This weekend, Minnow, Fish, Princess Pup and I went for a hike. We didn’t go far. Just enough that we got away from the city and to a spot where we could look out over a lake and see the trees turning colors on the far shore.
I’ve often seen environmental issues framed in terms of our responsibility to future generations. The idea is as old as the Iroquois: “”In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…” and it is the driving force behind the idea of sustainability. Basically, I like to think of it is as a long-period version of the golden rule: “do unto others…”
In abstract, I’ve understood this principle for years. You don’t litter, because then the next hiker has to see your trash (and an animal could get its head stuck in your empty can). You don’t wantonly clearcut because it takes decades (at least) for the habitat to reform. You don’t dump sewage in a river because someone always lives downstream.
But having a daughter has brought the idea of intergenerational responsibility into much sharper focus for me.
It no longer means keeping things clean for some unknown person to enjoy. It means making sure that my daughter has clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. It means making sure that there is enough agricultural land and enough fertile soil so that my daughter can eat healthy foods – and so can every other person on the planet. It means that protecting the last remaining patches of wild lands so that someday she too can climb to the top of a ridge and view a landscape without human imprint. It means trying desperately to keep the climate from going on rampage.
Having a child hasn’t changed the day-to-day business of being a good environmental steward. I still reuse, reduce, recycle, combine errands into a single outing, buy local and organic, refuse to use pesticides or noxious cleaners, and yearn for a shorter commute, less polluting car, or realistic public transport. I still try to educate my students, neighbors, and acquaintances about how and why we are inseparable from the environment around us.
What has changed is that when I wonder if my little actions are worth it – whether they make a difference – my daughter’s smile and laughter come unbidden into my head. Maybe it’s selfish to want to protect the environment so that my daughter can lead a long, healthy, and happy life, but then again, it is the most primal motivation of all…wanting your progeny to succeed. And in this case, the ends (a little bit less environmental degradation) really do justify the means.
And so I teach, and I recycle, and I blog, and I hope that if enough other people join me in those activities, that our daughters, and our daughters’ daughters, and so on for seven generations will be able to live long, healthy, happy lives, and that they too will be able to walk through the woods, look out over a lake and watch the colors on a mild autumn day.