You are an observer. We tease you gently for your wide-eyed stare, reminding you to blink at the dinner table. As a baby, your eyes would fix on whoever was speaking, holding your bib in a fiercely-balled fist. Guests were disconcerted by the intensity of your gaze. You scrutinised the world around you, all at once.
You are fourteen, now, an adolescent equipped with the internet, an inquiring brain, ferocious idealism. Almost six foot one, you’ve grown into your eyes. You are seven years younger than me.
You and I have spent a lot of time together, eldest and youngest, the bookends of our four siblings. You, too young to do anything but cling; me, old enough to hold you. You had the irascible energy of a small Mafioso. The contrast between your Sicilian scowl and hand-me-down pink nightgown was jarring. Your first word was a committed ‘no’. I’d pick you up at your insistence and you would grab the collar of my school uniform as if you were going to hold me aloft. Sat in your high-chair, staring so hard you squinted, watching me make my tea, my breakfast, load the dishwasher. If you could have made the jam levitate, you would have. If you could have aged yourself by the force of your own will, you would have. Your determination is my favourite thing about you, as well as your blissful quirkiness. Your main accessory for many years was a bag made from a hollowed coconut, bought in a charity shop, insistently carried everywhere, containing your precious objects. We made a list of the things you want to do when you grow up, you told us you might be a “politician, a dog trainer, a flautist, a sailor, a lawyer (maybe), a dancer, an English teacher in Norway”. The Norway thing has been going on for a while.
But you are terrified of the future. As you move through your various media feeds, you are constantly reminded of the gravity of the climate situation, of global warming and of the ecological anxiety that threatens your future, your hopes, your sense of personal security. Rainforest fires burn in looping, one minute videos, the infinite replays mimicking the relentlessness of the actual loss. Turtles trapped in plastic swim around you, chickens are caged in vast and barbarous factory farms, icecaps crash into the ocean, scenes and threats of flooding, burning, shaking, destruction parade past your eyes. I watch your swift, dexterous thumb as you scroll through your phone. When a video of melting icecaps appears, you twitch, sending the video flying up into the ether, out of your eye-line. When I ask you why you do that, you say it frightens you, that if you think about it too much, it makes you panicky.
You became a vegetarian, and are militant about recycling, you stubbornly denounce corporations, tax-evaders, fishing industry moguls. There is heady, breathless fear in you, and it is difficult to soothe. “It’s like you’re living through a war,” you say, “but you don’t know what’s going to happen.” You cite statistics to me, they feed your flickering intelligence, your love of facts and of knowable order. A study shows that climate change will become irreversible by 2030, others suggest 2025. You fear the radicals, but their sensationalism sticks in your mind. You know so much, now, you retain information with ferocious precision. “In 2030, I’ll be 25,” you remind me, closing your eyes, always statistically precise. You are scared of everything falling apart.
You are a ‘digital native’. The idea of a “digital native” suggests that you inhabit a landscape separate from our own, that you and your peers are transient beings, able to vanish into a blinking interface of sleek LED screens. You and I both know that there is no separation. The online world is integrally, irreversibly intertwined with your communications. It shapes your interests, your friendships, your fashion, your humour. You cannot escape the outside/inside of the online world. We tell you to unfollow the accounts that frighten you, to mute the things that make you anxious, to even come off your phone altogether. You go to school with a palm-sized Nokia ‘brick’, its most formidable features being its stubborn lack of internet and old-school predictive text, providing endless autocorrect amusements as you use it to communicate your whereabouts.
But you still feel like you should be engaged. When the heroes of your generation speak, you listen. Greta Thunberg says: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, and act as if the house was on fire.” You, my clear-eyed Rosh, hear this new rallying cry, and you panic. Amongst your fellows, Greta is seen as a real-life protagonist, a Katniss, maybe, simultaneously a child and a hero of children. “She’s very clever, and she doesn’t like Trump, and she’s not going to be stopped by what people think of her”, you tell me, your criteria for a person of note. You don’t see her as a typical female celebrity, or a young woman online, she is not sexualised, her childhood and her Asperger’s “make her invincible”, you say, to internet censure, unaware of warring trolls. But her message frightens you, and you wonder if you’re doing enough.
The algorithms of social media target these videos to their most receptive audiences, the demographic most engaged with the content provided. But I think that these videos aren’t made for the minds of younger generations, so viscerally aware of the threats to their safety, embroiled in school marches and incessant climate talk, with a buzzing, flickering discourse attached irrevocably to their hip, reminding them constantly of their roles as the ‘New World Saviours’. The videos are not sensationalised — ecological damage is not a media conspiracy — but are by no means tempered for a younger audience, anxious, impressionable, desperate to please. The intensity of this doom-mongering is targeted at apathetic ‘boomers’, who have already received the boons of a world without ecological consequence, unrestricted by the looming horizon of capitalism’s inherent lack of sustainability. You know this, my Rosh. You know it better than I do, but still, it frightens you.
When you call me in the evenings on your little Nokia phone, a knot of overwrought, adolescent anxiety, I try to soothe you, give you alternative interpretations to this doomsday rhetoric. Mum tells you that existential anxiety can be solved by grounding action, and that we all fall into negative spirals sometimes. But I can’t tell you the rainforests aren’t burning. I can’t tell you that the oceans aren’t overfished, that animals aren’t going extinct, that the prognosis for you is clear, easy and bright, that the future is peaceful and opportunistic and secure. To placate you with false securities would be to insult your intelligence, and to betray your trust in my tenuous adulthood. I cannot soothe your path by telling you that you shouldn’t be scared.
It is important, however, to note, that these fears do not define you. To take time out of your anxieties will not betray the cause, lovely Rosh. I want you to live in your little burning interests, your loyalty to drag queens, and seventies fashion, your great desire to cut a fringe and dye your hair purple, your sassy comebacks and white Go-Go boots. Your life is still about peaceful childhood struggles, you are redeemed by endless adult promise. I want to write you out of the terrifying timeline that you feel stretching out in front of you, I want to convince you that it’s not all on you. I hope I’ll succeed, at least in part. I need to be better about fighting these battles for you. I am twenty one years old, it’s my job to stand between you and these agonies, to start contacting representatives and organising my rubbish, in the forlorn hope that you’ll never have to.
More and more often I find you buried in books, children’s books you haven’t read for years, books that we used to read to you after your bath. For your birthday in February, my friends and I take you to the Southbank Centre to see the Moomin exhibition. Moomins, the strangely-shaped, wondrously fantastic heroes of your childhood, written by the Swedish/Finnish illustrator of my adult interest, Tove. We take our usual train, Wimbledon to Waterloo, passing through Earlsfield, Clapham, Vauxhall. You chat to me about your orchestra, about your friends, you tell me your opinions of your favourite queens on ‘Ru Paul’s Drag Race’. It’s a freezing day, a bright-blue day, and the glass of the skyscrapers reflect the light back to us, blinding, glittering, intimidating.
We curve around the Thames, past the American Embassy with its plunging blue moat, and officious pale brick, past the Gherkin (you call it the Pickle, that makes you laugh) in the distance, the London Eye, Westminster. We knock our boots together in Waterloo station to keep warm, exhaling our breath into the sooty air, towards the old Victorian glass, waiting for a friend to arrive from Barnes and walk with us under the bridges to the Centre. You are self-conscious, too, still so fourteen. You check your reflection in the shop windows behind me, flipping your braid this way and that, adjusting a carefully chosen scarf from Oxfam. You tell me that you fancy the boy who sits on the same row as you in orchestra, because he’s very good at the flute, but you think he fancies someone else, and either way he’s a bit shorter than you. Pros and cons. Waterloo moves past us, a whirling hub of a million minds.
The exhibition is beautiful, carefully curated. You enter ahead of me through a door painted to look like a ‘Moomin’ book cover, and we walk through rooms designed to feel like we’re entering the illustrations themselves. It’s a breathless return to innocence, to a world of tiny stoves, snowy forests, archipelagos, tents, original illustrations, hidden puppets, the iconography of historical Scandinavian hygge. One room is covered in blue silks, tiny fairy-light stars, pretend snow and long shadows. You might be adolescent, awkward, full of facts, but you are entirely entranced. You breathe out. The smog above the city does not worry you, here in this fabricated northern landscape. Your favourite book is ‘Comet in Moominland’, you tell the tour guide, who is slightly overwhelmed by the fact you can match her on every piece of trivia she tries (you’ve read Jansson’s biography, too), with your sharp memory and lethal, legalistic mind. We go to the gift shop and the Food Market, afterwards, and take pictures of you sat in the little red chair outside the Centre. On the way home, in the winter dusk, you lean your head against the train window and watch the lights in the office buildings glow.
I understand why you take refuge in these books. In fiction, the ‘good ends happily’ and we avoid impending loss. The last chapters of Comet in Moominland feel ominous. The heat from the Comet dries up all the streams, and as they get closer to home, they realise the sea is gone, too. There are tornadoes and poisonous bushes and giant octopuses. Life has been turned on its head, threatening the pastoral idyll of Moominland and the quirky mundanities of Finn Family life. But the Comet is, inexplicably, diverted. The experts at the Observatory were wrong, sensationalist, even. The world is re-written, the world is made right. The spiral doesn’t end. In literature, ecological powerlessness is defeated by the comprehension of truth, of real, concrete truth. For the Moomins and Tove, that truth is family, it is community, it is the act of sheltering together in the cave, facing an apocalyptic event. The truth of this closeness absolves them, and the Comet doesn’t hit.
This is a movement defined by a generation of truth-sayers, raised with the burden of an ecological responsibility, passionately committed to that truth. You are, anyway. You are an observer. I cannot convince you, or at least not adequately, that your fears are irrational. Because they’re not, are they? But, still, you and your whistle-stop wicked glow-brain, you know it all better than I do. You know to seek out the truths, and the families and the caves. The Comet might still divert.