Taking the Long View

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” (Albert Camus)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt’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)

21 thoughts on “Taking the Long View

  1. Even with photographs giving faces to the masses of starving or displaced people, we seem unable to muster the empathy and courage to act. I think it’s a kind of compassion burnout. There’s too much to comprehend, not enough emotion to spare. We are at turns enjoined to take action and to take care of our own wellbeing. As yet, I don’t see that many of us (myself included) can reconcile the two to make action and self-care function together.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right Kathi, it’s hard to be empathetic and an activist without risking burnout. I’ve heard it called compassion fatigue. There are just so many wrongs that need righting. Maybe if we each just pick one or two to work on and hope that others will be picking up the slack.


  2. I don’t like using the phrase ‘hard wired’ about people, as it is a misleading analogy. It refers to computers, and suggests (accurately in the case of computers) that it is impossible to avoid doing what they are programmed to do. But our bodies are not like that. We have instincts, sure, but they can be challenged and altered by a little thing called ‘thought’. We can decide to do things differently. The only ‘hard-wiring’ we have are physiological actions such as breathing or organ function.

    Saying we are hard-wired to take or avoid certain actions is a cop-out.

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  3. What boggles my mind is, we can’t even seem to muster up concern for the future of our own children and grandchildren, let alone seven generations ahead. How can we not care that our own flesh and blood are at grave risk.

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    • That baffles me, too, Fransi. I don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine not caring about what kind of world we’re leaving them, and what kinds of problems they will need to solve. I have a friend with kids and grandkids who says she can’t be bothered with recycling–it’s just too much trouble. Sigh.

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      • I don’t have kids either, but if I did I’d certainly be worried. I’m still worried, without kids. (Sigh) indeed. I don’t understand people.

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  4. Excellent question: When did our grasp exceed our reason?

    To me the answer to that question would be the beginning of understanding our society’s disinclination to think about the welfare of future generations. In our world we are all steeped in a sense of immediacy that is exacerbated by technology. When all you see is yourself in the now, it’s more difficult to worry about/plan for the future. I tend to think ahead as a matter of course, because either through nature or nurture that’s who I am. How to get other people to do that, too? I am without answers.

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    • I wish I had answers, too, Ally. As a society, we just seem so oblivious and so greedy–spending obscene amounts on useless trinkets when our money could offer help and hope in so many quarters. With all that’s happening around us, it’s hard to imagine people not being concerned about the future.

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  5. I have to agree that there are not enough opportunities taken when it comes to stating facts against feelings. There could be only one answer: Our Creator has devised a system that will keep our Universe within the realm of existence. The use of the notion of “Climate Change” can only be a method of provoking fear of Life itself. The Creator has it all under control and is letting “Man” find the place Creators are found. Think about it for a while and when you find the meaning, you will be amazed.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I fear that too many people may be relying on a benevolent deity to protect mankind from its own wanton waste and selfish inaction. If such a being exists, I wouldn’t blame it for allowing us to destroy ourselves—perhaps leaving the planet intact for remaining species to flourish.

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  6. I’m not sure I have anything to add to this. I wish I was more hopeful, but I’m not. I think we are well past the point when we could have made significant enough changes to turn this ship around. That’s not to say that I am ignoring the coming storm (even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime), it just that there is only so much I can do. The earth will survive, though. Its inhabitants (except for cockroaches) maybe not so much.

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    • I keep thinking of the old Robert Frost poem: “Some say the earth will end in fire/Some say in ice….” It’s starting to look like the “fire” crowd is winning. I don’t know if we’ve reached the point of no return yet, but it’s certainly being hastened by the pack of scoundrels holding political power. I’d like to hope that even if mankind doesn’t survive, other flora and fauna will remain and flourish. Thanks, Janis!

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  7. Such a great springboard for thought and discussion, Donna, thanks for sharing and expanding on what is THE most vital issue we face today. We may be indeed be hardwired for shortsightedness but I believe we do have the ability to override it. The key is imagination, as Einstein put it: “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” First we imagine a better world, and then we act on it.
    This morning I watched Chris Hedges (“Truthdig”) interview Roger Hallam, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion, discussing the global protest-festivals that will be held around the world on October 7. I was reminded and encouraged that yes, showing up does matter. In response to their London protest-fest, the press (The Guardian) has begun addressing climate “change” in more truthful terms, referring to it as the climate emergency (or catastrophe) that it is, and calling for “climate justice.” I’m heartened to see that all of us, regardless of age, class, race, etc., can choose to break free of daily barrage of constant distraction and fear-mongering, to face reality and to be part of the healing.
    There’s another worldwide climate strike coming up during the week of September 20-27, organized by 350.org (cofounded by Bill McKibben) I’ve signed onto one of our Local 2020’s action committees. (Local 2020 is a grassroots organization whose mission is “working together toward local sustainability and resilience – integrating ecology, economy and community through action and education.”)
    At a community BBQ over the weekend I met a number of younger folks in our new neighborhood who are all dedicated environmentalists, and I was impressed by their commitment, their intelligence and courage, and by their conscious choice to make a positive difference in the face of daunting planetary crises. In fact, we discussed the importance of acknowledging the anxiety and grief we’re all trying to cope with, so that we can move beyond the paralyzing fear and sadness in order to act. We talked about the book (a great resource) “Active Hope” (by Buddhist eco-philosopher Joanna Macy and Dr. Chris Johnstone), which (in part) defines Active Hope as “…not wishful thinking….not waiting to be rescued by the Lone Ranger or by some savior. Active hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act. We belong to this world. The web of life is calling us forth at his time….Active Hope is a readiness to engage….to discover the strengths in ourselves and in others, a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love. A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love for life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead. None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk.”
    Oh, such inspiration and enthusiasm (and action!) generated during lunch on a sunny afternoon with a bright and curious friend! Thanks again for your thoughtful observations, and for caring so much.

    “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” ~ Wendell Berry

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    • Kris, I had heard the first half of that Einstein quote a thousand times, but never heard the last part: “It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” What a wonderful metaphor. Genius, in fact!
      I hope we soon see American press following the example of The Guardian. Terms like “climate change” and “global warming” don’t seem to inspire action—or even concern—but perhaps if we regularly start seeing terms like “climate emergency,” “global catastrophe,” and “climate justice,” we will pause and think a bit deeper.
      Thanks for all the great information and resources you’ve shared. I checked into Local 2020 and your Jefferson Co. one seems to be the only active group in our state, so far. I will look for “Active Hope” – I sure like the definition you shared, and the concept of combining hope with activism. The riskiest thing we can do right now is nothing, and that seems to be what a lot of people are banking on.
      Thank you for conversations that consistently inspire thought, ideas, and active hope. And thanks for this rich comment.
      Lastly, I loved the Wendell Berry quote, too! Such wisdom….


  8. I think fatigue is a big part of it. Also, until it hits people’s own doorsteps, it’s easy to be complacent. By the time this stuff finally made the headlines, we have become desensitised to the words ‘climate change’. We need new language to express the same message. WWF have played it well i think, their more recent campaigns and messages have brought the problems into our own homes. So we’re not being asked to save the rainforest, we’re being shown how that has an impact on our own quality of life. Might be painting us all as selfish, but if that’s what it takes to get the message across, to recognise that, then any means is valid! It is now a daily conversation, so I do have hope for the generations to come. I think they have more empathy for everyone and everything they share our planet with.

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    • It makes good sense that we will be more likely to recognize perils and take action when we see how they impact us directly. When the dangers are remote, it’s harder to muster concern. You’re right about how fatigue plays into all this. We’re seeing so many natural disasters, not to mention violence/corruption/injustices, that we can’t process it all or begin to deal with it. My hopes are with the young activists, too. If we can just stay out of their way. Thank you!

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