Some of the First Nations people of northern Canada believe that we are stewards of the Earth, and for their particular area the land must be managed within a time horizon of 7 generations, approximately 200 years. If we are serious about sustainability, we need to ask for each situation how the impact of this or that environmental decision will track for the next 7 generations. It is quite clear to anyone who listens to any of the news media that we are not at present even living by a 1 Generation Rule. The guide of governments and corporations of virtually all developed nations is economic growth, producing societies that are more and more inequitable, the rich 1% and the poor 99%. The environment is almost never mentioned. What might we do if we lived by the 7 Generation Rule?
The first item to question might be the transportation system of the world and the use of fossil fuels. All is well you might argue, gasoline and diesel are cheap, we carry on. But if we think of future generations we might worry about whether increasing CO2 is causing climate change; the naïve belief that burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with climate change means that we do not believe any of the laws of physics. There is yet another problem somewhere on the 7 Generation horizon – fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource. At some point sooner or later we will run out of fossil fuels, or as an economist would say fossil fuels will not run out but will get very expensive. How far will you be driving in 7 Generations if the price of gasoline is $10,000 a litre? Round that to $40,000 a gallon if you calculate in those units.
But if I cannot drive my car on gasoline, surely someone will invent a car that runs on solar power. Technology will save us. This is akin to a religious belief for many people, and it might be true. If it is, then we can leave the coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground, which is what we ought to plan in any event if we live by the 7 Generation Rule. It is good to be an optimist but it is also good to have a Plan B.
There is one more problem that might be even more important than driving our cars – the provisioning of food. The demand for food in the world today grows at a rate exceeding the rate of food production. No problem, you say, we have plenty of food as long as we continue to neglect one-third of the people on Earth that are undernourished and as long as we operate with the 1 Generation Rule. There are several ways of solving this problem but many of the suggestions are quite impossible. We can become more vegetarian in our diets, and that would be good. But we cannot develop more farmland because virtually all of it is in use. We can increase the productivity of our crops by genetic means, but we cannot compensate for losses in soil fertility and erosion. Fertilizer which is essential to modern agriculture could be problematic. Nitrogen fertilizer is now made largely from fossil fuel (natural gas) and phosphate fertilizer comes entirely from phosphate rocks which are being mined but are also a non-renewable resource. What does our 4th or 5th generation do when phosphate runs out? Might we consider recycling starting now to prepare for the 7th generation?
Ecologists fight now with minimal funding to describe and protect the biodiversity of the Earth, which might be useful already to generation 3, while governments spend much more money subsidizing the fossil fuel industry that is destroying the Earth. There is little money left for environmental protection. How is your government tracking toward a sustainable planet? What Generation Rule are they following? Ask yourself these questions the next time you vote.
Diamond, J. 2011. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Penguin Books, London. 608 pp. ISBN: 9780241958681
McKibben, B. 2013. Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. Times Books, New York. 272 pp. ISBN: 9780805092844