A Little Child will Lead Them

Saturday, May 1st, 2010 by Dr Keith J. White

We are living through a period in which a huge shift in human consciousness is taking place.  At some time in the future this is surely how historians will one day describe it.  The subject of this tectonic shift concerns the way humans, as individuals, families, communities and nations see our relationship with our natural environment, planet earth.  It is, of course, far too early to assess the full content and scope of the change, let alone predict the outcome.

All the same it is dawning on us, however slowly and patchily, that the planet on which we live is fragile (at least as far as sustaining human life as we know it is concerned).  As human population and activity increases, our world needs to be treated with correspondingly more care.  It doesn’t take a genius to realise that unbridled industrial expansion, travel, and market-generated, consumer-led activity will not be sustainable long term.  There will have to be some modification of the scale of that activity, or the way in which it is carried out.

Of course there are various perspectives on, or views of, the evidence, as the Copenhagen Summit earlier this year revealed.  And no doubt there will be some who are skeptics whatever the evidence before their eyes.  But the emerging consensus is that we will need to pioneer new ways of living, or as some might put it rediscover older forms of human collectivity, if there is to be a long-term future for the human race on earth.

Among the tangible signs of this change in consciousness are wind turbines, solar panels, better insulation, the recycling of waste, the popularity of vegetarianism, and developing arguments for greener lifestyles.

There is a long way to go, and the way ahead is uncharted.  If there is to be a genuine transformation of our ways of life, then whatever governments do, and international gatherings sign up to, in the final analysis it will be changes in the attitudes, thinking and lives of ordinary people that will be determinative.  We will all need to change some of the details of our lives and our priorities: the minute particulars will be important.

Take a Lead from Children?

In this process my gut feeling is that children may eventually lead the way.  The description of the prophet Isaiah of a world in which a child takes care of creation is one of the most beautiful and telling in the Scriptures:  animals (that includes predators and their prey) will live in harmony, with the little child in a role rather like that of a shepherd.

The shift in consciousness will not be a linear or easy process, but whereas many of the effects predicted by the scientific data will kick in after our allotted three score years and ten, children will be in the middle of their lives as the need for climate change becomes increasingly urgent.  And many of them are already listening (even if subconsciously) to the voices of those who are campaigning for better human stewardship of the earth.

The great myths, replayed and rehearsed in so many children’s stories, often tell of cosmic battles between chaos and order, light and dark, monsters and heroes.  Is it fanciful to imagine a time coming when children will connect these with the battle for the future of planet earth?  If so, they will see (like some of the characters in Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings) that it is ultimately not possible to sit as spectators of the unfolding drama: we have to take sides.  I cannot say how or when this will become apparent, but in time it will be self-evident.  And although adults and adult structures and institutions may have become hardened, even ossified, making it difficult if not impossible for them to change, children will have the flexibility and openness to adapt to this new future: to welcome it with open arms.

One of the tried and tested ways in which children lead is by their questions.  Why are we using solar panels at school?  Why are petrol prices going up so fast? What is a “Smart Car”? Why are we recycling cardboard, plastic, paper and glass?  Why are people trying to fly around the world using solar power only?  Why are there wind-farms in the sea?  If the answers given are consonant with the emerging facts about climate and sustainability they will have credibility: if not, then the questioning will continue until reliable responses are elicited.

Answers to Questions?

What places, communities or institutions will be at the cutting edge of this new era, by their responses to the questions, spoken and lived out?  I wonder whether it might be the residential communities like Camphill, SOS Children’s Villages, Peper Harow, Cotswold, Caldecott and Mill Grove, to name a few.  They know what it is to pioneer new ideas, to hold a course when fashions could encourage them to drift elsewhere, and they all have children and young people whom they listen to and respect.  Because they seek to integrate the whole of life, including learning and care, they have the potential to modify a way of living, rather than change just one component of a weekly programme.

I notice that there is increasing interest in communal farms and farming: residential communities have a long tradition of working the land.  And the land itself provides scope for energy-saving experiments.  As I have mentioned in previous columns we have engaged with the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth since its inception.  One of its attractions is that it has tried to try out alternative forms of living in a particular spot, using the land and the weather.  Residential communities have a head start when it comes to the land they own and the opportunities this gives.

In time all schools will change: both in their design and use of energy, but also in the content of what is taught.  In time houses, towns and cities will change.  And children will adapt with little or no problem.  The rest of us will be encouraged by their example to keep up with them.  But perhaps the leaders of the change will be among the groups I have mentioned.

Unlearning : a Prerequisite for Learning

The change of consciousness will revolutionise how we all learn, in a way not dissimilar to the lead children give to many parents and adults when it comes to electronic devices and digital ways of thinking.

A poem that continues to sum much of this up for me is by Jane Clements, a teacher in a Bruderhof School.  It concludes:

I must unlearn

All the adult structure

And the cumbering years

and you must teach me

to look at the earth and heaven

with your fresh wonder.

No doubt this is true in many areas of life, but when it comes to such a huge change of consciousness my guess is that its message will truly come into its own.

But how quickly will the adults and adult institutions realise the unique potential locked up in children?  And how will we adapt to the changes necessary?  Professionals are gatekeepers of traditional ways of doing things, so this column is a plea to social workers, teachers, and parents to create the space for children to explore alternative ideas about how we live in future.  It requires some serious role reversal.

And children’s preferred way of going about this experimentation will of course be through play.  Not surprisingly the perceptive Isaiah continues his description of a whole new peaceful era with a child playing happily and unharmed by the viper’s nest!  Is this a reminder perhaps that we will need to be around, providing safe space for exploration, not letting go of our adult responsibilities as children pioneer the future?

Finally, when we talk of the future, let us be clear that it is the children’s future of which we speak: we are currently pursuing (mortgaging?) our way of living at the cost of the resources that will sustain them.  So you could say that we owe it to them, whether we like it or not.

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