“Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
What does it mean to be a good ancestor?
I have often wondered what might be common sense in the future that we can’t fathom today. The end of the nation state, or marriage, or gender? How will future generations look back at us? What is it we do or believe today that they will think prehistoric?
Or is it more likely that they will look back at our generation and wonder how we could know so much, yet fail to act?
In The Future of Time, Toni Morrison says we have become unable to think and imagine a future beyond perhaps 30 years, and prefer instead to think about the past. That this may be partly because of the nuclear age where the possibility of the species being wiped out was very real, and therefore, psychologically, it was better not to dwell on an uncertain future. It became even frowned upon, seen as a distraction.
We are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that we have to get out of this news-cycle lifestyle where governments want easy solutions to deep rooted problems, where we eagerly embrace techno-fixes to save the planet all the while being distracted by digital tools that merely reflect ourselves back at us.
As Morrison writes: “If scientific language is about longer individual life in exchange for an ethical one; if political agenda is the xenophobic protection of a few families against the catastrophic others; …if the future of knowledge is simply ‘upgrade… No wonder our imagination stumbles beyond 2030 – when we may be regarded as monsters to the generations that follow us.”
She points to literature and the arts for signs of renewal, in particular from the voices of those who have been pressed to the margins, saying: “I believe I am detecting an informed vision based on harrowing experience that nevertheless gestures toward a redemptive future.”
Those voices are numerous and they are young. Children and young people from all over the world are speaking out in ever greater numbers about the future they may no longer have. While they may have little economic or political power, like artists, they are the ones who are able to look beyond our shortsightedness.
None of these ideas or struggles are new, of course. Indigenous voices have been speaking to this for hundreds of years. We were simply not listening.
Their traditions are grounded in this understanding of ancestry, legacy and our relationship to land. In a podcast episode of For the Wild, Sii-am Hamilton, a Sto:lo and Nuučaan̓uł land defender and traditional knowledge holder, says Indigenous youth are at the forefront of environmental protection out of necessity for survival. While she says she doesn’t get to determine what the future will look like, she says she feels “a responsibility towards generations ahead of me… and I know that even though I may never benefit from the work I do right now, I know that it will show the next generation and the one after that I cared about them.”
So what is our role beyond what may well be considered as no more than symbolic gestures in a few generations’ time? It’s a question my colleagues and I have been trying to answer for some time with the help of young climate activists. The answer needs to be one that is relevant to anyone who shares our concerns, not just our organisation.
As Ursula Le Guin pointed out: “Young people, people this society blatantly short-changes and betrays, are looking for intelligent, realistic, long-term thinking: not another ranting ideology, but a practical working hypothesis, a methodology of how to regain control of where we’re going.”
What shift in our minds is needed for us to look beyond our own lives, children, or jobs? What does it mean to consider the impact of the actions we take today? We know it’s not about writing a blueprint for what the future should look like, however tempting that may be.
Perhaps it’s a lot simpler. Perhaps it’s just about showing up, as Sii-Am says, “showing up, even imperfectly, matters.” Perhaps it’s about using the platforms we each have to amplify those whose voices go unnoticed.
In a recent training I was in, as a way of introducing ourselves, we were asked “whose shoulders do you stand on?”
Thinking about our ancestors is not about dwelling on the past, but to consider those who made it possible for me to do what I do today, so that I may in turn ask myself: “Who can I lift up?”
on the sacrifices
of a million women before me
what can I do
to make this mountain taller
so the women after me
can see farther
by rupi kaur
Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes