Greetings from snowy Camden, NJ!
“Seven generations.” This is a scope of generations that Native Americans suggest we use to think about the impact of our actions. If we imagine 28 years for a generation, that means we are to think about how our actions today will impact our descendants 196 years from now. Let’s try an experiment! 196 years ago was 1818. James Monroe was the 5th President of the United States. The US was 3 years removed from victory in the War of 1812. The Treaty of 1818 extended the United States from coast to coast, initiating a time knows as the “Era of Good Feelings.” It was also the time when inventors were tinkering with the locomotive, a device that would revolutionize human life, not only in the US but around the world.
What have been the impacts of the locomotive? It has clearly had tremendous economic, social and political consequences that would be difficult to catalog. It is a clear example of the ingenuity of human creativity to harness the resources of nature to improve the human condition. However, the railroad has also made possible possibilities that arguably have led to the deterioration in the health of the planet. This, too, might be a catalog too difficult to do adequately. I want to touch on a few. First, people could be moved more rapidly across space, so the continent quickly filled with people, straining the overall resources of the continent. This led to technologies that could increase the yield of an acre of land, but those same technologies quickly deplete the natural capacity of the land. Second, it made it easier to wage war, enabling nations to quickly mobilize forces, both human and technological, that leave a heavy imprint on the planet, not to mention human lives. Third, it became increasingly possible to grow our food farther and farther from our homes, enabling pineapples and oranges year round in New York City, and a decrease in the average person’s attachment to the land, a hallmark of earlier human generations. Of course, these benefits and costs are cataloged from the distance of 7 generations. Of course, the locomotive cannot be the sole locus of responsibility for these consequences, whether positive or negative. The point of this exercise is to imagine the expanse of time and possibility that encompasses seven generations. How will some of the things we can do now be evaluated from the perspective of a person living in 2210? How might we behave differently if we abide by the Native American attention to the “seventh generation?”
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but recent news events have made me think about this anew. The Midwest United States, with some of the richest soil on the planet, is losing that soil at a phenomenal rate. The USDA reports that the state of Iowa loses 5 million tons of top soil, on average, each year. However, researchers from Iowa State University reported that during a recent 5 day storm, they recorded the loss of 1.2 million tons of top soil. In FIVE DAYS! The erosion story will get worse because of the recent Farm Bill passed by Congress and signed by President Obama. The farm bill provides insurance to farmers in case of catastrophic loss. On the surface this seems great, but it creates incentives for risky behavior, such as cultivating the natural soil erosion barriers that exist. These are risky and are often not tilled by farmers, but if the risk is taken away, the farmers till it. This exacerbates the erosion problem. Listen to an interview on this aspect of the 2014 Farm Bill.
Another practice I wonder about is mountain top removal, something happening in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. This process involves the literal removal of the top of a mountain so that the coal trapped in the mountain is exposed for mining. The mountain top is dumped into the valleys formed by the mountains, clogging rivers which are sources of life for the ecosystem, including the human beings who live there. The reclamation process attempts to smooth out the destroyed mountains, and to terrace the removed soil, but the now heavily acidic soil is an inhospitable environment for vegetation. I wondered about the seventh generation from today, and what they’ll find in the once majestic mountain regions of this part of the United States.
At the end of our retreats at the Center, we offer a blessing to those who have spent time with us. We bless them with the words:
You are blessed with olive oil given by the Earth. You are blessed with oil of rosemary
for remembrance of what you have seen, and heard, and experienced. You are blessed
within the Circle of Life, of which you are a part. You are commissioned to help care for
the Earth, for all people, here and at home and to pass your goodness to seven generations.
The results of human ingenuity have been profound, and have benefited humanity in many ways. That cannot be doubted. What gives me pause these days, and I pray that it will give me pause always, is that what I do today, what we do today, with our eye on addressing a need today, on the suffering today, can often blind us to the impacts on the seventh generation. It’s difficult enough to imagine my grandchild asking me why I didn’t do something to stop human-induced global warming. How much more difficult it is, and tragic, to consider that my great-, great-, great-, great-, great granddaughter might wonder what I was thinking, what we were thinking, in pursuing strategies that depleted the Midwestern United States of its topsoil or leveled the great mountains of the southern Appalachian range!
I pray for the insight and the courage to think through to the seventh generation as I do my living today.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President, Board of Trustees
The Center for Environmental Transformation