Solving The Carbon Problem
11.18.10

"I think I've figured out the carbon problem," says my seven-year-old son. It's Monday morning, early, and I'm still half asleep. He stands next to my bed, already dressed and dancing with excitement.

Rewind a day or so. He and I lay on our backs in the mid-afternoon sunlight, staring up at the sky, wearing t-shirts in mid-November in northeast Ohio. It is almost 70 degrees. "Isn't this great?" he says.

I pause to consider his question carefully.

I have two main jobs as a dad, you see. The first is to give my kid a good childhood, to secure his happiness, to protect him from the burdens of the world. The second is to prepare him in every possible way for the future he stands to inherit. I can answer his question in a manner that will satisfy one of these, but not both.

Ultimately I choose to be honest with him about the theories behind weather like this, despite the knowledge that this will rob him of a certain innocence, perhaps too soon. Still, it is the only choice. I am determined to do my part to raise a generation that transcends the inertia of its predecessors. I know I must begin with this moment, because I do not have the same luxury of time that my parents and grandparents enjoyed.

So I explain the intricacies of climate change, the effect of carbon in the atmosphere, the country's dependence on fossil fuel. I explain melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels in the context of an underwater Boston (where he was born).

"Hmm," he says. "But I like Boston the way it is."

I am taken by his reaction, not so much by the words, but by the manner in which he says them. I detect no sadness or fear. His tone is one of pure defiance, and I can sense the wheels already turning in his head.

That night, I overhear him telling his little brother that there won't be any snow this winter. "Global warming," he whispers matter-of-factly. "But we can fix it." And he wastes no time.

Back to Monday. I'm awake now, propped up on one elbow. "So let's hear your solution," I say.

"It's easy," he replies. "We'll put solar panels on everything. On our cars, on our houses, on the school." He's clearly been thinking about this for hours. He's even figured out how best to retrofit the gasoline engines and oil furnaces to be compatible with solar energy, and explains this to me in great detail, using models built out of legos.

I praise him for his good ideas but send him off to school with a brief explanation of economics - the relative affordability of fossil fuels, the high cost of solar panels, the spectrum of household income levels, government and corporate influence. He just smiles at me. He is unfazed.

When I get home from work, he is waiting at the door. "Daddy," he says. "The solution is that this doesn't have to be all one thing or the other thing right away." He then presents me with the plan he's worked on all afternoon, which outlines how families at all income levels can transition from fossil fuels to solar energy, albeit at different speeds. It begins with every household getting one solar panel ("just one!"), perhaps on loan from the government ("like they did with the banks!"). "Since solar energy is free," he says, "you can take the money you save by using that one panel and buy more panels, and keep going until you have enough panels to not need fossil fuels anymore. Sure it'll take some people longer than others, but everyone could get there eventually, right?"

It occurs to me that my seven-year-old has ideas that are more impressive than those of several politicians I've heard speaking on TV. Before I can tell him this, he's off to play some game on his Wii.

I believe that the children of each generation are probably born with all of the answers. Then they begin to grow up - which we see as our cue to slowly, systematically mold them into versions of ourselves - and those answers are lost forever.

There's a lot we can do to combat climate change: conserve energy and water, recycle, compost, drive less. But perhaps more important than any of these things, and even easier: when our children tell us they know how to fix the world, let's listen to them and not muck up the simplicity of their ideas with our own damaged perspectives. Some lessons are better handed up than down.

Children love the planet in pure and uncomplicated terms. We should allow them to teach us what modern civilization has seduced us into unlearning.