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Neat-Freak or World-Saver? My two-year-old conservationist

Lately my daughter Aria, who will be two in September, has become highly sensitive to disorder. She scans the world for anything that is marred, ajar, off-center. If the corner of a rug is flipped over, she shouts, “What a mess!” and smoothes it down. If she spots nicks in the walls, she tries to rub them out. Last week I found her standing next to a clothes heap in my closet, muttering “vewy big mess” as she ran her palm over a rumpled blouse. Yesterday when we were building a tower, she stopped suddenly and peered inside my left eye where she examined the scattering of brown flecks in the green iris. “Oh no, Mama,” she whispered. “Mess.” She licked her index finger and tried to polish my eyeball saying, “Arya cwean up.”

Why this fixation with messes and cleaning? At first I blamed my neat-freak husband. He’s the kind of guy who folds his underwear in thirds and hunts dust bunnies like a feral predator. I warned him not make Aria mess-averse, reasoning that chaos is creative – imperfection is beauty!

But my husband wasn’t the source of Aria’s obsession. I realized this as I drove to the grocery store one recent evening listening to NPR’s Terri Gross discussing the aftermath of the “horrendous mess” in the Gulf of Mexico. “Uh oh, Mexico,” Aria intoned from the back seat, “Howendus mess. Arya cwean up.”

Three months had elapsed since the BP’s Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and Terri Gross was not the first person Aria had heard discussing this subject. Because I write about power and oil for a living, the coverage was on at our house nonstop. For months she had been absorbing radio shows, newscasts and dinner conversations about the oil spill – not understanding the details of it, of course, but registering the broader cultural concern.

That car ride was the first time I had connected the dots between the macroscopic oil-spill challenge and Aria’s microscopic interpretation of it. She seemed to be translating the abstract mess affecting an entire nation to a scale that she could understand – a controlled realm of tiny nicks and wrinkled clothes and speckled irises, a realm where she could offer her cleaning services.

I may well be reading too far into it. The truth is, it’s convenient for me to explain Aria’s behavior this way because it happens to mirror my own response to big-picture challenges – in particular, those related to energy. I spent the last three years writing the book Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair with Energy, (released October, 2009 and out in paperback next month). The book investigates a massive, messy issue – America’s addiction to fossil fuels – through the microcosm of my own life and travels. Aria arrived at the end of this book journey. The gestation of Power Trip and the gestation of Aria were almost identical, in fact. I started writing Chapter 1 when I was about three days pregnant, and I submitted the manuscript 54 minutes before going into labor.

Reporting the book required travel, and Aria was along for much of the ride. I was five months pregnant with her during my visits to Kansas cornfields, inside the Pentagon, and into the guts of New York City’s electrical grid. I was seven months pregnant with her on a flight through a violent thunderstorm to a Texas wind farm in T. Boone Pickens’ private jet; eight months when we ascended by forklift the exterior of a 950-foot skyscraper in midtown Manhattan.

It was possibly reckless to try and produce a book and a baby at the same time, particularly when the reporting involved some risky adventuring, and I was only able to complete the manuscript with a continuous stream of nocturnal writing binges. But I convinced myself that she was OK with it all. She didn’t kick much, for instance, but had an uncanny knack for jabbing my ribs or thwacking my stomach when I started losing steam during all-night deadlines – nudging me back in the action. I had a sense that, for better or worse, she was somehow aware of the pressure I was under and that the experience of reporting and writing the book – the excitement as well as the stress of it – was imprinting upon her psyche.

Far-fetched, maybe, but there’s no question that the Power Trip experience imprinted upon my own psyche as a parent. Once Aria was born, I was acutely aware, for one thing, that our lives became more petroleum-dependent. I took an inventory of the countless parenting essentials – diapers, car seat, strollers, high-chair, bottles, pacifiers, sippy cups, toys, ointments, aspirin, cough syrup, soaps, babyfood, play mats, lunch boxes, baggies, photographs – that contain petrochemicals. I calculated our increased heating and air conditioning costs when my husband and I moved into a bigger house to accommodate kids. And with every car trip to the library, the grocery store, the park and the pediatrician, I would note how much more travel my life involved.

Friends sometimes ask: Don’t you get depressed thinking about all the oil byproducts you’re using? And, given my concerns about climate change, terrorism, and other problems stemming from our fossil fuel usage, they wonder: Weren’t you reluctant to bring a child into this world in the first place? The answer is no, on both counts. I’m an energy optimist. I consider it an industrial triumph that we found so many applications for fossil fuels during the 20th century. The unintended consequences are unquestionably severe, but I’m confident that we can solve them with a new generation of clean-energy technologies. It was American ingenuity that got us into this mess, I reason, and American ingenuity will get us out of it.

Not that it will be easy. The United States is struggling with an energy obesity epidemic – we consume roughly 30 to 50 percent more energy per day than our industrial competitors in Europe and Japan. It’s our job as consumers – and as parents, who are among the biggest energy consumers – to cut down our fossil fuel use and begin switching to cleaner alternatives. We can start with measures like insulating our homes, switching to efficient lighting and appliances, recycling, carpooling and taking public transit.

Just as importantly, we can help our kids make the connection between the giant, sprawling challenges they will inherit – such as global warming – and the minutiae of their personal lives. We all need ways of relating to abstract issues that sometimes feel so big that they’re beyond our grasp, beyond our scope of reason. It helps to be able to shrink these issues down to the private realms that we can observe and control.

Aria’s too young to understand the details now, but when she’s old enough I’ll explain the miracle of how fossil fuels made their way into nearly everything in our home and lives. We’ll take an audit of our most cherished oil-derived items: LEGOS, Magna-Tiles, fleece sweatshirt, Lycra leggings, Big Bird lamp, electrical train set, rubber ducky, her favorite iPhone apps: the list will go on to include the paint on our walls and the ink in the words of her books. We’ll move on to the good news: the whiz-bang innovations that are emerging to replace fossil fuels – liquid batteries, jet engine turbines, algae fuels, supercrops, solar thermal, geothermal, electric cars, smart homes and the smart grid.

We’ll talk about the mess we’ve made, and about how gratifying it will be to clean up.

Read Amanda Little’s 10 Energy- and Climate-Saving Tips for Families

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