David Attenborough Helps Me Explain the Climate Crisis to My Son
I use his favorite David Attenborough shows to help me explain my climate activism
Where do the ladybugs come from? Who are the birds singing to? Let’s learn about lions, Mama!
Sometimes, what I do confuses my kid.
Why will you be gone before breakfast? he asks. Are you coming back? Will you be there to pick me up from school?
After years of togetherness, absence is jarring, newsworthy—slippery ground. Yes, I will be there. I do not say I promise, since there are no promises. Nothing certain. I try to explain. I am going to the bank to tell them to stop doing bad things, to stop hurting people and communities. I have been a climate activist for fifteen years, but even I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the enormity and the abstract nature of what I do. How can what I do as an individual affect any kind of global change? I have so many questions of my own; they often go unanswered. So much of what I do is about faith: in myself, in my community, in our strategy, in any kind of possibility.
My son has even more questions. What bad things? Who are they hurting?
Wells Fargo is a massive funder of fossil fuel projects, including the second-largest funder of fracking in California. We put this on banners, and it fits just fine into a talking point or sound bite for local media. But climate finance is a bit abstract for a four-year-old. I explain it this way to my son: Do you remember the elephants looking for water? Do you remember the orangutans with no trees left to hide them? Do you remember how the ice is disappearing? I try to remind him of the things he loves. He remembers. I’m going to tell the bad people to stop.
I use his favorite David Attenborough shows to help me explain my climate activism, because if I had to do it by myself, it would come out too sad and terrible. It would make him jaded, and I cannot allow that. I want my child to grow old falling in love with the world, laughing with it.
He already knows what fire season is. He tells me in the bath, California doesn’t have enough water. Let’s turn it off. I remember packing go bags with water bottles and his favorite stuffed animals and my grandmother’s glass pitcher, with a picture of Shirley Temple on the outside. I wrapped it gently in a merino top, good for layering if we are on the road for a couple of days. I do not tell my child about the evacuation plan, but he can feel the tension during fire season. He can feel the mood break when it finally rains. We join hands around the breakfast table and say that we are thankful for the rain. He is thankful to be able to wear his dinosaur rain boots to school. I am grateful our home may live to see another season.
Instead of dropping off my son at school, I take the train downtown to the meeting place, we all have a last pee, a last check-in, like children going on a field trip. The members of my affinity group ask about my child. How old is he now? He’s growing up so fast! How does he like school? I show them pictures on my phone. We walk a few blocks, and with calm and fluency, the team locks themselves to the wheel of the Wells Fargo stagecoach in the corporate museum lobby—the brass plaque on the side says that it’s original. This was one of the early vehicles that “pioneered” the West, and Wells Fargo keeps it in the lobby to remind us of their history.
The bike chain loops around the wheel and then around my friend. Slow is fast, fast is smooth, we say. Practice until your body doesn’t know how to do it wrong.
The building manager asks if we have a letter to deliver to the bank manager: a set of demands, something tangible that they can hold in their hands before they ignore it, something that an intern will sweep from a sad conference table into a recycling bin, along with empty cans of off-brand La Croix. We have been demanding the same thing for more than a decade now: Stop funding the fossil fuel projects that are cooking our planet.
I do not say this to the building manager but instead explain that we attempted to deliver a letter last month, that the bank manager refused to take it, and what now. Am I doomed to walk around the Bay Area until the end of my days with letters for bank managers that they would prefer to pretend do not exist?
This is what keeps me from my child’s breakfast this morning. This is why I am missing nuzzles at school drop-off. This is the kind of insulting shit we put up with. And yet I do this because, at some point, I will have to account for myself to my child. What did you do, Mama, when you knew? I want to have an answer that will satisfy him.
The building manager laughs. He doesn’t work for the bank, but that’s good to know, he says. They probably wish they’d taken your letter, he says. I do not tell him it wouldn’t have made a difference. We would be here locked to their antique stagecoach’s wheels no matter what. It took me more than four tries to get arrested at Wells Fargo protesting their complicity in fossil fuel expansion. What finally pushed them over the edge? We commandeered their corporate museum, full of historical artifacts of their corporate colonialism. San Francisco is where they first settled: self-styled heroes who now fund the fracking projects that are stealing my son’s bathwater.
There are a dozen folks locked to one another, and we are singing, our voices lifting in the bank atrium. The banners my friend made, flawless as ever. We huddle together, making jokes and sharing intel. Some of these people have been my outlaw friends for more than fifteen years. They are the ones who have waited for me outside of jail and the ones who brought me food when my son was born and scrounged the box of free Patagonia gear for a jacket for my son. When I was pregnant with my son, these were the people with whom I linked arms against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They were the ones who joked that I was getting arrested for two.
It is hard to explain what intentionally breaking the law with other people does to a set of friendships. I know, intimately, how they behave when risk is high. I like how we solve problems together. When it is time, we are in the streets with each other three nights a week. We sit close: on video meetings, huddled around a campfire, coediting the press release in Google Docs, daring each other to take our words a little further. To incite something that will make a difference.
We have lost fights and won them: defeated pipelines and protected sacred places. We have built power in places where there was little. We have watched tepid groups nibble around the edges, trying to play nice with big banks. Our group has tried to take bigger, more daring bites.
I want my child to love the world, to speak of it with the same awe and care that David Attenborough does. I want him to believe that it is beautiful enough to be worth protecting. I do not yet want him to know the real horror of climate change, but when he does, I want him to know that I tried.
To incite something that will make a difference.
My child and I are watching the bird of paradise in New Guinea perform his mating ritual, an elaborate courtship ritual. David Attenborough’s voice drops, in reverence. He tells us that the male begins by cleaning the forest floor of the detritus and debris that accumulates each night. Females of this particular bird of paradise species will only be attracted to the cleanest areas. The male picks up any leaves or little twigs and smooths his space, preparing his dance floor. The music swells. It is time. When the female arrives, the male leaps into action: He bows, his blue eye turns yellow (really!), and he begins a twirling dance. Finally, he flashes his colorful throat patch. My son gasps and claps his hands.
The poet Maggie Smith begins her poem “Good Bones” (one of my favorites) with this: “Life is short, though I keep this from my children.” And this is what we are all doing for our children, keeping the secret that the generations before have ransomed their future. We are promising them the world and, all too often, failing to deliver it in one piece.
Some of us have been doing direct action against Wells Fargo for well over a decade. I had a particularly bad run of luck during 2011, where I was part of three different protests and we tried to get arrested—and each time, they refused. They didn’t want the bad press that comes from pictures of people in handcuffs being marched away from their tidy, marble-clad bank branch. They do not want to sully themselves or stoop to our level.
This time, they are pissed. We have dared to besmirch their precious Wells Fargo stagecoach, which, I am horrified to learn from the plaque during our action, was supposed to fit nine people inside. My friend Lynn guesses six, maximum. I say, Only if they were sitting on each other’s laps. This is the way you fill your time during a protest, in a city where direct action is so common. They’re bickering about overtime and we are discussing the finer points of the Clif Bars someone is passing around.
Even in our generally cheerful mood, we remember what the cops are capable of—how many times it’s gone very wrong. We try to play it cool, but we watch how they interact with the people of color and visibly queer people in our group, ready to move if we need to. We have legal observers to take notes, and we take photographs. We try not to let ourselves get complacent, no matter how practiced it feels.
And we work to ensure that I’m done in time to do school pickup. This is part of our group credo as well: the unspoken belief that we are allowed to be civilians sometimes, to go enjoy the mundane, seemingly insignificant moments.
Like when, lately, my child has asked to pretend that we are a family of lions. He takes turns assigning the role of the baby. Some days, I am the baby, and he wraps his arms around me and strokes my face. Other nights, he tells me that he is the baby, and I cradle his growing frame in my arms and whisper, Oh, I love you, my baby. He makes small lion’s roars, and then he tells me about the kid who was mean to him at school today, and we are no longer pretending. We are our own ecosystem, ever shifting, always on the lookout for predators.
I do not tell him that they are everywhere. I don’t want him looking for trouble the way I do. Not yet.
A couple of years ago, my child’s school closed for two weeks due to the smoke from the fires. It was too dangerous, with the pandemic, to have the windows closed. It was too dangerous, with the fires, to have the windows open. Everything everywhere was dangerous and full of risk. So we stayed in our house with our air purifiers and counted ourselves as lucky. One day, looking out the windows at the hummingbirds and the trucks, my child looked into my face with great seriousness. The look on his face like a full moon, glowing and ominous. I listened, gulping his words like an elixir.
Mama, if it stops burning, do you think we can go outside next week?
I say yes. I do not promise.
I check the air quality diligently. This is what it is to be a parent in the Bay Area these days. As an activist, I am already attuned to risk and used to making something from nothing. As a parent-activist, I am a climatologist, psychologist, meteorologist, chef, librarian, legal expert, epidemiologist, and industrial-supply-chain manager. Criminal when I need to be.
In reality, I haven’t done anything on my own in fifteen years: I have my team. We manage risk together. We lean on each other’s expertise. They give me hope when I have none, and I show up with the good snacks and the baby pictures, lifting their spirits in return.
I cross my fingers and hope that the wind will shift and the rain will put out the fires, so that my child can look at the sky again with that same sense of awe and reverence. Until we can, I plop my son in front of Planet Earth, so David Attenborough can remind us of what we both love. When my child returns to school, he sees his friends outside and takes their hands. They hug each other without self-consciousness. They say, let’s run! And then they do.
Christy Tending (she/they) is an activist, writer, and mama living in Oakland, California. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Catapult, Ms., The Citron Review, and trampset, among others. You can learn more about her work at www.christytending.com or follow her on Twitter @christytending.