Amy Seidl is an ecologist and teaches at the University of Vermont. She is the author of Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming and Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World.
Last Mother’s Day, I woke to a rainy, chilly day, one that nonetheless began nicely with breakfast in bed—poached eggs and toast, tea, and a cupful of my own coconut yogurt. “What next Mom?” four year-old Helen asks. “I’d like to walk in the woods.” I say. “Let’s check in on the spring flowers, the migratory songbirds, and newly unfurling ferns. Maybe collect some wild leeks for dinner.” “It’s raining,” they complain. “But it’s Mother’s Day,” Dad replies firmly.
We dress and prepare to leave the house for a local trail. Helen chooses her own wardrobe for the rainy outing—Crocs, a pair of tights under a summer dress, and her favorite hat with a butterfly stitched in the front. An hour later, we are all damp to the skin and heading for home to light a fire and make tea. But we have managed to hear and see the rose-breasted grosbeak, to identify four species of fern, to marvel at the rare white trillium, and to collect a handful of wild leeks. Not a bad catch for a raw, 40-degree day.
Then the idea of a matinee comes up. We check Netflix: Earth and Monsters vs. Aliens emerge as options. The four of us crowd around the laptop to watch the previews. Mother/infant pairs of humpback whales swim in an immense ocean, elephant herds famous for their bonding are tracked across Africa, and baby polar bears—the icons of climate change—nurse from their mother’s teats before exiting icy dens and encountering an all-too bright and warm world. James Earl Jones’ voice draws me like a preacher, but the children grumble, “We’ve seen all this on Planet Earth.”
Next we preview Monsters vs. Aliens. Ginormica, the 10-story tall monster with Disney eyes to die for, is skating across the San Francisco Bridge while a genetically-engineered blue tomato swallows highway medians and extraterrestrial aliens land in Modesto, bent on capturing the speck of a planet the locals there call Earth. The trailer is hilarious, funny, silly, and captivatingly colorful.
Can we make a film that addresses a future affected by climate change as captivating as sci-fi monsters saving humanity from aliens? As good a question is, should we?
I raise my children in a TV-free household. Much of our media comes through the radio, and Celia knows to turn the NPR station off when the news of a car bombing or other inappropriate material is aired. My children receive National Geographic and National Geographic Kids Magazine, along with an occasional catalog. We take weekly trips to the library for story hour and kids book group. But by and large my husband and I deftly censor the entrance to media, opening doors to information we deem suitable and in keeping with our values and closing doors to information that is contrary to our beliefs –violence, a culture of consumption, and the overly sexualized characterization of girls and women being chief among them. (Does the Title 9 catalog fall into this category? I’m still deciding…surely the Athleta one does.)
Still, it isn’t difficult to see where the marketers are making inroads. Scholastic Book Sales at the school introduce Hannah Montana, books featuring TV characters, and cheap gadgets and toys. The library at my daughter’s small school (6 grades and 130 children) now carries American Girl Magazine, a newly created zine full of tween marketing strategy, with articles on room redecorating and birthday party themes. Even though my children are not seeing the 100 commercials a day viewed by TV-watching children, the $15 billion spent each year on advertising and marketing to children manages to pervade even the most “gated” households. My point is that I’m finding it increasingly hard to instill positive values—ones that resonate with the message of why, for instance, we need to stop climate change—in the context of a consumer culture that explicitly targets children.
While we may want to educate our young about climate change—explaining why there is no pond hockey at Christmas, or why the hollyhocks that used to bloom around my daughter’s birthday are now blooming well before, or why we are walking 8 miles down Vermont’s Route 7 with a thousand other people carrying signs that read “Save our Syrup”—we need to do it in the context of a culture that is just waking up to the certainty that climate change is happening. Happening now.
Children are wise. But they also have short attention spans. From my own experience I know that when I go down the path of overtly educating my children about global warming, often triggered by an extreme weather event like March’s heat wave, I am likely to hear one of the following: “Can I have a play date?” (Helen) or “I’m going to go ride my bike” (Celia). This is not to say that they aren’t taking the information in, aren’t mulling it over while they shift into low gear to get up the hill. But what I realize is that children orient themselves toward fun; a little bit of sober information goes a long, long way.
Enter the marketers who understand that fun for children is what it’s all about; colorful fun—crazy blues, electric greens, hilarious yellow—silly and giddy and popping-out fun. Like the eyes on Ginormica, the spandex-clad star of Monsters vs. Aliens. Every bit animated and every bit sultry, Ginormica hits, neurologically speaking, the bull’s eye for every child’s attention.
As adults concerned about global warming, what we want is for our message to be factually accurate, long-lived, one that serves to evolve a new set of values, or to strengthen values already in place. But I believe the message has to on some level be enjoyable too, something people want to be a part of, something kids want to do.
I don’t have an answer here except to say that marketing and our own literacy in it has to be part of the equation. The messages we give to our children land in a greater context than the one we create in our households; parents of children older than mine can attest to the superpower strength of these other contexts. They are powerful, and highly strategic, as Juliet Schor concludes in her book Born to Buy on how advertising and marketing sells to children. But our messages are powerful too. And they can be more powerful with better strategies.
Talking with children about climate change is in essence talking to ourselves about our own stewardship of the planet. The response to the facts, in our minds as well as theirs, quickly becomes, “Why do we keep emitting greenhouse gases knowing what we do?” or “What are we doing to stop global warming?” The fact is we are collectively complicit and therefore collectively responsible to come up with solutions, ones that will define our future.
I would have much preferred to watch the nature documentary on Mother’s Day, so I wasn’t in a great mood after watching my daughter’s choice of film. I won’t give away the ending of the movie, but suffice to say the monsters go up against an even larger crisis than climate change, an unwinnable one. But when I put Helen to bed that night, tucked her in against the raw chill that had continued into the evening, she recited the four species of fern we’d learned on our walk: oak, marsh, sensitive, and lady.