Certainly from a Western perspective, our generation (say the 60 to 80 years old) is arguably the luckiest in the history of humanity. Our parents and grand-parents faced wars, revolutions, genocides, economic depressions, massive unemployment, ideological extremism, political oppression, disease, to name a few of the tribulations. For many, life was brutal and short.
Though there are of course persons who have suffered individual tragedies – we are not talking about paradise on earth – collectively, as a generation, we have been immensely fortunate. We have had peace and unprecedented prosperity. We have been able to travel across the planet. The cultural output has been immensely rich. The state of medicine has allowed us to lead much healthier and longer lives. We have benefited from much greater entertainment and knowledge thanks to the rapidly evolving technologies. Ours was the first generation that had television at home and who today may not be as skilful as younger generations in manipulating the newest gadgets on smart phones and the Internet but profit from them none the less.
We have been sooooo lucky!
As we get to the twilight of our long, comfortable and exciting lives, and approach the exit, we have a moral obligation to ask: and what next? What kind of world are we leaving behind?
As things stand perspectives are not very good … to put it mildly. There are rising problems of social inequality, nationalism and ethno-centrism, long-term indebtedness, persistently and stubbornly structural levels of youth unemployment, among other cancers. As the former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva put it, “how will we explain to our children that we had so much and we did so little”? The immense good fortune that we had looks like it will have been squandered.
Where this disturbing truth is most flagrant is, of course, in respect to the planet – to the environment. There is a beautiful African saying: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
In my first blog for Sagevita, entitled Homage to Louis Armstrong, I referred to and quoted from his beautiful and inspiring song Oh What a Wonderful World. But one has to ask the question in 2013 whether by 2100, or indeed before, this song will make any sense. Most prognostics for when the full negative impact of climate change will occur converge towards the end of the century. We, our generation, once again, are so lucky. We won’t be around. But our grand-children will. I have seven grand-children born between the years 1999 and 2012. They, or at least some of them, should still be earthlings by the end of the century.
We had so much and did so little
We had so much, as Lula said, and did so little. Perhaps one exception may be that the world in the last few decades has experienced very significant poverty reduction. That is true and that is great. And this would not have happened without growth. But the growth we generated ultimately was not sustainable. Lord Stern in his seminal eponymous report, The Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change, insisted on the fact that the two major challenges facing the planet were social development (ensuring for the mass of humanity a reasonable quality of life) and climate change. As he argued, if we fail on one, we will inevitably fail on the other. And that skewed outcome seems on the basis of current trends to be what is happening.
The 1st June 2013 edition of The Economist, reporting on poverty alleviation, estimated that it may be possible to envisage a world in 1930 where poverty will have been near totally abolished. Perhaps. But if we neglect the environment and envisage a planet in the 21st century becoming increasingly a polluted inferno, poverty will not have been abolished at all. We – or rather our children and grand-children – will all be poor!
The absolute moral imperative on our generation now is to make every effort to try to ensure that this scenario does not materialise. We must act and seek to influence decision makers in business and government in a manner that when we return the earth that we have borrowed from our children and grand-children, it will be in reasonable shape and Louis Armstrong’s song will still resonate!