A Child at World’s End: A Mother Thinks About Climate Inheritance

“I don’t want to live in a world without cheetahs, Mom.”

Seamus loves cheetahs and what’s not to love — unless you are a Thomson’s gazelle? Cheetahs are the fastest mammals on the planet, formidable predators, sleek, saucy looking, and they even have spots.

My six-year-old boy can’t imagine a future without his favorite animal, but we live in the small city of New London, Connecticut. Unlike coyotes, cheetahs are, to say the least, rare here. The nearest zoo is more than an hour away. I’m not sure where his love for cheetahs came from, since he doesn’t watch much television, not even nature shows. Still, here we are, my six-year-old boy and me talking about those cheetahs and the end of nature on a Sunday morning.

His observation actually turned out to be remarkably on point when it comes to our current situation, globally and environmentally. He made it during a week in which nature was hitting back hard. If cheetahs are indeed endangered, so were surprising numbers of human beings that week as killer storms struck from the Philippines to North Carolina. With rage and rain, an increasingly overheated, climate-changed Mother Nature briefly reclaimed some of her territory, which we had defiled, dividing it up into endlessly buildable lots all the way to the high-tide line, pocking it with hog farms, studding it with nuclear power plants. Hurricane Florence and Super Typhoon Mangkhut flooded the works, making the whole sodden mess hers again, at least for a time, and sending a signal about what humans and cheetahs are up against in the decades to come.

Unlike Seamus, I haven’t given cheetahs much thought. Still, after he expressed his worries about that cat and his life, I did a little research. Cheetahs, you won’t be surprised to learn, live throughout Africa (northern, eastern, and southern), as well as — and this was news to me — in India and Iran. There are only seven or eight thousand cheetahs left on Earth. Once upon a time (and not so long ago) there must have been 100,000. They are speedy and range widely over their habitats. They want to move. They are also killed as pests by farmers, taken as trophies by big-game hunters, and regularly hit by cars careening down the growing number of roads crisscrossing their territories.

Headed Toward Oblivion

I’ve never seen a cheetah in real life. Neither has my son. And, if truth be told, I’m no cheetah champion either. I don’t even particularly like tabby cats. Still, I found that, in the wake of our conversation, I didn’t want to live in a world without them either.

In 2012, when Seamus was born, 196 species of mammals were already “critically endangered,” the animals closest to extinction. Today 199 are in this most endangered category and 37 more species than when he was born are “endangered,” the next level down, according to the “Red Lists” maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We don’t see this dramatic decline of species variety in our little corner of the world. It’s all squirrels and raccoons here and they seem to be winning always, but what scientists are calling “the sixth extinction” is as real as the possum now going through my recycling bin.

From cheetahs and other endangered big mammals, it’s only a short hop to what environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert says are “a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays,[…] a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds” that are “headed toward oblivion.” And it’s but another short hop to other forms of obliteration and climate collapse, including the rapid decline of coral reefs, the growth of ocean dead zones, the retreat of sub-Arctic boreal forests, the “new-normal” of a raging fire season, the cracking and melting of what was once the strongest ice in the Arctic…

I could, of course, go on, but the mind shudders. Or thought of another way, the mind shutters. It forms a protective shell against what it can’t truly take in — or, at least, what it can’t comprehend without radical change.

Seamus and I could head deeper into the world of the potentially vanishing cheetah. I could find a cheetah sanctuary in southern Africa and encourage him to use his piggy bank coins to “adopt” one of those cats. But I haven’t gone there yet. I haven’t told him why cheetahs are teetering on the edge of oblivion. We haven’t started talking about why people kill such animals for sport or how increasingly few truly wild corners of this planet are left for “wild animals.”

Still, I must admit that, after our conversation, I started to wonder why I hadn’t taken his cheetah angst and turned it into the sort of teachable moment that parents are supposed to love when it comes to all that’s wrong in the world. Could my mind have been shuddering and shuttering at the same time? Might I have feared sinking into an abiding helplessness in the face of catastrophic climate change and passing that on to my son?

I mean… what in the world can I — or Seamus — really do about the fate of the cheetah? About the fate of the whole miraculous wild world? What in the world could I really teach my child to do?

I don’t want you to think that our family does nothing. My husband and I do what we can and frame it for our kids in the context of ecological responsibility. We live below the poverty line in intentional simplicity. We grow vegetables and conserve water. We eat a largely vegetarian diet, compost, and brew our own beer. We have solar panels and we shower only when necessary. We live in a dense urban area and can both walk to work. We don’t fly a lot and drive only when necessary. None of these are exactly radical sacrifices, but they are not nothing either.

Still, they aren’t faintly enough to save the cheetahs… or ourselves, for that matter.

Two Minutes to Midnight

Remembering my own fears as a six year-old, my son’s seem decontextualized and vague. And thank God for that. As a child, I lived in concentrated, daily, physical dread of nuclear war.

When I was six years old, in 1980, the Cold War was still a hot worry and, for reasons I’ll explain, I already lived in terror of becoming extinct.

In that very year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its famed Doomsday Clock from nine to seven minutes to nuclear midnight, chiding the Soviet Union and the United States for acting like “‘nucleo-holics, drunks who continue to insist that the drink being consumed is positively ‘the last one,’ but who can always find a good excuse for ‘just one more round.’”

In the spring of 1979, my family and I had driven from our home in Baltimore to the mountains of West Virginia to stay with friends after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania suffered a critical meltdown. We lived less than a two-hour drive from that ill-fated plant, which went critical on March 28th — just days before my fifth birthday. We stayed with our friends for two weeks. I have a vague memory that their similarly aged daughter and I had the same flowered corduroy overalls and bonded over how painful wearing our hair in pigtails could be.

But mostly I was afraid. So afraid. Nuclear disaster seemed both real and imminent to me then — and no wonder I felt that way. My parents, Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister, were well-known antinuclear activists, as well as members of a radical Christian community of people committed to nonviolent resistance to war and nuclear culture. In those days, it seemed to me that all they did was focus on nuclear weapons and nuclear power, while experimenting with different ways to get other people to acknowledge the terrible danger we were all in. Their daily focus was on rising up against those who were making the bad decisions that left this planet prone to a nuclear Armageddon instead of ensuring a future for all of us.

At six, I already had a front row seat at their experiments. Or, more accurately, there were no seats. Like everyone else, I stood. Over and over and over again, I watched as my parents and their friends and fellow travelers in the peace movement of that time made dramatic, noisy, provocative messes all over Washington, DC, and beyond. They dug graves on the parade ground at the Pentagon. They made giant cardboard warheads painted with the American and Soviet flags and set them afire in front of the building that housed the Pentagon’s nuclear division.

Men dressed as specters screamed, moaned, and laughed maniacally, while other friends dusted themselves with ashes and writhed on the ground in front of the White House. Women cut off their hair and burned it in a bowl on the steps of the Pentagon’s river entrance (from which I can still conjure up the cloying, sick smell of nuclear death that wafted over us that morning). I can remember my father — more than once — pulling a bottle of blood from his coat pocket and hurling it as high as he could at the pillars of the Pentagon, so that it would drip dramatically down the white marble.

My parents and their friends made such messes at least 100 times in attempting to remind a distracted public that nuclear war could be imminent and that it was both unwinnable and close to inevitable unless the two superpowers made the decision to disarm. I certainly wasn’t their target audience, but I doubt anyone saw what they did more often than me. Most people — even Pentagon employees — caught such mini-spectacles just once or twice a year. I saw it repeatedly and nearly 40 years later, I’m still freaking out about it.

After all, today the danger isn’t the mutual assured destruction tango of the massive superpowers. There are nine nuclear weapons states with an estimated 14,500 nuclear weapons and quarrels aplenty between some of them. Just imagine that in a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan up to 20 million people could die from the blasts, fire, and radiation, while a nuclear winter could be triggered in which, it is believed, up to a billion people might starve to death. And keep in mind that the technology has been democratized to a point where some analysts fear that a “dirty bomb” detonated by some non-state actor might be more likely than an Israeli or Pakistani nuclear strike or, for that matter, a post-Cold War faceoff between the Russians or the Chinese and ourselves.

Keep in mind as well that we’re no longer at seven minutes to nuclear midnight. We’re now at two minutes, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the clock is still ticking. As the president and CEO of that publication put it at the beginning of this year: “In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago — and as dangerous as it has been since World War II.”

Hope, Not Fear

Some people find the prospect of Trump’s small hands on the nuclear button particularly unsettling, but the capacity to destroy the world and the notion that a nuclear war might in any sense be winnable has existed in Washington long before he hit the Oval Office. The United States may not have detonated a nuclear warhead as an act of war since August 1945, but it’s spent an incredible fortune endlessly developing its nuclear arsenal and continues to do so. The 30-year “modernization” of that arsenal alone (started under the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his urge to abolish them) is expected to cost some $1.7 trillion. And the US has already been spending about $20 billion a year to maintain the US nuclear advantage and that is set to increase under President Trump.

As the dangers and the dollars rise, nuclear weapons aren’t even a concern or a preoccupation around here, much less a worry. They represent little but minor background noise in this country. Catastrophic climate change is so much more likely to claim front-page real estate these days with the epic storms, fires, and floods that occur ever more often. But the big question is: What do we do about it (especially in the age of Donald Trump)? How do we conquer our fears with action? And what kind of action will that be?

Those are hard questions to answer. My parents answered them one way and even though their answers terrified me, I appreciate that they tried — and that, at 78, my mother is still trying. (She is in jail now, awaiting trial for trespass and property destruction at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia.)

Save the cheetahs almost seems simple by comparison!

The human polluting of the planet with the emissions from the burning of fossil fuels represents a slower-paced Armageddon than the red-button pushing “we begin bombing in five minutes” of thermonuclear warfare. But they are both too big for any one of us to hold alone: me or you or my six-year-old son. Today, at 44, facing a world in which there are now two forms of potential humanly induced global annihilation — the fast and slow ones — I don’t simply want to dump them on Seamus.

It’s true that the last decades have brought us closer to the nuclear brink even as the world slowly warms toward another kind of annihilation entirely, but for so many, fear doesn’t activate. It doesn’t lead to meaningful change. In fact, it’s just as likely to shutter us all in.

So I don’t want my son’s fears to be my starting point — or his. I want to start with his love, his hope. Save the cheetahs!