“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” (Albert Camus)
It’s time for a light-hearted blog post, I told myself. I’ve been dreadfully serious lately—blogging about politics, corruption, and evil (which may actually be one-in-the-same). Blogging about injustice, inequality, and incivility. How about some sunny, end-of-summer froth? I need it, and so, probably, do you.
Unfortunately, my blogging muse, Bessie, had other ideas. She kept sending me clips and quotes of politicians loudly demonstrating their incivility and idiocy. Or articles about celebrity excesses that mock my belief that we should choose to live simply so others may simply live.
Finally, I conceded to Bessie that my clever concoction of comedy (and alliteration) could be postponed (but not too long, please!). I waited to see what the old girl would send. Bess delivered through a delicious luncheon conversation with my friend, Kris, and a Washington Post article entitled “Caring About Tomorrow,” by Jamil Zaki, Stanford professor of Psychology and director of the University’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory.
The article contends that we haven’t effectively addressed climate change because “we’re not wired to empathize with our descendants.” That failure may mean the demise of our species, or, if we play our cards really badly, of our entire planet.
Professor Zaki asserts that human empathy or caring instincts are short-term rather than far-reaching, and, as a result, we find it hard to care about things that haven’t happened yet—even if there is abundant evidence that they will happen.
He also notes that our shortsightedness is accompanied by a certain degree of selfishness. Citing that 70 percent of Americans recognize the reality and danger of climate change—and even acknowledge that human activity has wrought these dangers—he also notes that a majority of Americans are nonetheless unwilling to support energy conservation policies if the personal cost to their household is more than $200 annually. Having reached a point where the investment needed to effectively address climate change is significantly higher than $200/year, Zaki calls our unwillingness to take action or spend what is needed “breathtakingly immoral.”
He’s got a lot to say about our imperfect empathy, too. While we can often muster empathy for individuals—especially those who look, talk, and think as we do—we fall short on summoning compassion or empathy for masses of starving or displaced people. They remain faceless and distant—mere statistics. And, as for those yet to be born—even if they are our direct descendants—we give them little thought. The future, he says, is “psychologically fuzzy.”
Zaki’s article is thought-provoking and well-worth the read. It even offers a glimmer of hope when it describes the child activists who are emerging to lead movements to address climate change. For them, the future is not some faceless other; it’s their own lives in the balance. As one young activist declared: “You’re all going to be dead in 2050. We’re not. You’re sealing our future now.”
Where I do take issue with Professor Zaki is his seeming belief that the absence of forward-thinking empathy is hardwired into humans. Are we conditioned? Perhaps. Are we oblivious? Certainly. But hardwired? I don’t think so.
We need only look at some of the cultures and people all over the world who are consistently aware that how they live carries repercussions into the future, long after they are gone. With the planet and all its life-forms, including humans, facing threat of extinction from our actions—and our inactions—we need to listen and learn from those who still retain the ability to consider the future.
The Great Law of the Iroquois tells people to think seven generations into the future when making decisions. Seven generations ahead is about 140 years, so Iroquois wisdom would tell us to be thinking today of our descendants in the middle of the twenty-second century, or around 2160.
In 1980, Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, one of the original five constituent nations of the Iroquois Confederacy—the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth—wrote: “We are looking ahead . . . to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come…. Where are you taking them? What will they have?” Simple questions. Terribly difficult answers.
There is little evidence to show that the people making our laws today are looking any further ahead than the next election cycle.
A further admonition of the Iroquois is: “In all of your deliberations . . . in your efforts at law-making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion.” This wisdom is surely dismissed as precious naïveté or socialist claptrap.
When and how did we become so self-absorbed and myopic? When did our grasp exceed our reason? If thinking of seven generations hence is unfathomable, can we think of three, or two, or even one? Perhaps a question to pose to our politicians and candidates is: “When you think of the future, whose future are you thinking of?”
The misguided supremacy conferred by opposable thumbs may lead to our ultimate demise. In our arrogance and heedless disregard, we suppose all resources to have been put here for our plunder, while we hold the childlike belief that we have ultimate power over winds, rains, fires, and seas.
I can hear Bessie laughing….
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” (Chief Seattle)