From the ARCADE Issue 35.1 feature, “Generation Anthropocene: Climate Change and Life After the End of a World.” Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks.  Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Graves Dear Westerly

Photo courtesy of the author

Dear Westerly,

You are two years old, and you find it hard to say you’re sorry. When you’re angry or frustrated, you lash out, and sometimes you hit me or Dad or your siblings. It’s not okay to hurt someone, we say, and then we insist that you apologize and check in with the person. Occasionally you do this without hesitation, almost passingly. Those times are easy, but I believe those are the instances when you don’t comprehend what is going on.

Most of the time, it’s harder. You turn away in shame and guilt. You bring up another subject, something completely unrelated to whatever we were just doing. A few times you have tried to charm us with a joke. At those moments, it’s obvious to me that you do understand the particular hurt of having caused pain, and the ache that comes with owing an apology.

As a white American male who comes from comfort, wrongdoing is your inheritance. Your comfort was created by systematic injury to others. You can despise this fact, but their injury will continue to benefit you because there are many people who want to make that fact permanent, or who fail to face it at all. The latter are not terrible people, but they indulge their own desire to turn away in shame and guilt, to change the subject, to make jokes, to create diversions.

Diversions are everywhere. I’ve read a few other letters from white mothers to their baby sons about climate change and environmental destruction. They address “your generation.” But there is no “your” generation.

I know of a boy born the same year as you whose brain was irreversibly deformed by the water that came out of his kitchen faucet. He and many other girls and boys live in the poor, exploited, Black city of Flint, Michigan. He can’t grow. He lost the ABCs he knew, and sometimes he just stares out at his mother from large, confused eyes.

You are his lucky twin just as I am the lucky twin of his devoted mother. In our house in safe, white, wealthy North Seattle, your creamy legs grow longer by the week. You gain full sentences overnight.

So this is not a letter from one generation to another, because generationism—a classic theme of the environmentalist political narrative—is a distraction. The fact is that the differences within generations and across geographies are far more pronounced than those that correlate with the passage of thirty or even a hundred years. The bad things are not next-generation. They are now.

Wealthy people are building their own luxury bunkers in places far from imminent threat, while people high in our government and business worlds peddle all kinds of counter-theories, each and every one rooted in the sure bet that what hurts other people doesn’t hurt them.

We, too, have resources, and we will not spend them building bunkers for ourselves, however “natural” that might seem to a protective mother and a fearful child. We are not religious, but if we did pray each night, we’d ask the gods for the strength to fight our own denial, distraction, and complacency, and to embrace the truth that the only salvation that counts is shared. Amen, we’d say, and we’d dream of how to build great big lifeboats, wake up in the morning, and go back at it.

I love you.