The Gift of Responsibility for the Future
As graduates from the School of Sustainability, each of you is equipped with the ability to envision a better future and to develop the tools and strategies to make it happen. All of you can probably recite word-for-word the Brundtland Commission’s definition, which in many ways launched the modern sustainability movement—“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is a very powerful message because it speaks to the obligations we have for future generations, which we must keep in mind when thinking about our present-day actions. In essence, sustainability asks us to be responsible stewards of and for the future.
The idea of caring for future generations is, of course, not entirely new. In 1916, then President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist alarmed by the rampant destruction of nature he saw happening around him, wrote that:
“Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations.”
He went on to say that this should be a core purpose of our democracy:
“The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”
Thinking in the long-term is by no means easy. Some of you may have foggy memories of great grandparents while great-great grandparents are at best black-and white photographs on a wall or the occasional story passed down. Thinking about needs of great-great grandchildren, who most of us will never meet, is equally difficult. The challenge is to try.
Oren Lyons, a Faithkeeper for the Onandaga Nation in upstate New York, compels us to think seven generations ahead:
“The Peacemaker taught us about the Seven Generations. He said, when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said, make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations coming, so that they may enjoy what you have today.”
If we can think about the well-being of generations to follow, that should change the way we behave. Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden, has been urging decision makers to think about fairness for people from her generation (and generations that follow). In a speech she gave a couple of years ago, she thought about what she might say to her own children far into the future:
“The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
We tend to think of responsibility as a burden. I urge you to think of it as a gift. As graduates from this excellent university and even more excellent School of Sustainability, you will be in positions of authority where you can make a difference. Use that authority to make decisions that will have meaningful, positive impact on your generation and the generations that follow. I guarantee that thinking and acting in this way will bring you happiness and joy—a true gift indeed.
Congratulations to the Class of 2019!