Host: Last week, we discussed the most basic Earth Precept:
☼ Honor the Earth, upon which all life depends
That one is the most simple, and the most difficult, of all. This time, we will move on to something a bit more concrete, the Earth Precept that states:
☼ Consider the consequences of all environmental actions over at least 100 years
The essence of rationality is the ability to foresee consequences. We humans are very proud of our rationality, which we consider unique among all the species on Earth. Despite that, a look at human history shows that we are chronically careless of consequences over any biologically meaningful time frame. The Native American Iroquois Confederacy famously considered the implications of their actions for seven generations. Seven generations: at least 150 years. What individual, government, or corporation today considers their decisions over such a time span? Even the most far-sighted individual rarely thinks more than five or ten years ahead, and most corporations and economic markets are now driven by quarterly profits. Quarterly: a time span of 3 months. It is no mystery why, over and over again, we fail to recognize environmental disasters until it is far too late. We simply aren’t paying attention.
We live in a world of ever-accelerating technological and ecological change. That makes seven-generation thinking more difficult – and more essential – than ever before. Imagine how many things have changed in the world in the past 100-150 years: nearly everything. Here is just one example: the proliferation of vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine. In 1856, there were, of course, no cars at all. In 1900, the estimated number worldwide was less than 10,000. Today, there are over 500 million cars and trucks in the world. Automobiles now affect every imaginable aspect of the biosphere, from rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to the incidence of asthma in urban children, to the fragmentation of habitats by ever-expanding roads. If these consequences had been anticipated – or even dimly foreseen - the development of the automobile might have followed a very different and less harmful path.
This example also shows how difficult long-term thinking can be. When some truly new innovation comes along, like the automobile or, say, the ability to conduct genetic engineering, how can we anticipate all the consequences that will follow? I don’t think we can. That suggests the need to be careful. Risk managers have formalized “the need to be careful” into the precautionary principle: to try and avoid potential damaging impacts even when there is no certainty that these impacts will actually occur. An older term is humility: a willingness to admit our ignorance, and to go slowly. Humility is a virtue that we rarely hear praised these days, but it’s essential when we try to consider the consequences of our actions over 100 years.
So, how can we apply this
precept in our daily lives? Here’s one
way: take a look at your community and imagine what you would like its
population and its footprint on the landscape to be 100 years from now. I live in the Bear Creek watershed of the
Thinking about the Earth 100 years from now may seem like a depressing activity. But that is only true if we accept the continuation of the problems that we see damaging the biosphere. If we all begin to judge our actions by their consequences in seven generations, this damage to the Earth will not be tolerated, and will end. What better reason could there be to take responsibility for the Earth today?
Until next time, this is Pepper Trail.