Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, "Underland," explores parts of the world we don’t usually see and tend to ignore, such as the web of fungi that underlies the forest floor, complex invisible passageways under old cities, underground rivers and cave systems that take us into “deep time.”
Looking at the “dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment” (deep time), the author looks at eons past but also casts an eye to future expanses. He speaks of the estimated quarter of a million tons of high-level nuclear waste that are now buried around the globe, whose radioactivity will remain lethal to humans for tens of thousands of years. (A significant amount of that nuclear waste is in South Carolina.)
He asks, how are we going to communicate danger to future generations? Then he puts to us the more critical and piercing question, “Are we being good ancestors?”
That’s the question I can’t avoid this week. This is the second week of “Climate Strike Charleston," the locally organized and youth-led expression of the international campaign heralded by amazing 16 year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden. As everybody knows, Greta sailed across the Atlantic to inaugurate the Global Climate Strike and jumpstart the UN summit on the climate emergency. She made it clear to UN leaders and to the world that her parents’ and grandparents’ generations — which many of us belong to — are writing a death sentence for hers by our business-as-usual attitude in the face of catastrophic climate change. We are being horrible ancestors.
Charleston and the United Nations must deal with a harsh message this week: We are in serious trouble with our planet. Arctic ice melt, rising sea-levels, more frequent and much wetter storms, unprecedented extinctions, the nearly inevitable mass migrations of populations from island and low-lying nations, widespread famine and political turmoil — the list goes on and it’s out in the open now. Look the new reality square in the eye.
We’ve heard people our age say, “I”m sure glad I won’t be here in 30 years!” The forecasts are dismal at best; if we don’t summon the political will to make radical changes, they are dire. My lifetime, spanning almost 80 years of constant upgrades in living standards, health and information technologies, has arguably been the best of times. But those good times have been bought from the Earth at a fearful cost, and my generation looks like it wants to pass that heavy cost on to next generations. Are we being good ancestors?
There is no way our generation in our lifetime is going to stage the kind of revolution in thinking, behaving and policy-making required to arrest and reverse the climate crisis.
But that is no excuse for checking out. One conversation from my household: Should we install solar panels? Is the question “Will I live long enough to get a full return on my investment?” Or is the question “What kind of environment am I leaving for my grandchildren?”
Even more important, our generation still holds disproportionate political clout. And while some politicians of our generation seem bent on waging a war against the environment, that is all the more reason to gather our forces, our gumption and our votes before it is too late to change course. There is still time to be “better” ancestors.
Elders fighting the good fight know that they will die before finishing what they began. Martin Luther King may have said it best when he told us he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land, but like Moses he would not get there himself. But what an ancestor he became, using his life to point the way and help others get there!
One of his mentors, Reinhold Niebuhr, put it in a way worth pondering: "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate content of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love."
We won’t finish the job of keeping the planet livable, but now is the time to join our children and give it our best effort. Leaving them a healthy planet is far more important than leaving them a monetary inheritance. The climate emergency threatening all future generations, to which our generation has contributed so heavily, demands that we start being better ancestors right now.
Now is the time.