FROM THE SECOND-STORY window of my cabin in Alaska, I watched a pine squirrel flee across the branches of a Sitka spruce. A hummingbird was hot on his trail, buzzing furiously, thrusting her stiletto beak at his retreating backside. At least that time, she saved her tiny nestlings from the squirrel’s chisel teeth.

Another day, I watched aghast as a sow bear hurried her cub along an Alaskan beach, stalked by five wolves. The cub stumbled and whimpered, trying to keep up. Somehow, the sow found the courage to bring her cub closer to our beached boat than the wolves were willing to risk. After the wolves turned back, the sow led her cub up the river, where she grazed in green sedge and the cub quietly nursed.

In video reports, I watched Annette Klapstein, a spare grey-haired grandmother, and her friend Emily Johnston hoist oversized bolt cutters to cut the chain on an oil-pipeline valve in Minnesota. They shut off the flow of Canadian tar-sands oil through that pipe, then stood in orange safety vests and hardhats, waiting to be arrested. Soon they will argue in court that their action was necessary to protect children from the enormity of global warming and ecosystem collapse.

In the fracking fields in southeastern Ohio, where drilling operations and their trade-secret brew of toxins creep closer and closer to homes and schools, it is the mothers at kitchen tables and church meeting rooms — people like Leatra Harper and Jill Antares Hunkler — who are mapping strategies to stop the drilling, even as the state regulatory agencies that might protect their children are captured, one by one, by the oil industry.

Which one of us did not hold our newborn babies in our trembling arms and whisper into their wispy hair, I will always love you. I will keep you safe. I will give you the world.

From rivers and farms, from suburbs and garden plots, from high villages and Arctic shores, even from beaches and the tops of trees, mothers summon the courage to protect their young, who have no voice to cry out in their own defense. This is what mothers have done from the time the first dinosaurs guarded their nests. Now the peril faced by our children and grandchildren is on the same scale as that once faced by the spindly dinosaur nestlings. This time, the peril is not the planetary breakdown of life-sustaining systems caused by a six-mile wide asteroid, but the planetary breakdown of life-sustaining systems caused by the relentless drilling and burning of fossil fuels.

Let no one imagine that the children are safe from the effects of fossil fuel-generated climate chaos. Several years ago, five hundred scientists, led by a team from Stanford University, warned the world: “By the time today’s children reach middle age, it is extremely likely that Earth’s life-support systems … will be irretrievably damaged … unless we take concrete, immediate actions.”

What life-support systems are they talking about? The great planetary systems that warm and cool ocean and air currents, provide freshwater, filter toxic air, moderate floods and droughts, produce food from the land and sea, replenish the soil, sustain life.

What do they mean, irretrievable? From ir, “not,” and from the French, retrouver, “found again.” The necessary conditions for ongoing life, never to be found again.

What do they mean – “today’s children”? I know one of them. Her name is Zoey. She is my granddaughter. Maybe you have a Zoey yourself. At bedtime, she sings and giggles herself to sleep. Her new song is: Laugh kookaburra, laugh kookaburra, gay your life must be. When I think of Zoey, I think of all the children around the world, singing or crying themselves to sleep, the beloved babies of all colors and continents. Unless we stop fossil fuels, the children will live — and die — in a world of violent chaotic weather, northerly spreading disease, acute water shortages, collapsed agricultural and fisheries systems, wars for resources, and massive movements of people driven from their homes by flood or wildfire or the failure of their crops.

We cannot allow this to happen. It is a betrayal of the children.

It is a violation of the promises we made to the babies when they were born. The poet Brian Doyle wrote, “We swore and vowed to every god we ever imagined or invented or dimly sensed that we would care for them with every iota of our energy when they came to us miraculously from the sea of the stars. Because they are the very definition of innocent, and every single blow and shout and shiver of fear that rains down on them is utterly undeserved and unfair and unwarranted. Because we used to be them, and we remember, dimly, what it was like to be small and frightened and confused.”

Which one of us did not hold our newborn babies in our trembling arms and whisper into their wispy hair, I will always love you. I will keep you safe. I will give you the world.

We didn’t mean, I will give you whatever is left scattered and torn on the table after the great cosmic going-out-of-business sale — the planet, so gentle to life, picked over and storm-torn. We said, I will give you this beautiful, life-sustaining, bird-graced world to wonder at, and we hung pictures of butterflies and smiling fish on the nursery walls.

But in the face of climate change, what does this promise mean? All the expressions of our love and desperate caring — the hundred-dollar safety seat for the car, the baby monitor, the organic applesauce — what do these matter if, when the children are grown, the forests are burned, the water is poisoned, and the butterflies and fish are gone? Whatever is left of the planet when the pillage ends, that’s all our children and grandchildren will have to work with. What will be left? That is up to us.

What will be that force that stands in the way of the reckless destruction of lives, if it is not the power of those who give and support life?

Let no one think that some sudden moral enlightenment on the part of oil and gas industries or the federal government will save the children. The oil and gas industries now effectively control most federal energy and environmental policy in the United States. Legislators, who might have stopped them, are bought off in a monstrous corruption scandal rendered legal by the Supreme Court in Citizens United. In its frenzy for short-term profit, there is no sign that the oil and gas industry will control itself for the public good, for the sake of the future of life on the planet, or even to avoid inevitable financial ruin not so far down the road.

Men (with almost no exceptions, they are men) shrug into their suitcoats, gather at rosewood tables, and devise fossil-fuel business plans that they know full well will sicken children and destroy the necessary conditions for their thriving. The shame. Men fasten their cufflinks, gather in legislative offices, and create new rules that allow them to filter the toxic gases of their industry through the lungs of other peoples’ children. The moral monstrosity. Men knot their red ties, meet in trailers beside fracking rigs, and plan how oil companies will force, bribe, and intimidate their way into children’s schoolyards.

A black-suited man with a shaved head, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, once poked a big finger into my face and said, “Don’t you ever ever ever ever underestimate the power of the fossil fuel industry.” I don’t, truly I don’t. It has become clear that they will not stop until some greater force stops them.

At the same time, I do not ever, ever underestimate the ferocity of mothers or the power of their love. I love my children and grandchildren more than I love my own life. That love is intense, fierce, all-consuming. When I think about people around the world, I assume, I know, that they love the future that is manifest in their own children with an equal intensity. And then I think of all the plants and animals that shiver with the urgency of reproduction and life ongoing, life ongoing in the rotting log, life in the deepest sea, ongoing life in tidewater ledges and beargrass flats. Life wants to live. The urge toward life has to be the strongest force on the planet. On a warm day in my tidal cove in Alaska, the air fairly shimmers with it.

So here’s the question of the hour: What will be that force that stands in the way of the reckless destruction of lives, if it is not the power of those who give and support life? — the mothers and grandmothers, the aunties and godmothers, the women who love the children.

Protecting the children is a formidable responsibility. But it is our responsibility, and we bring to the task a formidable set of powers, honed, sharpened, and passed down mother-to-daughter over generations. Be the bear, with that strength. Be the hummingbird, with that courage. Be your mother, who loved you and protected you and taught you to stand up for what you love too much to lose.

Teaser photo by Michael Baird on Unsplash

This essay originally appeared in Earth Island Journal’s special Women and the Environment issue.