I am, like you, a seventh generation grandchild. I am also a grandfather. What did Chief Seneca have in mind when he suggested we should consider the needs of the seventh generation grandchildren when we make decisions? He spoke as an adult, an Elder, a decision-maker, and a leader, but his advice was for all. What does that mean to look ahead seven generations? If I look back seven generations, I would see my parents (#1), my grandparents (#2), my great grandparents (#3), my great-grandparents (#4), my great-great-grandparents (#5), my great-great-great-grandarents (#6), and finally my great-great-great-great-grandparents. How many years ago did they live? My parents were in their prime about 60 years ago. Each of their successive parents lived for many years.
So my seven generations looked back from where I stand some 300 years. The early 1700s. Inventions: the mercury thermometer, the flying shuttle, the discovery of oxygen, the steamboat, the circular saw and bifocals. Musicians: Albonini, Bach, Couperin, Handel Hayden, Mozart, Pachelbel, Telemann, Vivaldi. Writers: Austen, Burns, Defoe, Pope, de Sade Schiller, Scott, Voltaire. Philosophers: Bentham, Diderot, Hume, Paine, Rousseau, Wesley. Scientists (although the name didn’t exist then): Banks, Bernouli, Celsius, Faherenheit, Lavoisier, Linneaus, Lomonosov, Malthus, Smith.
The legacy of these examples springs to mind with each mention of a name and how it influences us today. I wonder how many of them were thinking about the year 2012 when they were in their prime, doing those amazing things. Did the inventors know their ideas would be the foundation of much of our technology and understanding some 300 years hence? Certainly some did. Malthus specifically issued a warning. Adam Smith set the stage in economics. Linneaus might have understood the importance of his ideas for future generations. The writers, Austen, deFoe, Schiller, Voltaire wrote as if time were irrelevant and ideas were forever.
I am willing to bet not a single one of them would doubt that humankind would still be human with all their wondrous and terrible characteristics. These people worked to establish principles, ideas, concepts, philosophies, guidelines for life, and inventions to ease the work and pain of everyday living. If we think about the impact these and others have on us 300 years, seven generations hence, it is an important observation. The warnings of Malthus are true today. The ability to measure temperature was improved immensely in the 1700s with the mercury thermometer and we still regard it as one of the most accurate methods of measuring temperature even to day, some 300 years later. Much of the thinking of people from the 1700s shapes the decisions we make today. Smith’s economic ideas that grew from a century’s earlier John Locke set the tone and much of the structure of modern capitalism and how its governance or lack of governance influences the lives of everyday people. While Linnaeus himself was simply trying to provide order to the mushrooming number of undescribed species that were being brought back to Europe from around the globe, it made possible the development of a concept we now call evolution with all its modern attendants on the development of modern preventative medicine and the influence of genes and DNA on living organisms today.
What we do today will likely have a similarly profound influence on life for our descendants 300 years from now. Is it any more likely that from our modern vantage point we could predict more accurately a 300 year vision of the planet than could any of the 1700 philosophers like Schiller and Voltaire, or the nameless engineers and medical practitioners of the day? Not likely. In fact, if I look back only through my lifetime, there are many technological advances including colour photography, computers, lasers, the end of horse-drawn ice delivery, cell phones, and many more. Changes in society have been profound with the rise of human rights, elimination of Jim Crow laws in the US, rights of women to hold property and approve medical care for their children in Quebec Canada, and in some countries a rapidly broadening acceptance of cultures, religions, and behaviours. The world has seen a dramatic rise in population since I was born in 1939 from just about 2.3 billion people to well over 7 billion today. Considering that it took 100,000 years to rise from a few thousand people to 2.3 billion and less than 75 to add another 4.7 billion people, I can be allowed to look with some alarm at the potential for a continued exponential rise in population that by most estimates to day will be close 9 billion before I die. So in my lifetime the world will likely have increased by a factor approaching four times. By the time my youngest grandchild (the second generation of Seneca’s seven) is my age, even with conservative estimates, the population may easily top 11 billion people. The world’s average life expectancy at birth (both sexes combined) has increased from 46.6 years in 1950 to 67.6 years in 2010. By 2050, the world’s average life expectancy at birth will be 75.5 years. By 2300 life expectancy in developed countries is projected to be 106 years. From my perspective all of that is very difficult, but certainly not impossible to comprehend.
Suppose we look at the results of the Industrial revolution that had its embryonic stages in the 1700, flowered in the 1800s, matured in the 1900s and is now moving into the digital revolution. Where did the energy and resources come from to make all that possible? The energy source was and remains fossil fuels today. Realistically it is probable that the world simply will not have enough fossil fuel to provide inexpensive energy for the full life of my youngest grandchild. What will come next as energy to fuel a world of 11 billion people or more? Or instead will the world population begin to fall back by then? But then, does it even matter that I guess correctly? Certainly none of the people in the 1700s would likely have correctly predicted either the energy or the population.
So what is that they did that matters so much to us today? And can we do the same so that our seventh generation descendents will also have a 300 year old legacy of fundamentally correct ideas and inventions to rely on as they also move forward.
No doubt some of those 1700 decisions were really bad and resulted in deaths, destruction, suffering, and waste. Other decisions such as the ones I have briefly referred to were wonderful and have made life easier for us. Others shaped our philosophical positions for better or worse. Probably, just like today, the people who made these decisions were driven by passion, enthusiasm, need, desire, and the whole panoply of human emotions and requirements. But it is also likely that just as today, the main thrust of their efforts was aimed at the problems of the day, in some cases, mixed with a generous dollop of interest for their children and grandchildren. I suggest children and grandchildren because these are people we know and love.
In their day and still today, except for a very few people, no one planned or plans further ahead than providing some legacy for the second generation offspring. There are many possible reasons for this lack of distant foresight. But certainly one is needing to know what the seventh generation children will actually need. Just as it is difficult to imagine ourselves living in the 1700s, it is also difficult to place ourselves in the years 2300 and beyond. Three hundred years ago, the Age of Enlightenment spread notions of reason, democracy, and scientific progress throughout much of the world. What will the name be for the “age” in 2300? Experts say available information doubles every decade. Thus, in 300 years, 30 decades from now, information will expand nearly 300 million times. If this is actually going to be the case, what can we even possibly imagine the technological and medical advances might be. On the other hand, global warming and the current relatively indifferent actions that governments are taking could give people even 150 years from now quite a rough ride. If the temperature were to soar to 6C or 8C higher than to day, the planet would have a lot less land and much of what is now tropical would be uninhabitable except perhaps for lizards. Under those or worse conditions at 300 years from now, the likelihood of exceptional technical and high living standards is not very great.
In the end, while we can be cognizant of the seventh generation needs, because predicting their physical and technical needs is not really possible for most of us, the key is focus on those things we can do now to provide the most likely outcomes that will benefit our descendants. These include holding to a strong bias to assist and cooperate with our family, colleagues, and communities, being careful not to waste natural resources and to try to recycle and reuse what we can, encouraging the use of energy sources that ultimately do not deplete the capital of high energy fossil fuels for the future if they are needed for emergencies, encouraging the use of techniques that increase the diversity of life in our regions rather than decreasing diversity through pollution, poor agricultural techniques, and bad management of food distribution and handling. We can also muse in writing, voice recordings, and on-line video using modern day techniques to describe our best ideas on philosophy, culture, art, interpersonal behaviour and moral values as potential advice and guidance for our seventh generation descendants. At the same time, those new people will also have new ideas, new standards, and new challenges, so we cannot define their future. We can only offer advice from our, what will then be, ancient perspectives.