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National Science Week: a call for intergenerational solidarity

Saturday, 5 August 2017  | Claire Dawson

[This reflection, written for National Science Week (August 12-20), picks up where Mick Pope’s recent piece on climate change denialism left off: our concern for future generations.]

Loving our neighbours downstream

Year 8 camp at Victoria’s Cathedral Range State Park was my first experience of ‘roughing it’ in the Aussie bush. From memory there was some bare ground for pitching tents, a basic campfire and a pit toilet, but few other amenities. Water for drinking and cooking was to be sourced from the nearby creek. We were given very clear instructions by our teachers not to use usual body care products while outdoor bathing in the near-freezing water. So it was with some shock and indignation that we noticed plenty of bubbles floating toward us at our chosen bathing spot. But it was no mystery: there was another Year 8 group camping further upstream!

Years later, as I recalled this experience of being ‘downstream’ from others, I readily could grasp and appropriate the words of Brian McClaren:

Clearly, if our thinking extends beyond “me, myself, and I” to our neighbours (human and nonhuman) as the gospel teaches us, we will realize that our neighbours downstream suffer from our water pollution, downwind from our air pollution, and downhill from our erosion. And when we consider our neighbours in time as well as space, we start thinking differently about our children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants. What toxins are we sending downstream in time to poison them? What kind of world do we want to bequeath to those downstream from us in time? … The more we as Christians follow Jesus by thinking of our neighbors (sic) “downstream” in space and time, the more we will take our stewardship of creation seriously.[1]

More recently, my reading of Isaiah kick-started another round of wrestling with the concept of loving neighbours downstream in time and the related issue of intergenerational justice. At the end of proto-Isaiah, in a very short chapter of just 8 verses, Isaiah the prophet announces a word of judgement upon Judah, stating boldly to Hezekiah:

Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. (Is 39:5-7, NIV)

Somewhat ironically, Hezekiah had just welcomed an envoy of special international ambassadors from Babylon and had very proudly shown them absolutely everything in his abundant kingdom (v.4)! But for me that wasn’t the real kicker. The verse that hit me like a tonne of bricks was actually verse 8:

“The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” (emphasis mine)

In recent years I have spent time serving alongside local volunteers with Environment Victoria, many of whom are approaching their twilight years. It is quite possible that this verse jumped out at me because what motivates many of these new friends so keenly is the idea of leaving a safe and thriving and planet for their grand-children. Their attention is focused not on getting more for themselves in the now but rather on the legacy that they will leave behind for others. Their perspective and priorities indicate a high level of generativity, which is something people tend to develop later in life.[2] That said, within networks focussed on creation care and action on climate, more and more younger folk are also feeling compelled to contemplate the future with great seriousness – see Facebook groups such as What Will We Leave Our Children? and Australian Parents for Climate Action. And Conceivable Future (‘a grassroots woman-led network bringing awareness to the threat climate change poses to childbearing’) takes this another step further, providing a forum in which one can explore the ethical dilemma of procreation in a warming world.

Christian indifference and the gospel imperative

Old Testament commentators vary in their interpretation of the events described in Isaiah chapter 8. Some view Hezekiah’s response as an appropriate and humble resignation to divine will[3] while others suggest it indicates complacency and self-interest, in contrast to the piety he is generally known for.[4] Rightly or not, my initial reading probably echoed Widyapranawa’s observations of a rather ‘materialistic and egoistic’ Hezekiah: ‘His attitude towards the future of the Kingdom of Judah and towards his own descendents seems indifferent.’[5] This indifference may be less astounding if the preceding two chapters (Is 37 & 38) didn’t provide clear examples of Hezekiah crying out in distress and weeping bitterly in petition, in response to both the threat of war and personal illness. And both times there was a miraculous delivery, which surely would have affirmed Hezekiah’s humble faith in the power of repentance and prayer! So why his passivity when it comes to his children’s future? Why the indifference, or at least acquiescence?

Shifting forward a few millennia, I can recognise reasons for our own apparent indifference within the church. Over the past century the protestant church has often been divided over whether to focus primarily on people’s spiritual or physical needs. This dichotomy has often been characterised by a focus on either evangelism or social concern: usually one at the expense of the other. David Bosch is one of many who have tried to highlight how unnecessary and distinctly unhelpful this dualistic approach is. One analogy is to liken evangelism and social justice to two blades of a pair of scissors, ideally held together by fellowship.[6] The Great Commission and The Great Commandment are not separable. Yet, given our tendency to struggle to strategically allocate time, energy, resources and concern across these two dimensions, it is no surprise that we’ve had little capacity to also consider the needs, challenges and opportunities of future generations. It was also Bosch who warned of the ‘high eschatological fever’ that exists in some parts of the church, which often has the effect of changing eschatology into apocalypticism.[7] We would not be the first generation in history to side-step our moral obligations to future generations on the basis of a deep conviction about the imminent return of Jesus. Yet, based on the passage of time, this is an extremely risky gamble!

In looking for clear Christian thinking on this issue, Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home) certainly stands out. This document is worthy of our attention for its succinct and somber survey of issues facing our generation, including issues of pollution, climate change, water security, biodiversity loss, a decline in the quality of human life, societal breakdown and rising global inequality. Most readers will be aware that we face myriad of profoundly pressing challenges, so I won’t go into detail here. But, amidst the dire warnings regarding our troubling predicament, woven through this document is a focus that deeply affirms a moral stance of generativity:

Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation… We can be silent witnesses to terrible injustices if we think that we can obtain significant benefits by making the rest of humanity, present and future, pay the extremely high costs of environmental deterioration. (para 36.)

Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years. Yet we are called to be instruments of God our Father, so that our planet might be what he desired when he created it and correspond with his plan for peace, beauty and fullness. The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. (para 53)

And, in Section Five, titled ‘Justice Between the Generations’, this call becomes even more explicit:

The notion of the common good also extends to future generations. The global economic crises have made more painfully obvious the detrimental effects of disregarding our common destiny, which cannot exclude those who come after us. We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity. (para 159)

The Encyclical goes on to speak of the need for ‘decisive action, here and now’ and our ‘accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences’ (para 161) of our inaction. The connection is made between the deterioration of our natural environment, rampant individualism and ‘today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification’ (para 162). This link is echoed by Michele Dillon and Paul Wink, writing in The Generative Society:

... American spiritual individualism, a religion befitting the contemporary therapeutic culture, is perceived as causing a decline in American generativity. It is seen as directly resulting in a decline in communal participation and care for others and, indirectly, by fostering a self-centred and self-satisfied view that nothing is wrong with the world and therefore nothing needs fixing… Thus instead of fostering a critical reflexivity and broad social perspective, a self-seeking spirituality can instead suppress awareness of social inequalities and the motivation to try to ameliorate them.[8]

The three editors of The Generative Society issue warnings as pronounced as those of Pope Francis, arguing that we ignore these issues to our children’s peril:

But on a societal and global level, the threats to generativity that we face in the first years of the third millennium would appear to be as formidable as any we have ever known… Even setting aside the possibility of nuclear cataclysm, the world today faces stupendous challenges and constraints - from global warming to finite energy sources - that raise the strong possibility that there soon may be no viable world to leave to future generations.[9]

‘Future Earth’: National Science Week 2017

This year, the theme for National Science Week in schools is ‘Future Earth’, looking particularly at sustainability science including issues of water, energy and food security, climate stability, urban design, sustainable consumption and social resilience. While this is a great encouragement to me (this focus is both overdue and necessary), I will be interested to see whether this sparks conversations around the notion of Intergenerational Equity, without which the emphasis on our Future Earth loses much of its moral urgency.

In her book Future Justice, Janna Thompson states, ‘A society is intergenerationally just when each generation does its fair share to enable members of succeeding generations, both inside and outside its borders, to satisfy their needs, to avoid serious harm and to have the opportunity to enjoy things of value.’[10] I appreciated her inclusion of those outside our own borders, as we are often - but not always - better at looking after the needs of those in our own backyard. Naomi Klein refers to those other places inhabited by other (less fortunate) people as ‘sacrifice zones’:

Running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones - whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable. And for a very long time, sacrifice zones all shared a few elements in common. They were poor places. Out-of-the-way places. Places where residents lacked political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language and class. And the people who live in these condemned places knew they had been written off.[11]

Klein continues by suggesting that the ‘sacrifice zones created by our collective fossil fuel dependence are creeping and spreading like great shadows over the earth… the game is up, and we are all in the sacrifice zone now.’[12] For many of us this may not yet feel true, but I am continually confronted by the thought that our current trajectory condemns Earth to a future existence as one big, global sacrifice zone where noone and nothing is really safe. And all of this is for the sake of our immediate convenience and material comfort, and of course short-sighted political expediency. Where is the love in this way of life?

As I lament, I find myself wondering about the general lack of concern expressed by the declining-but-still-affluent church in the West, and how this situation might be turned around. In his own twilight years, Tom Sine - now an octogenarian – has recently published a book called Live LIke you Give a Damn!. Oh how my soul echoes his plea to join ‘a new generation of changemakers who are creating new ways to make a difference and be a difference’! Yet this call still seems to be echoing around on the very fringe of the Australian church.

If a focus on generativity is a possible key to a range of challenges, and if generativity itself is the fruit of not just age but also of moral and spiritual maturity, then surely Science Week is a perfect opportunity for people of faith to contribute in some unique ways as school communities grapple with the urgent need to care for our Future Earth. Indeed, it has been suggested that ‘There is no possibility of creating truly generative people without inducting them into a culture of generativity with powerful accompanying symbols’. Furthermore, as much as we can tend toward generativity if left to our own devices, ‘communities of tradition that contain generativity inspiring narratives’ are apparently an essential part of the mix.[13] Surely this is where our churches can and must be an integral part of the solution to our climate crisis, in re-framing the debate and re-forming the hearts and minds of people.

Getting personal

On a personal note, in our own attempt to be the change, we are forging ahead with plans for an urban co-housing development in Frankston, Victoria, that is underpinned by values of community, sustainability, justice and lifelong learning. I was first inspired to think about this idea when I read Tom Sine's 1999 book Mustard Seed versus McWorld. It is hard work, and we’ve struggled through opposition from neighbours who want to keep things the way they’ve always been. But the plight of planet earth calls us to change now, for the sake of future generations.

Maybe this is why our ideological battles so often seem so fraught. Maybe, in line with the 7th Generation Principle of the ancient Iroquois, we too need to start by running every decision - personal, governmental, corporate or even neighbourhood - through the matrix of how it will affect our descendants, seven generations into the future. Maybe then we’ll begin to notice afresh the strong grip of our destructive, selfish, compulsive, short-termism. And, just maybe, in altering our lens and shifting the goalposts, we will start to witness the real and rapid change that is needed to protect the basic needs of precious generations to come.

Because here’s the fundamental thing: if something is not sustainable, the implication is it just won’t be sustained. We choose change now: or change will be forced upon our children and our children’s children.

Please, choose change.

Claire Dawson co-authored A Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in Warming World with meteorologist Dr Mick Pope in 2014 (UNOH Publications). Claire spends her time juggling work as a School Careers Counsellor, her young family, and varying degrees of local environmental action. She hopes to be enjoying community life at The Digs well before 2020!

[1] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 242.

[2] Interestingly, in the context of Narrative Careers Counselling, ‘generative integration’ refers to the process of bringing higher order meaning to one’s personal story as a life approaches its termination. Generative thinking might be something more and more young adults are introduced to as an essential part of 21st Century life: Deakin University’s Bachelor of Management now includes a focus on Global Citizenship, highlighting our responsibilities both to the environment AND to future generations.

[3] August H. Konkel, 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 612.

[4] R.E. Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 296.

[5] S.H. Widyapranawa, Isaiah 1 - 39: The Lord is Saviour: Faith in National Crisis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 260, 263.

[6] David J. Bosch, Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980), 227.

[7] Bosch, Witness to the World, 235.

[8] Michele Dillon and Paul Wink, ‘American Religion, Generativity, and the Therapeutic Culture’ in Ed de St Aubin et al. (eds.), The Generative Society (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2004), 157.

[9] de St Aubin, The Generative Society, 5.

[10] Helen Sykes (Ed.), Future Justice (Sydney: Future Leaders, 2007), 6.

[11] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (London: Penguin, 2014), 310.

[12] Klein, This Changes Everything, 315.

[13] Don Browning, ‘An Ethical Analysis of Eikson’s Concept of Generativity’, in de St Aubin The Generative Society, 252.

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