Diaper Change, Climate Change: Reflections on Parenting in an Era of Global Warming

Issue 247

Nicholas Powers Jun 6, 2019

Just as I took off his diaper, my son shit again. It happens. But he focused and pumped out of his tiny anus a mudslide so deep it was Biblical. I gave up on changing him. “When global warming destroys the soil,” I said, “let’s grow potatoes in your shit, like Matt Damon did in The Martian.”

Raising a child in the Anthropocene and the possible end of an inhabitable Earth at human hands requires a grim sense of humor. I like to think of it as acceptance, the last stage of grief. I’m not sure if it is but I do know, I’ve gone through the other four stages — denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Laughter was closure. I had let go of hope.

Then my son forced me to reach beyond grief. We were in the park and he let go of my hand. Legs wobbly, he looked at me. We were both scared as he unsteadily walked. Pride burst in me like fireworks. I wiped away tears and cheered. Each new footstep took him into a future I won’t be alive to see. In that instant, I felt love, giant, immense, immeasurable love for him that forced me to go beyond acceptance to action.

Denial & Anger

“He’s kicking,” she said and pressed my hand to her belly. He was. He was pushing out to the world. I leaned close and told him how much we loved him. In those months, I was delirious with joy.

I was so full of fatherhood, I thought I was big and strong enough to protect him. I had a job. I had good health. I could take care of my son. I would do a hell of a lot better than my no-show father ever did. Denial insulated me.

Months into the pregnancy, Hurricane Maria ripped up Puerto Rico and relatives vanished. No phone. No e-mail. Nothing. I went to the island, drove around until I found them. Along the way, I saw mothers alone with children in hilltop homes with no gas or food. I saw fathers waiting in lines for ice and water for their families.

I came back shaken and angry. The world was filled with forces so much stronger than any of us. Just one superstorm, one war or financial collapse and we’d be begging for food. I hated how America betrays the poor and vulnerable.

By the time my son was born, I was humbled. The doctors passed him to me, I held him like a breathing pearl, beautiful and fragile. I just wanted him to be safe.


“What about Canada,” I asked. “Isn’t the ice going to melt? Let’s move. Let’s grab land.” She nursed our son and made the calculations. We saw the writing on the wall. Fires in the west. Superstorms wrecking the coasts. White people elected Trump. How long before America collapsed?

She shrugged. “Then what? Live behind a barbed wire, steel fence gate?” A dark vision crossed her face. “People will get hungry and eating the rich won’t be a metaphor.”

I was bargaining. What if we fled? What if we moved inland? What if we stockpiled guns? They were dreams of privatized escape, 1990s militia survivor stuff. Needle those dreams with a logical question and they popped. None of us, not even the rich, can escape the climate crisis. Some can hide for a while, but no safe zone, no walls, no borders can keep out millions of refugees desperate to live. We’re all in this together.

Depression & Acceptance

“I, I, I…” my throat knotted. Around the table, friends looked at each other, then me. We were talking about the climate crisis and I was in professor mode until I mentioned my son. Sorrow choked me.

When I got home, I hugged my son as if to apologize for the hell he was going to inherit. He slept on my chest and I kissed him over and over. We were trapped in systems that left us little room to maneuver. Every plane in the sky, every car in the street, all meat in stores — all the ways in which capitalism polluted the planet were sold to us as the good life. Disaster was coming. He didn’t ask for any of it. He didn’t ask to be born. It was our selfish decision and we both would be gone as he faced nightmare Earth.

I began to celebrate the smallest things. When he held up his head, I danced like a clown. When he babbled “ma ma” and “da da,” I wrote it on the calendar. If the future was going to be painful, I clipped the moments of joy and held them to my chest. Today was what mattered. And when grief spilled into my thoughts like drops of ink, I joked it off.

“Just remember,” I told him as he gobbled an egg, “in the future when you buy Soylent Green, it’s made from people.”


He grew so fast. He was a tree sapling rising in fast motion. Our faces moved like two suns across his sky. His hands reached for us.

Tired from exploring, he climbed on my chest and slept there for hours. I kissed the top of his head and smelled his new baby smell. One day, after being bathed and fed, after we played peek-a-boo for forever, he put both hands on my face, pulled me in and gave me a wet gummy kiss on the nose

We changed each other. A deep magnetic force pulled us together. Whenever he crawled away, he came back. Whenever I went to work, I felt his absence as if my heart was stretched miles from my chest. It was love. And I saw it everywhere, in every degree. It is the magnetic force that makes friends hug on the street and a cashier smile at a favorite customer and drives adults to wheelchair their aging parents into the park to feel sunlight. Love binds the human universe.

Walking him in the park, I watched him touch trees in wonder and realized being afraid of the climate crisis won’t stop it, but loving the Earth can inspire us to heal it. My barely one-year-old son taught me that I don’t need to “accept” the end times.

Today, we went to an art store and got billboards, markers and paint. It will be a summer of action. My son and I will join the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. Together, we’ll protest at Wall Street and Trump Tower. We’ll look like trees, growing in fast motion, new ideas blossoming on our signs like wildflowers.


Photo: What kind of world will this little fellow inherit? Credit: Sue Brisk.

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