PHOTO COURTESY OF RAFFI

Child in View

The wide angle lens of "Child Honouring," a new ecological paradigm for long-term decision making.

By Raffi Cavoukian

“Seeing is believing,” we say. But people like biologist Bruce Lipton also argue that believing is seeing: that belief affects biology and, yes, vision. Still others say it’s the heart that sees. True, and yet, the mind’s a powerful seer, too. Well, there’s a new mind-expanding lens I’d like you to try, a heart and mind primer that works wonders for sight. It heightens focus and boosts depth of field, illuminating a very different world. When I recently learned that Preston Manning had turned green—inspired by his son and encouraged by his seven-year-old grandson—I wondered if he’d found the lens.

Let me explain. When you look at a train, say, you don’t just see the individual cars. You see the length of the train, the platform, perhaps reflected sun, clouds in the distance, people all around. Maybe a trip to Jasper. One thing leads to another which goes back to something else. They say you learn something new by relating it to what you already know. You connect a piece to the whole.

Enter Manning’s grandson. The lad’s a genius, in the way all kids are. His primary vision intact, he sees the world in wholes and can’t separate “the environment” from the rest of the picture. He wouldn’t think that way unless taught to. And there’s the rub: we’re all taught early on to see things in boxes and it’s hard to put the world back together again. I remember my surprise and excitement in my first year at the University of Toronto when the word “interdisciplinary” first rocked my brain. I’d always suspected things were connected, but here was brazen confirmation!

Decades later, on a Sunday in 1997, I woke up to a similar flash of insight—a philosophy called “Child Honouring.” It came to me as a unifying principle for change, a strategy for redesigning society for the greatest good by meeting the priority needs of the young. After decades of thinking about children and how they grow, about the cultures that shape their beliefs, and the state of the planet that sustains us all, I suddenly grasped Child Honouring as a new ecological paradigm.

It’s not that surprising. Since the ’70s, “holistic” had been among my favourite words, along with “synergy,” “catalyst” and “ecology.” And now I had the integrating lens linking person, culture and planet in a new way, within the ecology of the child. In the circle of relations that holds a child.

As the children-first way of sustainability, Child Honouring is a connective paradigm with the basis for sound, long-term policy on every issue. Imagine how different our world would be if every nation put the needs of children first. It would transform society and create immeasurable benefits for generations to come.

Child Honouring calls for a compassion revolution—a revolution in values that would “turn this world around,” as Nelson Mandela has said, “for the children.” It calls for a profound shift in how we regard and treat our young in the personal, cultural and planetary domains in which they grow. 

This is not about a child-centred world in which children rule, or about permissive parenting. It’s about a shift from domineering pedagogy to respectful love, from bottom-line hoarding to triple-bottom-line sensibilities, from a throw-away growth economy to a conservation-based eco-economy that would restore Grandson’s world and sustain it. 

Whenever I’ve spoken (and sung) about the Child Honouring lens—in settings as diverse as Harvard University, Parliament Hill and Calgary’s Scarboro United Church—I’ve presented it as a way of seeing which links education, religion, peace, health, social justice, ecology and economy. And I’ve had the good fortune to meet Albertans of like mind. The Very Reverend Bill Phipps’s theme of “faith and a moral economy” also connects the dots, as does the work of peace activist and writer Carolyn Pogue with multi-faith groups. University of Alberta ecological economist Mark Anielski’s book The Economics of Happiness abounds in connective thinking. These are among a growing number of people who have the lens. 

The child is a “holon,” both whole in itself and part of something bigger, like the rest of us.

They understand that, at a time of massive global change, Grandson is intricately connected to the global family. By 2020, humanity may be closing ranks to save the shorelines, at war over dwindling precious resources, or perhaps both. But the decisions we make today will have implications that last much longer, and with the right vision we could act with unprecedented insight. We could work to ensure that, by the time Grandson reaches adulthood, green will drive post-oil geopolitics, and sustainability will be a household word.

More than ever, our future is a collective venture: the energy choices of countries such as China and India will greatly determine the parameters of Grandson’s life. How green we live affects them too. How—and how soon—Alberta deals with its oil and beef habits will impact air, water and soil quality, alter the biosphere and shape the prospects of a habitable future. 

A prime minister’s cabinet can help decide the fate of endangered orcas and belugas, the great boreal forests and the world’s devastated fisheries. A premier’s vision can transform Alberta from an individualist enclave to a connected community of brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. A mayor can act on the fate of hundreds of homeless children among the tens of thousands living in poverty in otherwise prosperous cities.

And Grandson’s future? Whatever their standing, Albertans are immune neither to climate change nor to a “body burden” of toxic chemicals to which the very young are most vulnerable. It doesn’t help that in public discourse the quality and fate of Earthly life is reduced to bickering over “the environment,” one issue among many. Why are governing parties and news media slow to embrace the S word, even while businesses now see it as opportune? Is sustainability that hard to understand? Not to the fifth graders I was working with recently. “Sustain” plus “ability”: they got it in a heartbeat. What will it take to put sustainability—and dare I say survival—strategies at the forefront of debate in a provincial or federal election? 

Edmonton’s David Schindler, Killam Memorial Chair and professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, has been an outspoken champion of the natural world. But is there political leadership in this province for conserving the beauty of creation, for putting an end to tar sands projects, for championing the birth of a massive clean-techology sector? Will Alberta’s leaders give people something to really get fired up about? 

In his new book Plan B 3.0, Lester Brown, the elder Earth-watcher who has tracked global trends for four decades, writes that “saving civilization is not a spectator sport.” He delivers an urgent, overarching call for mobilizing on a wartime scale the resources needed to address the multi-faceted climate-change crisis. Brown exhorts us to find the collective will
to act.

“Sustain” plus “ability”: fifth graders get it in a heartbeat. What will it take to put sustainabilityand dare I say survivalstrategies at the forefront of debate in a provincial or federal election?

The good news is that seeds of an unimaginably bright future on Earth are now taking root in the crumbling past. Those clutching to the old and familiar feel frightened, defensive. Those embracing a bold way forward are excited, and a growing number of them are Albertans. They’re pragmatists tapping the possible, urging maximum restoration in the shortest time. For them, survival means finding the right energy, the right means for restoring the verdant commons. A chance to change fuels and clean house. Now. They’re asking, “Why not?”

Albertans, with a huge budget surplus, vast natural resources and human ingenuity, are well positioned to embrace the new lens and join the compassion revolution. “If we are to survive,” Bill Phipps writes in Cause for Hope: Humanity at the Crossroads, “we must learn to see the planetary system, including humankind, as a whole.” Again, there’s that quality of seeing. “In fact, ecology touches all aspects of human living,” he adds. And I believe the ecology of the child is key to reordering societal priorities.

Belief systems vary from person to person. But no belief system trumps each child’s need to feel the love of caregivers, community and society. In the developing infant brain, pathways of experience support or impair human capacities for loving and caring—“moral agency,” what Darwin held to be our most prominent feature. The moral imperative for society now is to do right by the child: to quickly change course and chart a sustainable way forward. 

Time is of the essence. As Lester Brown puts it: “We are in a race between tipping points in the earth’s natural systems and those in the world’s political systems. Which will tip first?” Will the unsustainable Muggle culture—the business-as-usual-crowd—wake up in time? Will wizards appear in sufficient numbers to save the magic of the real world? 

A regenerative future is in our sights: a caring, low-carbon, fair-market “bionomy”—not endless financial growth, but an economy for happiness, fulfillment and genuine prosperity, measured by an index of well-being. 

On our warming planet, we need systemic remedies—not just reduced CO2 emissions, but fundamental changes, ways of living and co-creating powered by a child-honouring, Earth-friendly protocol for commerce. We need a partnering spirit between adult and child, woman and man, postmodern and indigenous and among all peoples. A great reciprocity—synergy and diversity lived large. 

As the child goes, so goes society; this developmental truth is starting to sink in. And the child grows not in isolation, but within families, communities, cities, provinces and nations. The child is a holon, both whole in itself and part of something bigger, like the rest of us. And in the young child is a pure love, a love with tremendous power we can rekindle in ourselves.  

Raffi Cavoukian (better known simply as Raffi) is a singer, author, ecology advocate and founder of Child Honouring. He is co-editor with Sharna Olfman of Child Honouring: How to Turn This World Around. 

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