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By James Cairns


The Montréal Review, July 2023


Cultivate Your Garden by Gerry Bergstein
oil on paper


Because I teach courses on social and environmental justice, and because I’m the father of two young children, it’s not unusual for me to be asked how I cope with parenting during the ecological crisis. My answer includes the admission that forecasts of ecological catastrophe produce pictures in my mind of Gus and Winnie, some years from now, scuffing through the dust of the dried-up riverbed near our house in Paris, Ontario. They’re searching for food, green shoots or bugs. The fish are long gone, and plants grow only where the water used to run.

Turning over a rock, Gus grabs at a roach but his thin hands are slow and shaky. Winnie asks Gus, not for the first time, why their mom and I hadn’t prepared them for this. We’d driven a car, warmed the bedrooms with space heaters, flown to Florida one winter. Why hadn’t we told them disaster would strike so suddenly? Gus defends his dead parents, says we couldn’t have imagined how bad it would get or the swiftness of the collapse. But I’m imagining it right now.

Of course, the scene I’m imagining is absurd, a garish tapestry of Hollywood movie, parental guilt, and egocentrism. (In The Disenchanted Earth, Richard Seymour says fantasies of eco-apocalypse are more akin to dreams of your own funeral, everyone there mourning you, than science-informed visions of the future: “If you’re there to see it, you’re not really dead.”) The rivers near my home have their troubles, but even the bleakest projections do not show Gus and Winnie battling for survival on a moonscape.

Yet the existential threat of the climate crisis is real. We live in a world of rising sea-levels, desertification, routinized extreme weather, fresh-water shortages, ocean acidification, worsening air quality, biodiversity loss, the emergence of anti-biotic-resistant diseases, and other climate-related harm. Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of the Vunut Gwwitchin First Nation (Old Crow) in the Yukon says, “It’s going to be the blink of an eye before my great-grandchild is living in a completely different territory, and if that’s not an emergency, I don’t know what is.” The exaggerations of my eco-apocalyptic nightmare notwithstanding, there is plenty of reason to worry.

When I worry about the climate crisis, I’m in good company. In Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, Britt Wray tells stories of ecological destruction unleashing “tidal waves of grief, anxiety, pessimism, and existential dread” in people all over the world. People living on the frontlines of climate change - those surviving floods in Bangladesh, forest fires in Australia, hurricanes in the Caribbean - may deal with especially severe past trauma and fears of the future. But, Wray explains, even people without direct experience of eco­disaster are increasingly distraught by the state of the planet. Her interview subjects describe panic attacks, insomnia, relationship trouble, suicidal thoughts, all as result of eco-anxiety, what the American Psychological Association defines as the “chronic fear of environmental doom.”

Polls suggest that millions of people, young people especially, struggle with eco-anxiety to varying degrees. Catherine Hickman’s research describes young people furious with their parents for giving birth to them amid such dire times. Wray herself grappled for years with a question I hear often from my students: “When you confront head-on what scientific models say about the suicidal track we’re on, alongside the political establishment’s completely inadequate efforts to address it, is it okay to decide to bring a new person into this situation?”

Wray wants us to think about human-inflicted harm to the non-human environment and eco-anxiety as parts of a much broader “planetary health crisis.” Denying the crisis, disavowing our responsibility to do anything about it, is one dysfunctional response. Then there are those who breakdown completely in the face of climate apocalypse. How do we reduce the harm of climate change as much as possible is the essential question of our time. Wray says that part of answering that question is addressing another: How do we conceive of the crisis in a way that makes action psychically possible? How do we manage eco-anxiety?

At the start of each semester, I show my classes pictures of my family. Later in the term, when we talk about the climate crisis, students ask about my kids by name: “Are you hopeful for Gus and Winnie’s future?”

I have stock answers. The future is open-ended, I remind them. If mass movements for sustainability surge to dominance in the next decade, the harm caused by climate change could end up being considerably less than what seems likely today. I point them to Meehan Crist’s LRB article that frames the question of Earth’s finite resources away from talk of population limits towards “the way humans organize to use the available resources.” I remind them, quoting Liza Featherstone in Jacobin, that “Blaming female breeders and our rugrats for societal ills is not new,” but part of the centuries-long playbook of patriarchy. Or I talk about the value, the beauty of lives lived, even in terrible conditions. The people who lived (and died) at the centre of the Black Death, world wars, famines, and other horrific events: Would it have been better had those lives never existed?

Yet when I leave the theatrical environs of the lecture hall and drive home in the dark along the banks of the Grand River, my heart sinks. The reassurances I’ve given my students haven’t stopped me from worrying.

Partly, that’s because we are still so far from implementing even the thinnest-gruel plan for ecological sustainability. But what I don’t admit to my students - in fact, I hardly ever discuss it - is that the question of how I cope with parenting during the climate crisis triggers different parenting fears in me, fears that I experience as no less pressing a crisis. Because inasmuch as parenting has been about the rewards of offering unconditional love and watching human lives develop, my experience has been defined by fear - fear of something catastrophic happening to my kids now, or now, or now.


What if Winnie climbs the rail on the second-floor landing and drops fifteen feet to the floor? What if Gus drinks windshield wiper fluid? The parched riverbeds in my eco-nightmares are harmless; the real threats are the Grand and Nith rivers as they exist today, flowing with fresh water. A friendly dare to dive in the river gone wrong; a drunken stumble next to the water at night; falling through thin ice. I grew up in a small-town, and I survived each of these close-calls. But not everyone does. My kids could be lost to the river (or the main road through town, or the railway bridge, or the cliffs over the Grand, or a house fire, or (thank god no longer) SIDs, or meningitis, or a lightning strike). Yes, the eco-crisis might get them. But human life is fragile, vulnerable to more urgent threats.

One week after Winnie was born in 2021, my partner detected a white spot in the centre of the baby’s left pupil. In the weeks between the doctor referring us to a specialist and having that specialist offer her expert opinion, what does one do but Google “white spot baby eyeball”? And so we learned of retinoblastoma, a type of eye cancer usually found in babies. Looking into my small children’s eyes has been among the most life-affirming things I’ve ever done. Jess, my partner, has spent countless hours locking eyes with our children while feeding them at her breast. And in those first months, when we looked at Winnie, along with everything else we saw - the love, the wonder, the universe in a tiny face - we also saw an unidentified white spot.

Stop worrying, everyone said. The odds of it being something life-threatening are infinitesimal. Worrying doesn’t change things anyway.

And it wasn’t cancer. (It was a congenital cataract.) But, of course, we worried.

Last year, Gus woke in the night struggling to breathe. As I yelled to Jess to call an ambulance, my mind raced back to when I was twelve years old and learning CPR on the beach; and raced forward for a glimpse of the unthinkable. The ambulance arrived quickly. Gus was fine.

Tell parents these stories and they’ll tell you similar, and far scarier tales. Car crashes survived, concussions with lingering effects, death-defying fevers, dog-attacks fended off. This is precisely my point: my experience is the experience of every parent in my situation. The limits of what kids are capable of surviving are constantly being tested. Mortal threats are relentless. Yes, kids are resilient. And most of the time kids pass the test. If they’re not stronger because of surviving, at least they’re alive at the end. But not every kid survives every test. There are tragedies. And while fatal tragedies are exceptional, even more statistically unlikely among children in higher socio-economic groups, I never stop dreading them.

I used to assume that my worries over my children’s lives (perhaps I mean their deaths) were uniquely intense. But after talking to parents and reading parental memoirs, I’ve realized I’m not alone in my obsessions. In a 1978 interview with the Paris Review, Joan Didion said: “The death of children worries me all the time. It’s on my mind. Even I know that, and I usually don’t know what’s on my mind.” Didion’s daughter was 11 at the time of the interview; she died at age 39, following nearly two years of illness, when Didion was 71. In Keith Gessen’s memoir- of-fatherhood, Raising Raffi, he writes, “I do not know of a single parent who does not spend at least some time worrying about their child suddenly dying for no reason.”

Every parent I know has imagined their kids’ school as the site of a mass shooting. Every parent has checked, and checked again, that their sleeping newborn is continuing to breathe despite there being no rational reason for regular monitoring. Gessen says he stopped checking on his son’s breathing at night when Raffi was around three. The protagonist in Peter Ho Davies’ A Lie You Told Someone About Yourself “hasn’t been able to read books or watch movies with child-in-peril plots since he became a father. He knows he’d die for his child if it came to that - willingly, eagerly - because how to go on living without your child?”

In the Paris Review, Claudia Dey says mothers avoid talking about the central truth of parenthood: “with a child comes death.” Ideally, our children will live long, happy lives. What’s certain is that one day they will die. And once you face up to the fact that mothers are “makers of death,” writes Dey:

Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child - this is how the death presence makes you feel. The conversations I had with other new mothers stayed strictly within the bounds of the list [of practical tasks]: blankets, diapers, creams. Every conversation I had was the wrong conversation. No other mother congratulated me and then said: I’m overcome by the blackest of thoughts. You? This is why mothers don’t sleep, I thought to myself. This is why mothers don’t look away from their children.

In Harper’s, Perri Klass argues that anxiety and suffering over the death of children has increased as child mortality has decreased. Children have always died, and that has always been tragic. But prior to the middle of the twentieth century, and especially prior to 1900, it was common for families to lose a child. Not enough was known about sanitation or disease transmission. Medicine was nothing like it is today. There are accounts of tremendous sadness in the loss of children by John Adams, Charles Dickens, and others. There isn’t, however, the suggestion that the event was unique or especially unexpected. Klass believes that the rarity of children dying today may “make the grief harder to bear.”

It likely also makes today’s parents more anxious. Endless safety features on offer, medical advice on-demand. Every action encouraged to promote child safety is an invitation to imagine the death of the child.

It can feel as though parenting is a condition of chronic crisis, every moment the decisive one between your children living and dying. This doesn’t mean that life is chronically bad. I’m not using the term crisis here to mean things already destroyed, sudden disaster, or gradual decline. I’m using it to evoke the thrill of the high-stakes moment. Crisis as the Hail Mary pass, the period of disruption in which danger and opportunity reside in equal measure, and from which redemption, even glory, are just as possible as failure and ruin. Whatever is human can be destroyed at any moment. And to the extent that parents assume responsibility for the care of their kids, parenting is the ultimate crisis, one I doubt will ever end.


Why does my fear of the eco-crisis lead me to fear the immediate loss of my children? The fears are so different. The threat of ecological collapse is global, social, and animated by models of probability. The threat of my children disappearing suddenly hardly amounts to a speck of dust on the map. The one fear is rational; the second is irrational. Why are they fused in my mind?

Both are high stakes fears - matters of life and death - with no guarantee that everything will be OK. Mortal threat to what matters most to me without the possibility of vanquishing the threat. When and how will climate change end? How much time do we have to change course? What can we do, what can I do, that will make a lick of difference? It’s impossible to say. That’s terrifying.

While far less worrying statistically speaking, no less terrifying to me is that my children are fragile creatures in the here and now. As Montaigne (who lost five of his six children) once said: “Death can surprise us in so many ways.” No matter how dutifully and wisely I care for them, protect them, prepare them for the vicissitudes of a life, my kids are, because they’re human, vulnerable to accident, to cruel acts of fate.

In short, in both situations - global and local - while in very different degrees and with very different consequences, I lack a sense of control. Psychologists studying the fear of uncertainty describe the pain of not knowing whether and when expectations will be violated. Crisis situations magnify the fear that worse is to come. By virtue of a situation being a crisis, it is not certain how things will turn out; the situation could go either way. The patient may recover or die. Earth may become largely uninhabitable during our children’s lifetime, or eco-apocalypse may be averted. Our children might live long, happy lives, and they might be struck down tomorrow. We desire, maybe even fight for the crisis to be resolved this way rather than that way. But from within the chaos of the crisis, we cannot know how it will end.

In Corey Robin’s book on the politics of fear, he notes that “fear is the first emotion experienced by a character in the Bible.” God creates and looks upon heaven and Earth. Adam and Eve, before they’re afraid, simply exist: they are. They see their garden. They name things. We’re told: “they were not ashamed.” Only once they face God’s wrath, after eating the forbidden fruit, are they moved by experience. “Afraid, they are awash in experience, with God promising even more - for Eve the pain of childbirth, for Adam the duress of work, for both the dread knowledge of death.”

Fear is among the great movers of Western literature. Fear of death (in Hamlet, in Keats, in DeLillo), of the supernatural (in The Shining, in The Turn of the Screw), of nature (in Moby Dick), of losing love (in Romeo and Juliet) of going mad (in Raskalnikov, in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart), of failing to live well (in Pride and Prejudice, in Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending), of history (in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, in Marias’ Thus Bad Begins), of the future (in dystopias by Atwood and Butler).

The sociologist Frank Furedi argues that we live in a “culture of fear” today unlike at any point in history. People have always been afraid, of course - of death, of beasts, of the unknown. But, Ferudi says, before the second half of the twentieth century, fear was something to be overcome, an emotion to be understood and managed within a broader cultural framework. The West’s dominant “cultural script’ from antiquity to the Second World War prized courage, heroism, and respect for authority. You learned to fear in relation to deep trust in human agency, creativity, and progress. In the postwar decades, says Furedi, as the power of these cultural scripts has faded, fear has become the cardinal emotion, the language through which we express ourselves and know each other. “In the absence of a script offering a perspective on how to fear, fear itself has become a perspective through which life is interpreted” (his emphasis).

In our culture of fear, public space is choked by safety warnings - placards on the beach warning of “uneven surfaces,” a sign at a cemetery warning that “‘all memorials have the potential to harm.” You get one group of parents worrying that the sun will give their kids skin cancer, a different group worrying that sunblock is poisoning their kids, and a third group worrying that their kids aren’t getting enough sun. People are compelled to act by “fear appeals” - constant warnings about “‘risky behaviour’, ‘unhealthy choices’ or ‘green sins.’” And, I suppose, you get an essay like this one, rhapsodizing on fears true and false.

Furedi ends his book with a plea for “a less fearful future.” Dispense with trauma- clutching therapy. Stop labelling children “at risk.” Celebrate the human capacity for problem­solving, resilience, bravery, and social progress. Stop being so afraid of everything.

The authors of Overcoming Parental Anxiety use neuroscience to locate my fear problem in my lizard brain. We’re hardwired to be on high alert, they say. You can’t blame the amygdala for sending out “a cacophony of catastrophic cognitions”, but you can train the prefrontal cortex to better manage your irrational fears, so “you will no longer be held captive by your worry thoughts but instead can choose how and when to respond to them.” My fear of uncertainty, I am assured, can be overcome through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

A recent study published in Current Psychology concludes that environmental activism can be “a buffer” against climate change anxiety. Loss of biodiversity got you down? Can’t sleep because the ice shelves of Antarctica are splashing into the sea? Try this (actual examples of “actions” in the study): “Avoiding disposable, single use material [...] Educating oneself about environmental science [...] Spreading awareness (online, sending emails to elected officials, talking to other people about climate change.” Forget that the ecological impact of these actions is virtually nil, because “engaging in collective action may combat feelings of despair and helplessness and foster feelings of hope.”

Thomas Doherty, an Oregon-based psychologist specializing in environmental anxiety, says that beyond making green consumer decisions, parents can do little about climate change other than “simply to bear witness to the issue.” He cautions parents against assuming it’s their responsibility to fix the problem. When it comes to facing the eco-crisis, says Doherty, the key thing for parents is to act knowing “that even with the dire scenarios predicted, there are going to be good days in the future. There will be bad days: disasters, fires, floods. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be sunny, good days for ourselves and for our families.”


It’s difficult for me to adopt any of these approaches for overcoming my greatest fears. Not so much because I think they wouldn’t work, but because each starts from the premise that my fears are overblown, irrational, something to be gotten over. The fact that my fears are comprised of a jumble of facts and gut feelings, statistical probabilities and what Lee Clarke calls “possibilistic thinking,” real threats and worst-case scenarios, doesn’t make them less valid, less meaningful. They are meaning itself. I question the honesty, at least the humaneness, of others who don’t feel as I do. If clinging to my fears is absurd, don’t blame the dysfunction of an individual mind. Blame the absurdity of the situation we’re in.

Albert Camus, the Algerian-French writer and Resistance fighter, described the absurd as “the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” Humans want full understanding and control; but the world is not fully knowable, and it’s ruled in large measure by chance. Camus called existence absurd because of the contradiction between our big questions - What is the meaning of life? How do I know? How should I live? - and the impossibility of answering those questions by reference to any external system, religious or otherwise.

Dithering Machine by Gerry Bergstein
oil and collage

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus described the absurd as both a concept for analyzing human experience, and a part of everyday life. Think of the monotony of the working week - “rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday according to the same rhythm.” This is it? What’s the point? Being aware (whether fleetingly or constantly) of the banality of our habits, the drudgery of our days, the failure of our accomplishments to quench our thirst for meaning, may lead you to ask yourself, in the absurdist poetry of Talking Heads: “‘What is that beautiful house?’ You may ask yourself, ‘Where does that highway go to?’ And you may ask yourself, ‘Am I right, am I wrong?’ And you may say to yourself, ‘My God, what have I done?’”

Whatever else it is, it is absurd that we know that burning fossil fuel destroys the basis of life, even as we burn it in world-destroying batches every minute. It is absurd to be hurtling toward eco-apocalypse and continue doing the very things driving us there - rising, streetcar (though more likely a car), hours in the factory or office, repeat. Politicians set eco-targets - the Kyoto Protocols, the Paris Accords - and smash through their limits without penalty, evidently without shame, and without any action to suggest next time will be different. Heads of state, corporate bosses, philosophers and religious leaders tell us the environment is sacred, life matters. Meanwhile, forests are felled, the oceans are poisoned, and a million and one luxury resorts go on washing unused towels. A World Cup of soccer is held in the desert. It’s absurd.

As a parent, it is absurd that the heart of my existence, the meaning and material of my life, my kids, could be gone in a flash, yet I must act as though this isn’t the case, and I’m encouraged to stop thinking about it. It’s also absurd - cosmically unfair, cruel by chance - that I have the means, time, and space to experience such joy while billions of humans never will. It’s absurd that I worry so much about my family when the risks to my little kin group are so small. That I can know all these problems and envision how they might be fixed while feeling incapable to do anything about it, this is the experience of the absurd.

Philosophers and activists have dismissed the absurdist orientation for fomenting despair. Camus would say they’ve missed the point: “To observe that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning. . . . What interests me is not this discovery [of life’s absurd character], but the consequences and rules of action we must draw from it.” In Camus’ biography, embracing absurdity involved exposing abuses of power, supporting free speech, dialogue, and fighting oppression. The great philosopher of the absurd was also the chief editor of Combat, a clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance. His absurdist orientation involved savoring sensual pleasures - the sun on our skin, fresh air (and French cigarettes) in our lungs - because the time for living out our humanity is now, not in a future perfected society, not in the afterlife (which, Camus believed, doesn’t exist).

What does an absurdist disposition do for me as I grapple with my fears of uncertainty, fears that manifest both in the context of parenting amid eco-crisis, and in the ultimate crisis of parenting more broadly? It creates space to attend to the contradictions of crisis. It means being honest about my fear, fatigue, rage, and periodic despair without embracing defeatism. Put the other way around, it means acting with purpose, with the intent to effect change, both privately and politically, without illusions about the consequences of my actions. Being paralyzed in fear or despondency in the face of death is not truly living. Yet it’s also delusional to live as though death is of no concern, can be put off for later consideration. Montaigne again: “We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.”

An absurd orientation maintains the tension between our love of life, and the guarantee that we will die. We recognize that human knowledge and power is limited, but we strive ceaselessly to learn and to transform the world. We are committed to fairness, justice, and progress, while seeing brutality everywhere and knowing well the cruelty of chance. We do this not in spite of our humanity, or to somehow escape humanity’s flaws. We do it to live as our fullest selves. The absurdist stance means letting go of every false hope, every empty platitude of reassurance, while proceeding to act with the intent of resolving the crisis this way instead of that way.

Survey by Gerry Bergstein
Oil on canvas

Blanche Verlie’s book Learning to Live with Climate Change talks of the “guaranteed uncertainty” in our relationship with the environment. Living with climate change “is not about becoming resigned to climate change, giving up or thinking that it is too late to do anything.” It does, however, mean recognizing that “future ways of living-with will be radically different to those we have come to know and/or love, and involves grieving for the losses we are already experiencing and those that are yet to come.” We nourish the forces of life-making by keeping our destructiveness and mortality at the forefront of our mind, even as we strive to live as long and richly as possible.

Part of being human, core to the experience of the absurd, is the impulse to resist. Resist climate change, fascism, corruption and lies, resist threats to our loved ones, resist death itself. But we resist with no guarantee. Worse: we resist with the guarantee that we and everyone we love will die, and it will be as though none of us were ever born. In 2023, we resist when the forces of ecological death are still far stronger than the forces of life-making. Historians talk about Europe in 1914 sleepwalking into war. Will we wake up before the sixth extinction is irreversible? I don’t know. None of us do. But I’d rather embrace not-knowing as part of our clear-eyed struggle with absurdity than dismiss it as a catastrophizing remnant of my lizard brain, or calm myself with political platitudes about the forces of justice being undefeatable.

There’s no quelling my fear that harm will come to my children. My attachment to them is beautiful and bourgeois, nourishing and needy, noble and unnecessary. I doubt I’ll stop worrying about their fates, nor will I give up my effort to defend against every imaginable risk, but I understand that the pumping of their hearts is beyond my control. Absurd reasoning involves struggling for humane resolutions to the crisis of parenting, the crisis of parenting during the eco-crisis, while, like Camus’ Sisyphus, knowing “the whole extent of [our] wretched condition.”


One of my favourite things to do with my kids is throw stones in the rivers near our home. When I’m at the rivers with Gus and Winnie, I think about our relationship to the Earth, and the strangeness of the passage of time. I sense the truth in Heraclitus’ dictum: You cannot step in the same river twice. The water is moving and we are growing older. Flow, change, mutability, ephemerality. This is the river; this is us.

Of course, as Heraclitus well knew, you can step in the same river twice. The river moves, but it stays still. And when I look at the Grand, I picture people stepping in the same spots for centuries. Haudenosaunee hunters, European explorers, labourers, tourists, fishers, kids, my kids: Gus and Winnie. History is here, along with the fish and bugs and green goose shit. And the Grand isn’t just here in Paris, it’s downriver in Brantford, too, then in Oshweken on the Six Nations Reserve, through Caledonia, Cayuga, Dunnville, and Port Maitland before flowing into Lake Erie. Imagine where the river starts. Bubbling up from the ground? Liquid thread connecting Belwood to Elora to Cambridge to Glen Morris and a million nameless places along the way - the rocks that herons stand on; the beer bottles smashed against bridge abutments; crayfish graves, a sunken shopping cart, campsites, and osprey nests. Paris’ rivers are the core of the ecosystem around us.

Although I tend to think of the rivers’ life-giving power when I’m standing next to them with Gus and Winnie, rivers symbolize death, too. The River Styx. Michael row your boat ashore. People can drown in rivers. The remains of a baby washed up in the lower Grand last summer. In the New Hamburg area of the river Nith alone, 27 people have drowned since 1871. A fact and a symbol of life, death, time passing, our animalistic being: no wonder my kids scuffing through the parched riverbed is what I see when think about the environmental crisis.


James Cairns is a professor of Law & Society at Wilfrid Laurier University. His most recent book is The Myth of the Age of Entitlement: Millennials, Austerity, and Hope (University of Toronto Press, 2017). He is the co-author, with Alan Sears, of A Good Book, in Theory (2015), and The Democratic Imagination (2012). James lives in Paris, Ontario, where he is the Community Relations Director for the Riverside Reading Series (https://www.riversideseries.com/). James is a staff writer for the Hamilton Review of Books (http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/our-editors-and-staff-writers). 


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