“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
~The 19th-century American essayist and poet, Emerson
I remember the day when I was seven years old and seated at the corner of the small class that accommodated thirty-two students apart from me. It was a cold morning — the coldest that year had seen. The warmth radiating from the kids around me made me cosy. My eyes drooped, and I saw my favourite park and the red swing behind my eyelids.
One phrase from my teacher snapped me out of my dream.
It was the quote from Emerson that I wrote above. In all honesty, eighteen years later, I still feel it stands true. Despite the heights, we humans have reached, and as evolutionary advanced, we have become, we do not live on this planet as though we have borrowed it.
We actually live as though we have colonised it.
“You shouldn’t be throwing the wrapper there. It’ll soon become a dumpster. You know how it is here. Plus how will you face your fifth-generation?” My Keralite friend said, picking up the wrapper.
“Fifth-generation? I don't think I am going to last that long. Plus that’s already a dumpster where I threw the wrapper. I didn’t create it. It was already there.” I replied appalled and embarrassed, taking the wrapper from her hands.
“Yes, you may not meet your fifth-generation. But it is your responsibility as their ancestor to do your part in preserving the environment. Back in Kerela, we take every step keeping our coming five generations in perspective. It’s important. You may not be able to save this planet for every generation to come. The least you can do is do your part well enough for your fifth generation to survive on this planet without cursing you.”
We do not live on this planet as though we have borrowed it. We actually live as though we have colonised it.
I often replay her reply, time and again. How simple would it be if each one of us took the responsibility of preserving this planet just for our five coming generations?
The Shooting Arrows
In his book Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfitt asks us to imagine shooting an arrow into a distant wood, where it could have wounded someone. He writes,
If I should have known that there might be someone in this wood, I am guilty of gross negligence. Because this person is far away, I cannot identify the person whom I harm. But this is no excuse. Nor is it any excuse that this person is far away. We should make the same claims about effects on people who are temporally remote.
In other words, just because we haven’t met the coming generations, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Just because the nuclear wastes aren’t harming anyone right now, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to harm the people who come after us.
Our actions are like multiple shooting arrows racing through the woods for several hundreds of years — that may unknowingly hit some human population.
Every single act of ours — be it the poisoning of the oceans, the forest fires, or the burning of fossil fuels — may not affect the environment right away; but it doesn’t mean that these things aren’t going to affect others one day. All of these are like multiple shooting arrows racing through the woods for several hundreds of years — that may unknowingly hit some human population.
We would be equally responsible for this.
‘The Fierce Urgency of Now’: Martin Luther King Jr
Whether you like it or not, you must know this: we have colonised our future generations. We mistreat future generations the same way as the historical colonials who mistreated their slaves and women. We treat their home: this planet, like a garbage bin. We dump environmental destruction, nuclear wastes, technological dependence — as though we are the last living beings, and there will be no one after us.
It is a sad reality.
Did it ever occur to you that your grandchildren and their grandchildren are vulnerable to inevitable threats like never before? Look around. We live in times of rising sea-levels, weapons that can cause mass destruction in a blink of the eye, and unexpected pandemics. What do you think is going to happen a decade from now? How worse are the situations going to get? Most importantly, what can you do about the prevailing conditions?
It turns out, you and I hold more power than we give ourselves credits for. There is a kicker though: the power exists just for now.
What Do We Do?
To start thinking about five generations right away, would be a difficult task.
It is for me.
Perhaps the best we can do is imitate the 3.8 billion-year-old and wise nature. The living beings undisturbed by us have survived all those millennia on their own — within the limits the environment had to offer.
The coming generations want a living world without feeling sad to be alive.
Ever noticed how the mama chicken takes care of the place where she nests her chick? We could imitate that — take care of the environment within our reach — for us, for our children, and for the ones who will inherit. The coming generations want a living world without feeling sad to be alive.
The future we hold is uncertain and even scary. And I want you to see the future from your successors’ lenses.
Is that the kind of planet you want to leave them with?