As Ziya rolled in sandy ebb and flow at Maracas’ shoreline, a handful of friendly girls suddenly encircled us with a swirl of brown arms and legs. They drew Zi in, reaching for her hand, and asking her to go jump deeper into the waves. A few brought Styrofoam cups to scoop up water and sand, throw in the air, and catch as they swept by amidst incoming foam. ‘Make sure not to leave the cups in the ocean’, I gently cautioned, ‘they will pollute the sea. ‘Auntie, what does pollute mean?’ one of them asked. She was eight years old, and the biggest of their brood.
How could children going to primary school not have encountered the idea of pollution? What are they being taught is the meaning of taking our very national identity as a twin-island republic from the blue, Caribbean sea? In an era when recycling, environmental conservation and climate change are words appearing weekly in newspapers, as politicians, parents, teachers, religious leaders, community activists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and artists, we are failing to give to children that crucial consciousness they already need.
While those girls were diving and floating, there wasn’t time to explain anything more than that to pollute is to poison. As I watched them then run onto the beach, they tossed away torn up pieces of those Styrofoam cups into the wind. A friend of mine picked up all the pieces and we threw them away in a garbage bin rather than see them get caught up and carried further from the shore.
Yet, stepping over chicken bones, bottle caps, crushed cigarettes, miscellaneous pieces of plastic, bits of paper food containers that once contained shark and bake, and more, on what is a disgusting mix of detritus and Maracas sand, Ziya’s enjoyment of our blessed ocean was shot through with real life lesson about how pervasive garbage is and what kind of failures exist in our national waste management policies. How can we teach children to love a country that we poison simultaneously?
Ziya is four, but because we discuss the environment often, she constantly brings up the fact that everything from her toothpaste to shampoo ends up in the ocean. It makes me ashamed, but I haven’t yet taken action to reduce these aspects of my own footprint. Nonetheless, her transparent observation calls me to account for myself, to acknowledge what harm I too am leaving her generation to inherit, to identify our unsustainable habits as the enemy of our children’s future.
We are the first generation of adults in all of human history to deny oncoming others what was handed down over millennia: clean air, earth and water.
We are poisoning the oceans, and already seeing the effects on marine life. Our seas are being filled with our garbage of all kinds, industrial and domestic, untreated and toxic. Reflecting our selfishness and shortsightedness, such garbage shows up at our feet on every coastline and river that was, less than two decades ago, garbage-free.
These are island children surrounded by ocean. Children who deserve to learn about how irresponsibility created ecological crisis as much as they are told about politeness. Children who must become consciousness of their standpoint in relation to the planet, for protecting it cannot be anything other than their first priority.
Who in the Ministry of Planning understands that the environment is an infinite economy? Who in the Ministry of Education sees schooling as beholden to teaching children the definitive global politics of their generation? Children will pay for our delay. None should still be wondering what pollution means.