Children, Conservation, Education, Environment, SUSPLACE

Once Upon the Future: Everyday Adventures that Change the World

Illustration by Rita Reis
Illustration by Rita Reis

Lorena Axinte

About two years ago we embarked on a mission to transform our research learnings into children’s stories. We wanted to write a book about hope and leadership that could inspire readers to bring positive change in their surroundings, reconnect with their environment and bond with their communities.

After a couple of training events, various rounds of writing and re-writing, dozens of meetings and fruitful collaborations with writing coaches, editors, an illustrator and a graphic designer, as well as lots of teamwork, mutual support, and hope, the book is almost finished.

So far, reactions to our initiative have been supportive, warm and gave us wings! So we dared to ask one of our favourite social scientists for climate change, Susanne Moser, to write the foreword* for the book. And you know what? She agreed! We’re so humbled and grateful for her words, that we couldn’t help ourselves sharing them already before the book’s launch!

Once upon a time, there lived a small little girl in a land far north of almost everywhere. Most people barely knew this country existed. The little girl was happy, living with her parents and her sister. She was happy, that is, until she went to school and learned to read and learned about what the adults were doing to the Earth. She was very curious to understand what was happening and why, and so the better she could read, the more books she devoured. When her parents allowed it, she even read online articles.

But the more she read, the sadder she became. Her parents and her sister quickly noticed how the bright little girl became quieter and sadder, and soon they were worried she had become really depressed. What could they do? They couldn’t take her out of school because what good would that do? They couldn’t stop her from reading and didn’t really want to anyway. Everyone knows reading is good for young minds! But things kept getting worse the older she got. The little girl never went outside to play anymore. All those games just seemed like meaningless wastes of time while the animals were dying, the waters were getting poisoned and the world was burning. And then she stopped speaking. And then it got even worse: she stopped eating, and despite everything her parents tried, they couldn’t get her to eat. The little girl lost a lot of weight and her parents got really scared. They took her to the doctors, but all the doctors could do was give them some big-word diagnoses and pills to give to the girl, assuring them she would be fine.

But somehow the parents knew that wouldn’t make their little girl happy again. The only thing they knew they could do is spend time with their daughter and wait patiently to see if she would speak again and tell them what was breaking her heart. And, eventually, the girl did.

She told them how sad she was that people were polluting everything, that they were killing animals to eat, that they were putting so many pollutants in the air that the whole planet’s climate was changing, the oceans were warming, the ice was melting, and the seas rising. Once she started to speak again, she gave her parents a very, very, very long list of what all upset her.

And that was not the end of it. Telling them what made her so sad and afraid alone didn’t make her happy again. After all, the problem continued getting worse. She could read it in the papers every morning. Instead, the girl asked her parents to stop contributing to the problem themselves: to stop flying on airplanes and use public transportation, and to stop eating animals or anything that animals produced. These were very big asks because her parents’ work required travelling to far-away places, and – after all – eating meat was the main ingredient of what people in her country were eating. What could they do?

In the end, the answer was pretty simple because the parents loved their girl so much, and they understood and felt clearly what she had been saying: if they really loved her, they needed to do everything they could to make sure she actually had a safe and worthy future. They understood, only then would their girl see the point of living on, eating, speaking, playing with other kids and make friends, and going to school to become who she wanted to be as she grew up. So, they changed their work, they stopped flying, and they changed what they ate every day.

Slowly, but surely, the darkness in the girl’s heart started lifting. She started to see that she had made a small little difference, and that gave her some hope. But the planet needed more changes than just her family’s. What else could she do? She couldn’t vote yet. She couldn’t change what politicians were doing or big corporations. What she was learning in school didn’t seem to help very much either; certainly, it didn’t prepare her for the work she knew needed to be done to make sure there was still a safe planet when she was her teacher’s age, nor did it seem to make sense to learn all the other stuff, seeing how it was useless for a future of an unsafe planet. What more could she do?

It didn’t take rocket science to figure out the answer: going on strike to show the world how useless school was if there was no future! And so that’s what she did. Every Friday, she sat on the footsteps of her country’s parliament instead of a school bench. Every Friday, she went on strike for the future. At first no one paid attention, but eventually someone started noticing the girl, sitting out front, even in the rain and the cold. And soon enough, some of her friends from school joined her, and before you knew it, they had lit a fire under first hundreds, then thousands, and then millions of school children all over the world. And then it wasn’t only school children, but also adults.

Soon enough, the girl was invited to speak to her country’s parliament, and to the important people in the highest positions of the land. She was invited to speak to the richest men in the world; she was invited to speak to the leaders of other countries; and every reporter all over the world wanted to write about what she was doing. Eventually, she was even invited to speak to the Pope, and then to the UN. Everyone wanted to speak to the girl, and everywhere she went – by bus and train and electric car and even by boat – she told people that she would rather be in school and learn what she could for her future, but that she didn’t see the point of doing that until she could be sure that she would have a future at all. Until the adults in the room acted like adults and did what was needed to safeguard the climate and life for everyone on Earth.

It all made so much sense. Everyone was astonished at the clarity of the girl’s words and amazed by her courage to be so blunt and unapologetic about her demands, even in front of audiences of powerful people. But those powerful people didn’t budge. At least not for a long time.

Until one day…

— * —

And thus goes the story as we know it so far. A fairy tale in so many ways. And yet it is not.

In the age of Greta Thunberg, in the age of children acting like adults and adults acting like children, who is to say that so-called “children’s stories” aren’t the most important stories for anyone to hear?! Who is to say that these “fairy tales” may just be the truest account, the most honest reflection, of our time?! Who is to say that such little heroine’s and hero’s journeys are not the most remedial stories we could tell our children, or even ourselves?!

Well, open this book – young and old – and find just such medicine here. Six stories of children righting the wrongs of their worlds. Six stories relevant whether you live near forests or in the city, sit around a campfire or try getting someone to take the garbage out. Six stories of children growing up in a world made inhospitable, unsafe and grey by ignorance, greed and misguided ambitions of the adults who were supposedly there to protect them.

As such these stories reprimand anyone with a heart open enough to hear. But they never lose touch of the lightness of children’s stories, nor the simplicity of language that even the youngest among us can understand, and the oldest among us must hear. Aided by just perfectly matching illustrations, these six stories assembled here have the imaginative vibrancy of any good tale, and the colorful clarity that delights and brings alive the essence of our complex challenges.

And last but not least, this small collection may well constitute a marker in time when we had to put to rest the “old story” of scientists who are incapable of communicating what they know to anyone but other expert audiences. What you hold in your hands here are stories written by up-and-coming scholars in their fields who have challenged themselves to share what they have learned in placed-based research on how to create sustainable places for us to live in and shape. (This, too, is not a skill being taught in graduate school, and should make us wonder about what future precisely any educational institution these days is planning to prepare our young ones for!) What an example of how to bring research alive and make it accessible to everyone. And what an example – again – of the young having more courage than the old (or at least, well-established) to do something creative and different and path-breaking.

It is just what we need.

It may well be the only way Greta’s and these stories’ and all our stories’ may yet have the best possible ending we can create.

Read them. Share them. Then act!

Susanne Moser

November 2019

You can follow the progress of the project on Twitter and Facebook 

*This is the full version of Susanne’s wonderful story. The book will feature an abbreviated version.

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