“We don’t inherit the earth, we borrow it from our children.” Chief Seattle
I first saw this quotation from this wise Native American leader many years ago. It was actually written on a greeting card, a rather prosaic vehicle for such a profound message. Nevertheless, this saying means a lot to me… it resonates. In fact, it has come to represent my overall approach to not only my personal life, but my businesses as well. I like the fact that it has turned the selfish paradigm, “live for the moment”, and the conservative outlook of “respect traditions” on their respective heads. Instead of being only concerned with oneself or always looking backwards, the message from Chief Seattle is forward thinking… respect those yet to come, live for their benefit. Implicitly, as far as I’m concerned, it says “be sustainable”.
The United Nations (UN) defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundt Commission, 1987). It’s hard to imagine a more concise and rational statement to help guide us, and predetermine our actions here on earth. Unfortunately not many people listen to the UN and collectively we’re too selfish as nations to give the organization any “teeth” (another essay is required to pursue that subject!). So what will possibly motivate people to change their destructive and unsustainable behaviour? When will the fact that “50% of the oceans fish have disappeared in the last 40 years” actually cause nations to step back and re-think fishing regulations and waterway oversight? Unfortunately we already know that the UN will have little or no effect on multi-nationals who are almost solely concerned with shareholder returns. Hell, many of those large companies not only transcend national borders, their wealth and power exceeds many nations! Part of the problem is that the UN statement is a bit bland and lacks imagination. There must be a greater unifying idea which gives impetus to real change.
Most people are inherently selfish and have trouble thinking beyond themselves, their family and their tribe – the only thing that guides them is their traditions and religion… embedded in those teachings is often an appeal to selflessness… the so-called “Golden Rule” that is found I most religious texts… yet it is not enough for the environment - we clearly see the earth being continually degraded. I come from a religious background that teaches that the earth was made in six days, believes in talking snakes and claims there was once a ship that held the whole animal kingdom! My god, what hope is there for people (rationally) coming from that tradition? None.
“Teach your children that the earth is our Mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth”, was another saying from Chief Seattle. This sort of thinking calls for a different approach to living. It demands timely action. It calls for the kind of deep respect one would have for their mother. The obvious message, or lesson, is that our activity directly impacts the earth and its inhabitants… there is a clear connection. Yet, we go on and on, oblivious, not caring about the negative effects our actions have upon the planet. It is time for a new, more powerful guiding principle. What we need is a universal myth that is somehow grounded in reality… something logical…believable.
In ancient Greece there was a belief in a primordial being, a Goddess, called “Gaia”. She was the mother of all things – the earth, universe and heavenly gods. This belief mirrors that of many First Nations (indigenous) people around the world. This perspective engenders a powerful respect for our planet and a tradition of “giving back” to it/her. It’s great stuff, but not something that is widely accepted. To most of us it is simply a fanciful myth. This is where James Lovelock becomes important… as a well-respected scientist he was able, with the help of other scientists, to develop a modern theory known as the “Gaia Principle”. Lovelock posits that the earth itself is a self-regulating and complex system. It can almost be compared to a living (planetary) being (it lacks one characteristic of other organisms in that it hasn’t reproduced…yet!) . Part of this theory recognizes the tendency of much of the earth to maintain stability…known as homeostasis. One (perplexing) example is the ocean’s ability to keep the salt level almost precisely constant – this occurs despite countless fresh water rivers flowing into it without any obvious replenishing of salt. This phenomenon is still not understood by scientists, but it is well recorded. Part of the Gaia Principle also involves the earth’s ability to maintain surface temperatures relatively constant, thereby allowing many organisms, including humans , to thrive. In other words, the earth seems to have an inherent ability/mechanism to control inputs in a way that does not compromise its condition (very much like human systems that monitor and control the inner workings of our body). Lovelock has also shown that the earth works back to a stable atmosphere even after catastrophic events – it has a powerful self-correcting tendency! Looking at the earth as a “being” would certainly change our world-view! It would be a profound paradigm shift…and, perhaps, make us treat the planet, her, much differently. If the Gaia theory is correct, it changes everything.
Imagine if major endeavours of mankind were measured, first and foremost, by their future repercussions on a living planet? Instead of profits in the next quarter, or five years, corporations will be concerned with the impact their actions will have on future generations. For example, architects, engineers and investors will now ask “how will this construction benefit our children’s, children’s, children?” As another famous Native American leader once said, “Let us put our minds together and see what we can make for our children.” (Sitting Bull). Imagine if that was our raison d’être and normal modus operandi!
A world that is respected, nurtured and loved will become a better place. The endless pollution and rapacious use of resources is foolish. It can also make one very despondent. I firmly believe we are squandering both a miraculous gift and responsibility. It would be nice to leave a planet that is healthier and more beautiful than the one we were born into…it’s possible. At the very least we can start by changing our basic thoughts about what we’re living on…perhaps it’s finally time that we understand that the earth is not just a collection of inanimate rocks and other materials that supports various plants, micro-organisms, many animals, etc….. Rather, the earth is actually a dynamic kind of super organism that is trying, hopefully, to maintain an equilibrium that supports life – it is as if it’s always working to stabilize things for future generations. Maybe we can help? I’ve found that taking actions that are good for the future actually makes me feel more alive… and, simultaneously, more in the moment. Serene. We should all be inspired by the old Greek proverb: “A society is great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.” Amen.