Today, as we talk about healing our world and our communities, I know we are keeping in our hearts all those who have recently gone through the fury of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. We pray for them and their safety.
We also do all we can here in Atlanta to help in the recovery. Many mosques, churches and synagogues opened their doors to our neighbors from Florida, and some of us have friends riding out this stormy time with us. We have posted on our Facebook page the listings of places to donate or volunteer, to get the word out.
Sustaining Our Neighbors — We Are All in Each Other’s Care
We see that devastation brought by storms like Harvey, or Irma, brings out the best in us. These crises bring out of us the deep knowledge that we are each other’s keepers, that we are all in each other’s care. While the winds, rain, and water tear up and devastate our homes and towns, we take it upon ourselves to rebuild, comfort, and sustain each other. You see it everywhere, and we’ll see more of, and participate in it, in days and weeks to come.
We here at One World know that we are interconnected, that we are all part of what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a network of mutuality. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “Interbeing.” What happens to you happens to me happens to all of us.
The closer we come to awareness, the more we live this truth.
Sustainability and the Choices We Make
Today, I want to widen that circle of Interbeing to include the future, to those who follow. What is our relationship to them? What do we owe them?
What can we do, what do we need to do, to be regarded by those yet unborn as beloved ancestors, remembered for leaving them a wonderful posterity?
My talk today is entitled To the Seventh Generation. This idea, also called the seventh generation principle, comes to us from Native American wisdom. It teaches that in every decision — individual, community, or governmental — we must consider how our choice will affect our descendants seven generations into the future.
Will the choices we make today permit those not yet born to enjoy the resources, abundance, and beauty of nature we see around us? Will they be able to drink the water, breathe the air, see the trees and mountains? Are we leaving them the magnificent and sustaining world we inherited?
Sustainability for Generations to Come
We in the West normally consider a generation to be 25 years, but in the Lakota Nation a generation is 100 years. Based on our lifestyles and consumption today, what will our home look like in 700 years? What life will it sustain?
As I was preparing this talk, I came across a TED talk from a scientist named Carolyn Raffensperger, who is Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. Raffensperger spoke of an experience she had several years ago, when she had been called to write a protocol for safeguarding an abandoned gold mine up near the Arctic Circle called the Giant Mine.
Now you wouldn’t think an abandoned gold mine would need much safeguarding, but the problem with this one was that the mining had resulted in the creation of 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide dust, which is highly toxic even in small doses. This dust had been blown back into the mine and trapped along with tons of other toxins onsite, and they had to be effectively sealed off. Already vegetation had died and water had become toxic and dangerous. Wildlife, if they even survived, fled the area.
Scientists estimate that this mine will remain toxic for 250,000 years. Using the Lakota metric of 100 years, that is 2,500 generations. Using the shorter measure of 25 years, it’s 10,000 generations.
Sustainability in the Long-Term
The Giant Mine is obviously not the only example of long-term physical scars left by human hands. As of February, 2014, there were 1,322 Superfund sites in the U.S. alone, identified as those sites requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous and toxic conditions left by manufacture, mining, or other human use.
These sites are our own homegrown examples of human disregard for the natural resources we are meant to treasure. Multiplied around the planet, they exemplify the attitude of exploitation and reckless consumption that now threatens our very future. We have become out of balance, taking and consuming resources as if there are no consequences. However, one thing we know is that there are always consequences, and we are beginning to experience them on a global level now.
But, no one experiences tragedies on a global level; we experience them in our homes, our communities, and our cities and towns.
Sustainability and Climate Change
I did some research for this talk on climate change caused by human activity and it was a sobering picture. It’s not hopeless, but earth has been sending us a call to action for a long time.
For thirty years we’ve known that carbon dioxide is a heat- trapping gas; too much of it can trap heat close to the earth and cause oceans to warm.
We didn’t listen. We continued our love affair with fossil fuels and now are beginning to pay the price.
Before the 18th century, when we in the industrial west began to burn coal, oil, and gas, our atmosphere typically contained about 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. Those are the conditions, scientists at Cornell University write, “on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.”
Now, due to our dependence on fossil fuels, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is skyrocketing. In 2014, Co2 concentrations crossed 400 ppm in the atmosphere for the first time in at least 2.5 million years. 400 ppm is what many earth scientists see as a tipping point leading to irreversible changes in major ecosystems and our planetary climate system. Life on earth becomes unsustainable in the long term past 350 ppm, and we are past it.
Other problems arise from our reckless use of earth’s resources. Rising sea levels, with increased acidity, melting glaciers, increased rainfall and more severe storms, deforestation, and changes in agricultural patterns are all happening now. Many of the temperature and agricultural conditions that made the US the breadbasket of the world are now spreading into Canada as warmer temperatures spread north. Decreased biodiversity threatens food supplies as well as the ability of our oceans to sustain life. Biodiversity is critical to our global ecosystem.
And, we may not think we need all these pesky bugs, but believe me, we need them more than they need us.
Sustainability and Consumerism
We also just use so much more than we need. The World Wildlife Fund says that we are using 25% more natural resources than the planet can sustain. We consume all we can, for as long as we are here, and then it’s someone else’s problem. I get mine, yours is up to you. It is this attitude that so capsulizes the approach we have taken, as a global community, to the precious earth that sustains us.
We are learning to reject this self-centered approach as we relate to each other, as we learn to honor and respect our neighbors. Now, we need to widen the circle of our love and care to our natural home and all the life it sustains.
Many of our wisdom traditions teach us to care for our physical world with love and respect. Judaism and Christianity teach that God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26-28).
Sustainability or Domination?
But what is dominion? The word has been both misunderstood and misapplied. It has been used to mean exploitation and sometimes plunder – to place man above his world, and the world entirely at his service and for his pleasure.
However, dominion does not mean submission or exploitation. It does not even mean ownership. Psalm 24 teaches that, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
It’s not ours. As the manifestations of the divine here on earth, we are entrusted with creation, to care for it with reverence and respect, as all creation belongs to Source. The way we care for our planet is an inevitable extension of our connection to Spirit, our love for each other. We are taking care of God’s world, for the time we are here, and then we pass it on.
In 2015 Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. Pope Francis said he was addressing “every person living on this planet.” He spoke of the “ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity.” He urged all people to:
. . . replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion.
The same notion of loving care can be found in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddhist world view does not imagine a world in which humankind is raised above other forms of creation. Man is not superior to other sentient beings, and all are connected. The eightfold path contains the imperative of “right action” that requires us to take an ethical approach to all life, to consider the past, present, and future generations. Use only what we need. Live simply. Care for our world. Live with moderation. Respect nature.
Our obligation toward other life, toward future generations and the balance of all life, is more pressing than the quarterly imperative for profits. It’s past time for us to engage as loving stewards of our earth, as beloved ancestors of those who follow.
Sustainable Stewardship – The Seventh Generation Principle
Merriam Webster defines stewardship as “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” Something entrusted to one’s care. Listen to that, to the energy of that. What does it mean?
To me, it means that the resources I control right now, whatever they are, are not mine to own. They are entrusted to me, not given outright to me to use however I wish. If I own them, I have no duty to anyone else as to what I do with them. I can squander them, waste them, do nothing with them, and not put them to their best use. If they are entrusted to me, I have a responsibility that extends beyond me. I am a steward, not an owner, of the bounty God has given. We are all such stewards.
We are each here for only a time and then we move on, leaving the air, water, and land for those who come after us. This truth has to affect how we live in our world.
The Seventh Generation principle has been called by another term commonly used in the field of risk management. The term is the Precautionary Principle, and it states: “When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” In other words, if a choice could cause harm you do what you can to make sure it doesn’t, or you don’t do it.
We have a form of this already – on a governmental level we do study environmental impacts and plan mitigation. However, perhaps we need to put greater weight on the element of risk, and give more respect to the consequences that only might happen, but are, nevertheless, unacceptable. Perhaps we need to look at these choices with a worldview that our earth is finite, alive, and sacred, instead of through the self-defeating lens that these natural resources are ours to consume for comfort, recreation, or profit.
As the Cree proverb goes “Only after the last tree has been cut down. Only after the last river has been poisoned. Only after the last fish has been caught. Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
Money cannot be eaten, and future generations should count now.
Carolyn Raffensperger had a great idea here that I really like. She noted that the federal government has offices that watch out for small business, for minorities, for children and youth, for a whole range of different groups. What if we had an office of future generations? What if they got a voice, if they had a presence actively speaking for their interest?
The good news here is that living with an eye toward future generations also makes life so much better for ourselves. When we care for the water, air, resources, and each other, our lives improve.
So What Does It Mean To Live From The Seventh Generation Principle?
So what does it mean to live from the Seventh Generation Principle? We make sure that each step we take, each choice we make, sustains our environment and our planet. We direct our resources to those products and vendors that produce responsibly. We let our voices be heard for the production and use of renewable energy, as the best uses of fossil fuels is to keep them in the ground. The good news is that voices for renewable energy are growing in number and volume, and are being heard.
Elect governmental leaders who will do the right thing, with the long view toward environmental preservation and sustainability, even if we’re told it will cost jobs. Can’t we come up with jobs that will sustain our environment? If we have government leaders in place who continue to place short-term gain above long term earth health, tell them it’s unacceptable to you. Don’t be silent.
Here are some more ideas I came across – ideas that will help us on an individual level do what we can to heal our world:
- We participate less in our throwaway culture – recycle more. We knew that, but we can do better.
- Use less plastic. In my house we’ve stopped using Ziploc bags for the kids’ lunch – we use wax paper. Ok, you throw that away but it’s all we have.
- Spay and neuter your pets. Shelters are already overflowing, and we can cut down the population of homeless dogs and cats.
- Use organic cleaning products.
- Use washable rags, not paper towels.
- Shop locally.
- Fix things that break, instead of buying new ones.
This is just a partial list – your actions are limited only by your imagination.
You know, we often reflect upon the fact that we were lucky enough to be born here and now, in this time and place, and we know there was a reason. Perhaps caring for our planet, and each other on it, may be one of the reasons. Perhaps we are here to be the voice of healing for a world calling for help.
“The Entire Material Universe Speaks of God’s Love”
I’d like to close with a quote from Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, meaning “Praise Be to You.” He wrote:
Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.
A caress of God. It’s time that we begin to touch our home with the same loving hand.
Blog by Rev. Melanie Eyre Spiritual Leader, One World Spiritual Center.