parakeet. I'll quote from a field guide a description of the bird, once prevalent in America, until the early 20th century: "Once abundant in the East from eastern Nebraska to New York and south to the Gulf Coast, this beautiful parakeet was hunted for its feathers, the pet trade, for sport, and as a pest of orchards, cornfields, and gardens. Flocks had such strong bonds that when some of their numbers were killed the remainder of the flock returned to their bodies repeatedly until all were shot...the last known birds were shot in the early 1900's, and the last reported individual of the only endemic US parrot died in the Cincinatti Zoo in the year 1914."

This bird was wiped out, ostensibly, because of the strong bonds within its flock, its (some would say only intuitive) concern for its community and its fellows.

It's informative to me. To me it displays the worst possible outcome of the best kind of spirit, and strength, and willingness to sacrifice out of concern for life. And perhaps its only this subconscious fear of marginalization, or extinction, that prevents us from truly being concerned -- and from sacrificing something of ourselves no matter the outcome -- for the betterment of our world.

Thanks again for your post. I may link to it so all six of my readers will be sure to see it!

At 6:59 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I will be the first to admit that I am not the perfect parent. I've made many mistakes in the six and a half years I've been a mom (three children 6, 4, and 6 months). They play computer games. They watch TV. We've accumulated WAY too much stuff. But on that note, I am very choosy about the electronic games my kids play, the shows they watch, and what toys I allow in my house. There's a lesson to be learned in everything they do, and I try my hardest to help them discover what it is. In all honesty, I sometimes need ten minutes when I can blog without interruption or take a phone call in peace. Sometimes I just want to go to the bathroom by myself! I'm guilty of using the TV as a babysitter(although the kids would rather read books, draw, or play trains anway). Thankfully on NOGGIN the kids are not overly bombarded by commercials for "stuff." They know that if they want a new toy, they have to save the quarters they earn for doing their "jobs." If they go with us to a store, they know that they may look but not have.

I really enjoyed this post - it got me thinking. I don't like Wal-Mart and never shop there. However, I am thankful for the Target that we do have here in Ithaca should I need to make a one-stop shop for things I need. Three years ago we only had a run-down KMart. But more often than not, the kids and I are downtown supporting the local clothing stores, eateries, book and music stores, and toy shops. I could never live in a big city. I love my quirky little college town that is so rich in diversity and acceptance and intellect.

I agree we have to learn to live in a more sustainable way. That will be a small change for some but a great one for many. I'm trying my hardest to learn from my past mistakes because I now know that every little thing I do has a huge impact on my family and environment. I hope to teach my kids that "things" in life don't matter as much as the good that we can accomplish. Kids listen - it's adults that can be very narrow-minded!

At 7:27 AM, Blogger nulinegvgv said...

my wife and i ditched the tv last summer in anticipation of our first child due in early march of this year. we figured no tv from the get go would be easier than trying to remove it from our child's life later. to much junk on it and too much consumer propaganda. i have been amazed at the palpable feeling of relief from crappy ads for stuff we don't need. a projector attached to our cd/dvd player still allows us to watch movies on the wall. i'm hoping babysitting family and trips to visit friends won't make the tv into a forbidden fruit.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Downshiftingpath said...

On kids and consumerism.....we have TV but we talk with our kids about what adverts are telling them. For instance when they 'want;' something I question what it is they want, why they feel they want this and whether it is to satisfy a need. What my kids want usually is some sort of escape from their reality. Walks in the fresh air just don't cut it with 10 year olds as it used to. Yet I also believe that we lead by example, if I want to consume, then so will they. I am doing what I can to reverse that process now that I am aware of it, but they are acutely aware of it as they enter the age where their image matters and they need to find a place in this world and belong.We focus on recycling and doing the best with the resources we have.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Just a quick comment about TV becoming a "forbidden fruit." I have a friend who rarely lets her children watch TV. Her kids are VERY smart and really good at entertaining themselves with books and games. On the other hand, here I am with NOGGIN or PBS on the majority of the day (I like the background noise but have started implementing TV-timeouts! because of Lauren's - Ardent Eden - post about wasting energy. I'm trying!). My kids are also VERY smart and great at entertaining themselves with books, games, drawing, trains. Even though the TV is on, they are hardly on the floor in front of it. Whenever my friend brings her children over to play, I always turn it off. There was, however, the time I forgot and entered the room only to find my friend's kids like zombies and MY kids begging them to play dress-up and dolls. It wasn't until the TV was turned off that they got up to play again.

Isn't most everything in moderation okay? On that same note, we don't refuse our kids treats (once in awhile if they eat their nutritious food first). Growing up, I had the house that had all the junk food. Whenever my "deprived" friends came over, the first thing they would do is raid our cupboards for sugary cereals and sweets.

I feel like I HAVE to have TV. That's my way, after spending a LONG day taking care of my two younger ones and then a LONG afternoon when my third comes home from school, of totally winding down.

I wish we could NOT have TV, but I think I would go crazy! I KNOW my husband would go insane without football!

Seriously - KUDOS to all of you who can get by without one! That's one habit I wish I could break.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger Jessi Louise said...

I have two boys - 2 and 4 - and we do have TV, however they are very limited as to how much they watch and what they can watch...mostly PBS. I am a believer that TV (video games also) is not all bad as long as it is in moderation. Moderation for us means about an hour of TV a day and about one hour of video games a week. They spend most of their time playing outside and using their imaginations, which are very active imaginations!!

I try to downplay the importance of buying new stuff, but it's really difficult with all their friends having stuff they want. I am adamant not to buy things for them except on special occasions and I always try to buy things that are pretty basic, not a lot of bells and whistles, which forces them to use their imaginations when they play with them. We also buy a lot of things used and they don't mind that at all (yet - i'm sure that may change with age).

It's difficult to raise children to think counter to popular culture. I guess I am trying to raise them to be aware, but also not be extremist, because I don't want them to feel like total outsiders or targets when they start school.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a 5 and 3 year old and they are only allowed tv on weekends. I am very strict to what they eat on a daily basis but if they go to a friends house or a party, I let them enjoy whatever everyone else is eating.

As they get older they can see that their friends have a dvd in the car (why can't we have one?) they notice alot more junk in their friends lunch boxes (why can't we have that?) No matter how much I explain to them, they are influenced by their surroundings. There is nothing we can do about that. All I know is that my children are not over weight and they are very active, physical children, they are fit! They have excellent imaginations, my daughter started to read at the age of 4 and my son's favourite toys are books. The only disadvantage about my son loving books is that I have to read to him even when he eats, they love books read to them in the bath, they go crazy in the car of boredom if I havn't bought along books and I have to visit the library a couple of times a week just to stock up on more. I wish sometimes that he would play with cars and trains and diggers but he will only do it when he visits his friends.
I am not saying my kids are the smartest in the world but this is what happens when you cut out the television and instill the utmost importance of books at such an early stage. I read to my daughter probably when she was only 5 days old and my son maybe when is was a month old.
But they are still very influenced by all the crap out there no matter how I have bought them up. There is so much unnessary stuff that kids simply do not need.


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