and Wisdom another."
- Edmund Burke
I've been writing about resilience in its many permutations since early 2009.
Resilience is a measure of the health of any nation state, including our own. It is determined not only by what we do in the present but also what we have done in the past and what others have done before us. A commitment to posterity is a component to the maintenance of a healthy degree of resilience. It causes us to look back to our ancestors and ahead to descendants, including those not yet in existence. It is a stretching of time beyond our typical focus on the here and now.
Many years ago Bill Moyers produced an excellent series on posterity, how it had been expunged by neoliberalism and the prospects of a rebirth.
In that first post I looked at posterity in the context of the Great Recession that still plagued the world.
Posterity doesn't fit into our economic model of maximized production and consumption because it creates a fetter on both. We have lost our understanding of the importance of posterity to our society, to our country. We no longer plan today for generations to come far in the future. We no longer look much beyond the next electoral cycle.
Protecting posterity is an act of collective consciousness and will. It is acknowledging that we're entitled to our fair share and no more. We can't have it all without depriving future generations of their fair share.
To try to understand the idea of "fair share" imagine if our great, great, great grandparents had followed our path.
Imagine if our ancestors had two things - the ability to consume everything they could get their hands on and a blind indifference to the day when it was our turn to populate this country. Imagine if two or three generations had gone on a rapacious binge gobbling up the world's resources; going into serious deficit on renewables (emptying the oceans, logging off the forests, transforming farmland into desert) and fouling the environment. Then consider how their depredations might impact on your life today. I think that's beyond the imagination of all but the best science fiction writers but that's of no real matter. It's enough in any event to make the case for posterity and the concept of "fair share."These ideas are anathema to neoliberal ideology. The future, including future generations, is discounted to near nothingness. It doesn't have to be this way. It just is. It has become our orthodoxy. The New York Times ran a feature story on how Norway thrives while protecting the interests of future generations.
Norway’s relative frugality stands in stark contrast to Britain, which spent most of its North Sea oil revenue and more during the boom (Thatcher) years. Government spending rose to 47 percent of G.D.P., from 42 percent in 2003. By comparison, public spending in Norway fell to 40 percent from 48 percent of G.D.P.
“The U.S. and the U.K. have no sense of guilt,” said Anders Aslund, an expert on Scandinavia at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “But in Norway, there is instead a sense of virtue. If you are given a lot, you have a responsibility.”
Eirik Wekre, an economist who writes thrillers in his spare time, describes Norwegians’ feelings about debt this way: “We cannot spend this money now; it would be stealing from future generations.”Neoliberalism is at odds with progressivism generally. Government in Canada is decidedly neoliberal. It is not progressive, despite its trappings.
Part of the problem is that the ‘now’ commands so much more attention. We are saturated with knowledge and standards of living have mostly never been higher – but today it is difficult to look beyond the next news cycle. If time can be sliced, it is only getting finer, with ever-shorter periods now shaping our world. To paraphrase the investor Esther Dyson: in politics the dominant time frame is a term of office, in fashion and culture it’s a season, for corporations it's a quarter, on the internet it's minutes, and on the financial markets mere milliseconds.
Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” she wrote in 1978. We can only guess her reaction to the relentless, Twitter-fuelled politics of 2019. No wonder wicked problems like climate change or inequality feel so hard to tackle right now.
That's why researchers, artists, technologists and philosophers are converging on the idea that short-termism may be the greatest threat our species is facing this century.
...What these thinkers from myriad fields share is a simple idea: that the longevity of civilisation depends on us extending our frame of reference in time – considering the world and our descendants through a much longer lens. What if we could be altruistic enough to care about people we might never live to see? And if so, what will it take to break out of our short-termist ways?Are we colonizing the future?
According to the social philosopher Roman Krznaric, failing to value the lives of all these descendants is akin to ‘colonising’ the future – essentially deciding that future generations have no ownership rights there, or any say over how it evolves. “We treat the future as a distant colonial outpost where we dump ecological degradation, nuclear waste, public debt and technological risk,” he told attendees at a recent event in London organised by The Long Time Inquiry, an initiative to encourage long-term thinking in the cultural sector.Our petro-economy is a profoundly stupid attempt at meeting today's needs to the impairment of future generations of Canadians. The environmental havoc our bitumen production creates today won't be our problem but theirs and they will pay dearly for our indifference to their future. We know our descendants will not enjoy the ease and comfort we have known. We are not leaving Canada a better place than we found it.
The wisdom of the Iroquois guides some futurists:
...a principle called ‘Seventh Generation’ stewardship, defined by the leaders of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy many centuries ago. “Every decision they took had to keep in mind seven generations hence.”
...They propose that the prevalence of short-termism is entwined with our attitude to death. “We’ve got a hunch that our inability to deal with the future of the world beyond our lifespan is wrapped up with our inability to deal with the fact that our lives will end,” they write. “Our denial of our own mortality prevents us from engaging with the long-term future.”The defence of posterity spans the political spectrum. Edmund Burke and Theodore Roosevelt. centuries apart, shared a high regard for the role of posterity. Progressivism should not be the exclusive preserve of the left and centre-left.
Burke, the 18th century political philosopher, wrote of posterity as the glue that connects future generations to the past but also the present:
All persons possessing any portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust.
...one of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation—and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers."In Burke's view, each generation has a life estate in our land but no more and that life estate, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, is in the nature of a trust. We are trustees of the land for the generations that will follow us. I would like to think he had the current neoliberal contagion or something like it in mind when he writes of "floating fancies or fashions" that undermine the continuity of the commonwealth and prevent one generation from linking with the other.
Roosevelt wrote of "skinning the land."
"I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us. I ask nothing of the nation except that it so behave as each farmer here behaves with reference to his own children. That farmer is a poor creature who skins the land and leaves it worthless to his children. The farmer is a good farmer who, having enabled the land to support himself and to provide for the education of his children, leaves it to them a little better than he found it himself. I believe the same thing of a nation."
I'm sure he was speaking plainly and pointedly when he talked of one generation robbing future generations, skinning the land and leaving it worthless to those who will follow. I wonder how he might have phrased that in this, the age of climate change and the threat of mass extinction?
Today we face near apocalyptic threats, challenges. We can expect to be stressed to the breaking point especially if we continue to neglect the essential resilience of our nation, our provinces and our communities. Thomas Homer-Dixon addressed our predicament in his book, "The Upside of Down."
...we really do have some ability to choose our future. But we have to recognize what kind of forces we're up against, we have to have courage, and we have to be smart - not only at the time of the social earthquake and the moment of contingency that follows but well in advance. Specifically, if we're going to have the best chance of following a different and positive path, we must take four actions. First, we must reduce as much as we can the force of the underlying tectonic stresses in order to lower the risk of synchronous failure - that is, of the catastrophic collapse that cascades across boundaries between technological, social and ecological systems. Second, we need to cultivate a prospective mind so we can cope better with surprise. Third, we must boost the overall resilience of critical systems like our energy and food supply networks. And fourth, we need to prepare to turn breakdown to our advantage when it happens - because it will.
Alas, humankind's track record when it comes to proactive policy, especially in response to slow-creep problems, doesn't inspire much confidence that we will succeed in these tasks. Today, most of us are simply too deep in denial, and our political and economic systems are too hobbled by powerful vested interests for real change to happen in the absence of a sharp push or shock from outside. With colossal effort by the relatively small numbers of people today engaged in trying to do something about these problems, and perhaps with a good deal of luck, we might divert or somewhat weaken the tectonic stresses. But we're unlikely to weaken them enough to reduce significantly the danger we face, so we'd better get ready for social earthquakes.
A prudent way to cope with invisible but inevitable dangers ...is to build resilience into all systems critical to our well-being. A resilient system can absorb large disturbances without changing its fundamental nature. ...in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world, we should sometimes give up extra efficiency and productivity in order to gain resilience - especially to improve our ability to prevent foreshocks from triggering synchronous failure. We can do this in many ways. One involves loosening some of the coupling inside our economies and societies and among our technologies ...We can gain resilience, too, by increasing the buffering capacity or slack in our economies. Industries can rely less on just-in-time production - a particular obsession of the past two decades - and instead build up inventories of feedstocks and parts so they can keep running even when supplies of essential inputs are temporarily interrupted.
Of course, many of these recommendations fly in the face of the ideology of today's globalized capitalism. In its most dogmatic formulation, this ideology says that larger scale, faster growth, less government, and more efficiency, connectivity and speed are always better. Slack is always waste. So resilience - even as an idea, let alone as a goal of public policy - isn't found anywhere on the agendas of our societies' leaders. ...And because our leaders hardly ever think about resilience, we keep doing things that make our lives progressively less resilient - we pile on more debt, build tract housing over the finest cropland, develop addictions to distant sources of energy, become so specialized that we can't take care of ourselves when everyday technologies fail, and fill every nook and cranny of our days with so much junk information and pointless running around that we don't have time to reflect on what we're doing or where we're going.In other words we must get ourselves, our society, out from under this ultimately destructive, even suffocating neoliberal ideology that our political leadership is so determined to perpetuate. That will be an act of unplugging from a system in which we've become tightly integrated. Think of it as leaping from the car of a runaway train after you spot the bridge out just ahead. You're choosing a somewhat slim chance over no chance at all.
Neoliberalism expunges posterity and saps our resilience, leaving us vulnerable to disruption and chaos. We are placing the very continuation of a habitable future in jeopardy. What prevents us from seeing that? When we do see it why do we succumb to complacency?
Last October The Guardian ran a lengthy essay exploring our "environmental vandalism" and how we betray future generations. It's about how we have made ourselves "bad ancestors" in waiting. The article discussed Greta Thunberg and the contemporaries she has inspired to take their claims against us to the courts.
The youth lawsuits and school strikes dramatise a crucial aspect of the threat to democracy posed by climate emergency: the question of intergenerational responsibilities and ethical duties across decades and centuries.
To put it another way: what is the relationship of democracy to time? This question may seem abstract but is actually foundational. We are all born into a world we did not make, subject to customs and conditions established by prior generations, and then we leave a legacy for others to inherit. The project of self-government invariably requires navigating the tension between short- and long-term thinking, our immediate circumstances and what is to come, the present and the future. Nothing illustrates this more profoundly than the problem of climate crisis, which calls into question the very future of a habitable planet.
When individuals like me take multiple flights a year and buy food imported from halfway around the world, we can rest assured that we won’t meet the people who will, down the road, be most gravely affected by our carbon-intensive lifestyle. But don’t we have democratic obligations to them regardless? If we expect justice from our predecessors, don’t we owe this debt to future generations? Right now the world’s relatively affluent are on the way to being bad ancestors, the kind who think only of themselves in the here and now.The writer stresses that climate breakdown is the greatest problem requiring collective action ever faced by humanity but the advantaged (that's us) prefer to look the other way.
Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that developed countries must make a radical break with fossil fuels, which means lowering consumption and switching to renewable energy sources while also shifting our diets away from meat and dairy, as animal agriculture is a massive source of emissions. A proposal for curbing emissions from the developed world so that the billion individuals who live without electricity can enjoy its benefits would probably pass in a landslide in a world referendum, but it would likely fail if the vote were limited to people in the wealthiest countries.Resilience without social justice has a dim future. Collective action means all of us, all in.
“The Earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence … would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climactic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.” - US Congressman, George Perkins Marsh, 1847.
A century later, two pioneering climate scientists issued the following statement in a 1957 coauthored paper, bolstering Marsh’s case for urgent action with carefully marshalled evidence: “Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future. Within a few centuries we are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years.”
The Covid-19 coronavirus is rocking the world and provides a rare opportunity to examine just what in hell we're doing to our planet and to ourselves. It invites us to undergo societal "stress tests" that we might discern and accurately measure our strengths and our vulnerabilities. It may be our last chance to restore resilience to our nation. It's time we had a conversation.