On following COP26 while looking after children at home
By Anthea Lawson
Three days into COP26, a commentary on Twitter by Alexandria Villaseñor, a youth activist from New York, set out some of the problems with the organisation of the meeting after spending hours in a queue to enter the building.
The chaos she outlined included endless waits to get in, with some not making it as far as the entrance before it was declared ‘full’ and people were being turned away. Civil society representatives were locked out of negotiation spaces, watching from laptops outside or from hotel rooms. Access was restricted to the able-bodied, youth activists of colour were profiled and removed from the venue while white activists were not, and fossil fuel interests were visibly present.
I’ve worked on international meetings that are trying to reach global agreements. They weren’t as big as COP26, or as high-stakes for the whole of humanity, but some of these same elements were present.
The meetings I was working on, at UN headquarters in New York in 2005 and 2006, were about seeking controls on the arms trade. In saying that, let’s be clear: while reducing flows of weapons across borders was the purpose of those gatherings, there were attendees who arrived with specifically the opposite intention: to frustrate agreement so that they could continue selling weapons that fuel conflict and human rights abuses.
Meanwhile many of the people most affected by the problem in question were not in the room. People affected by conflicts that had been fuelled by the second-hand small arms trade. People working to prevent men’s violence towards women in countries where civilian gun ownership is widespread, and so domestic violence becomes even more fatal.
These people were not in the building, not in town, nor even in the US, due to difficulties with visas (translation: racist border policies), and difficulties being able to afford to attend (translation: due to extractive and poverty-creating trade and tax policies imposed by the richest nations).
The result was the same as what is happening at COP26. The people in the room making the decisions were not the ones who really know what is happening. And they were unduly influenced by those who wish to continue making their usual profits and to hell with everyone else. In one of the meetings I was working at, the US gun lobby had managed to get two National Rifle Association place-men onto the US negotiating team. Others filled the halls, whispering urgently in the ears of national delegates, just as the fossil fuel lobbyists are now still dripping their self-interested poison into the COP26 process. And as ever, among the actual decision makers the men outnumbered the women several times over.
Knowing how the set-up of such meetings are stacked against good outcomes whatever the topic, even without the specific urgency of what must be agreed in the next few days at COP26, it feels hard to watch from 450 miles away. My work these days is writing at my desk at home, not banging on doors as a professional campaigner, and with kids at school it wasn’t possible to go to Glasgow for campaigning actions with others I know who are attending.
And what I am noticing is how challenging it is to – simultaneously – stay fully engaged with the true reality of our situation, and to run a household with small children in it.
The challenge, as I am experiencing it, is the daily-ness of not turning away from the existing and potential consequences of a more than 1.5 degree world and the high stakes for COP26’s decisions, while continuing to parent and be present for children in a way that will help them develop the resilience, creativity and courage they are going to need in the future. The minute-by-minute holding of those two realities: that is my current task.
I can handle them separately, just about. In my work and in my campaigning, and indeed once the small ones are asleep, I’m in serious contemplation of the extent of the crisis. When I took part in Extinction Rebellion’s actions in 2019 I had a pass to check out of family life for the time that was necessary to be completely engaged with what we were doing. I told everyone who’d listen that my husband was taking part too, not by sitting in the road as I was, but by minding the kids. And if I’m doing even a small piece of campaigning now I can quickly drop into awareness of the extent of the problem. (Please don’t tell me to take the kids with me. I know it works for some families, and sometimes it has worked for us, but often it doesn’t and I end up not contributing anything useful because I’m carrying a heavy tired small person who doesn’t want to be in a crowd).
But in parenting mode, I find it much harder to stay with my awareness of the crisis. It’s not just time pressure: the maelstrom of ensuring provisioning, sufficient sleep, clean clothes, birthday parties, replies to emails from school, and will-you-please-just-put-on-your-shoes, all around our own work commitments. It’s the implicit assumption behind all of this activity: that school is preparing them for a world that is imaginable, that activities like learning to play sports or an instrument are relevant things to do. Of course I want them to be in a world in which they will enjoy music or pleasurable physical activity later in life, but my fears about future breakdown often feel incompatible with that more mundane vision.
And they are still too small, in our view, to talk with them about the full extent of the situation. The elder one is beginning to understand that something’s up, but she’s not yet big enough to absorb all of what she’s inheriting. The five year old is largely still in a land of his own imagination and making. His deathless contribution to a family conversation over breakfast about COP26 on its opening day was ‘I don’t know what it’s about. All I know is that we’ve sent a lot of moths up to Glasgow.’ (Some digging revealed that a Plymouth-based project has had schools and other groups making thousands of moths out of plastic bottles for an art installation at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow.)
I’ve read some of the climate psychology literature, and I’m aware of the risks of disavowal: that we can sort-of-know, but at the same time turn away from our knowledge and behave as if we don’t really believe it is happening, in the unconscious hope that it might render the threat less real. Yet I’m finding it hard, in practice, to be in both ‘aware’ and ‘family’ modes simultaneously, and am cycling back and forth between them increasingly rapidly.
This results in moments of quiet yet enormous grief while doing the washing up or refereeing fights over Lego. I find myself stepping outside while I should be hustling them towards bed to look at the stars and the mist collecting over the river on the edge of town as the cold air sinks into the valley, praying that somehow a bunch of men in power can make the necessary decision to leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong.
It makes me realise how I have sometimes used my participation in activism as a way to feel ok about the enormity of what is happening. Sure, I’ll go on one of the marches that are taking place in multiple cities this weekend, hopefully with the family, because it feels like the right thing to do and who knows, it might be useful. If everyone marches this weekend, as Greta and Vanessa are asking us to, it may have an impact. But I’m also learning that if I’m doing something I feel better, and part of the difficulty of watching this COP26 – as for so many people watching from afar – is knowing that the outcome is not in our hands. I think before the meeting has reached its conclusions I might find myself sitting with the twelve-day vigil for COP26 in the local church, learning to be with my moments of powerlessness as well as my easier-to-be-with times of action.
Anthea Lawson is author of The Entangled Activist (Perspectiva Press)