“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”
“I’d like to play indoors ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are”
―4th grader from “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv
"To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world....”
―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The Little Prince”
That exquisite, legendary novella “The Little Prince” was published in 1943 in the United States at the height of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Never have two realities had so little in common. It was not written for children but for the child still residing inside each adult. While the good side seemed to have won the war and beaten the fascists, the reality of the world has come crumbling down for hundreds of millions of children around the Earth. Children who could not go to school, during the pandemic. Children who lost their parents and who are now orphans. Children who are climate refugees. Children who simply have not gotten enough to eat. The toll keeps mounting. Several hundred million children will now be challenged to survive thanks to the coronavirus. While a work of fiction cannot be expected to change the world, “The Little Prince” has definitely inspired the soul of humanity like very few in the history of imagination. Some 140 million copies have been sold worldwide and given the world situation today, one wonders why it has not been read by billions. It is timeless thanks to a boy from a distant planet who speaks with the heart and voice of wonder and compassion for life. It is time the adult world listened while we still can because we need “The Little Prince” more than ever.
Ours may be the last generation to hear and heed the Little Prince’s message. Several generations ago Rachel Carson, who sounded the alarm about pesticides and the fragility of the environment in her groundbreaking “Silent Spring” in 1962, noted that “a child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe inspiring is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Today’s wonder may be beyond reach in the not too distant future. It may not exist. Glacier National Park just north of Yellowstone is melting fast. The Arctic is disappearing. The Antarctic is undergoing enormous changes. Children spend more time with machines than with live beings and their knowledge of species and ecology is paltry compared to the second and third hand information and “knowledge” they receive in school. Children are practically inoculated with the digital virus and are given next to no experiential knowledge of the world. They spend much more time with machines and videos than with Nature. The species that inform the childhood imagination and a child’s language could be mere ciphers in books in a generation’s time. In America, especially, we rejected the Garden of Eden that was in profusion and replaced it with what Edward Abbey called “a high tech slum.”
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them,” said the Little Prince. On a more fundamental level, the expertise of Richard Louv brings insight to what has happened to an entire generation of children who have been kept at arms length from Nature. His book “Last Child in the Woods - Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” could almost be expanded to include planetary disruption syndrome, which is happening everywhere worldwide. “By the 1990’s, the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam on their own had shrunk to a ninth of what it had been in 1970.” Today, average eight-year-olds are better able to identify cartoon characters than native species, such as beetles and oak trees, in their own community. The rate at which doctors prescribe antidepressants to children has doubled in the last five years, and recent studies show that too much computer use spells trouble for the developing mind.
That’s something “The Little Prince” would have addressed back in his day, if computers had been around. It almost seems as if we need to be revisited by the Little Prince again and someone write a new version of that mythic character in updated form. “There are creatures full of strange wonder all around and you prefer to operate machines. How strange! You spend your time in front of monitors and screens. And why are so many of you obsessed with killing wolves. If I had had a wolf on my planet, instead of a fox, I would have made him my friend. A wolf and a fox what wonderful allies.”
What is stranger still in our time, is that those very machines we have become so obsessed by, have helped ruin the environment for the animals. We have to have Nature in order for there to be a deficit of attention in the first place. The fires out West and the heat dome is a terror to behold and even worse to experience. It is frying an entire order of being and environment for humans and wildlife alike.
The alienation from Nature has been mounting. Now it is the very deficit of Nature itself that will be the problem, a very big problem, unless we actually save what is left of the wild and try to restore some of it as fast as we can. As Louv underscored in his book, sending kids out to play has become increasingly a challenge especially amidst increasing wildfires, floods, social disruption and even guns in schools. It seems like we live on another planet from one we knew in 2008 when he wrote his book. One day children might look back and wonder what the word Nature even meant.
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” this marvel of literature describes. Compassion, care, marvel, truth and the overall beauty and coherence of the world. We have lost the thread and connectivity that makes our exchange with the world viable. The Little Prince would have been aghast at how humanity has treated the world today, since his appearance on Earth in the middle of WW2. But of course his essence has been with us since time immemorial. The workaholic, alcoholic and power hungry are archetypes of the adult that the Little Prince is saddened by. The lessons are there for the children of today, but today they have intensified because the world is endangered.
The businessman tells him: “When you find a diamond that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you discover an island that belongs to nobody, it is yours. When you get an idea before any one else, you take out a patent on it: it is yours. So with me: I own the stars, because nobody else before me ever thought of owning them.” (13.38)
What would the Little Prince have told Branson and Bezos about their flights of fancy? “You burn all that fossil fuel for your whims? All that pollution you put into the atmosphere will harm the Earth? If you think you can live elsewhere but Earth, you are mistaken. I have been where you are longing to go and it is much more beautiful here than even on my planet with my rose. If you continue you will hurt all the roses and trees and birds on your planet. And then what will you have?”
The youth in the ongoing Juliana versus the government led by 21 youth against the government should remind us that life, liberty, the possibility of happiness and a stable climate are no longer guaranteed. Who will be able among children today to be parents?
Christ once said in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” Christ would have understood the Little Prince. They would have been fast friends. Has our civilization taken time to listen to the children? The Gretas of the world who dared the adult world to wake up. While forests are burning and the poles dissolving beyond anyone’s wildest calculations. Who among us in the stressed, overworked, everyday world takes time to smell the roses? The kingdom of the children, the ineffable world that was theirs to inherit is either burning or melting and it isn’t fair, either to the Earth or the children. There is a reason Christ did not say, let the money lenders, industrialists, bankers and lawyers come to me. We have bequeathed a planetary emergency to the children. “The Little Prince” is a rare fairy tale, but also a philosophical and spiritual narrative, whose lessons the Western world and indeed humanity as a whole should heed while we still can.
F. Scott Fitzgerald knew something of wonder and the wanton luxuries of the Gilded Age and its fantastic excesses. Fitzgerald would have understood what the Little Prince was trying to reveal about greed among money hoarders and industrialist profiteers and the egregious lust of bankers, and those who think only in terms of multiplying profits at the expense of the larger world. At the end of the “Great Gatsby,” written a generation before the chaos of WWII in 1925, Fitzgerald wrote:
“I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
What indeed has happened to Gatsby’s capacity for wonder? And that of the Little Prince?
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.
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