Seventh Generation Amendment: The Blah-Blah-Blah Has to End!

This is one way to reveal how shallow and rotten so much of our lawmaking and business activity is today: put every decision to this test -- How will it affect the grandchildren of our children?

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Juice Media, one of the groups I support on Patreon, has a new video out (with a cameo at the end by Greta Thunberg) that puts the failures of the COP26 meeting in perspective.  In summary, they say we are…well…to keep this family-friendly (in print at least), let’s just say “we’re screwed.”

Our modern civilizations grew, in at least 15-20 different parts of the world, out of tribal hunter/gatherer people who settled down first with pastoralism and then intensive agriculture around, at various places, 25,000-7000 years ago. 

At the time, there were fewer than 250 million humans on the entire planet (perhaps even a tenth of that), and the biosphere seemed like both an unlimited bounty we could eat and drink from, and an unlimited sewer that would always absorb, digest and dispose of our wastes.

That assumption of “no limits to growth” became one of the foundational beliefs that has led us directly to this moment when we must confront the actual limits of what our biosphere can produce and of our ability to dispose of our poisons, particularly our waste carbon. 

Thus, one could argue, our crisis today isn’t one of technology but one of culture and law.  And while technology will play a huge role in stopping or even repairing the damage we’ve done, the true solutions must first come from changes in our culture and law.

To that, we can learn from older cultures that had thousands of years, themselves, to approach and exceed the limits of their own growth and learn from their disasters. 

For example, as I noted in The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, in North America we no longer see many animals that were part of the ecosystem 20,000 years ago unless we look in the La Brea Tar Pits and fossil digs.

Gone are the giant woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons, giant bears and sloths, the lumbering glyptodons (a very large armadillo-like animal), wild ancestors of horses, and camels, among others.

Around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, these animals and 57 other major species of large mammals vanished from the Americas: an extinction that occurred, on the planet’s timescale, in the blink of an eye.

But why?

The popular theory was that they died as the result of a climatic change brought about by the end of the Ice Age around 12,000 years ago. But research reported in detail by Richard Leakey has shown that it might be more complicated than that.

For example, similar extinctions occurred in the Pacific islands (including Hawaii), Australia, and New Zealand.  Killed off to the point of extinction in a thousand years or less were hundreds of large ground animals, including flightless birds, tapirs, rhino-like animals, a giant lizard bigger than the Komodo dragon, an elephant-sized mammal, and giant ground sloths.

But those extinctions in Australia, New Zealand, and the other Pacific islands occurred at different times from the ones in the Americas and a different time from the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth in Eurasia, even though the end of the Ice Age affected  all parts of the world equally.

The late paleontologist Paul Martin of the University of Arizona pointed out that while changes in the weather in these different places didn’t coincide with the extinctions of large ground animals, another event did — the sudden appearance on the scene of the most deadly and wanton predator the Earth has ever known: humans.

As Leakey points out graphically in The Sixth Extinction, the extinctions of animals in Australia (about 20,000 years ago), North America (about 10,000  years ago), and  Madagascar and  New Zealand (about 1,000 years ago) all coincided perfectly with the arrival of critical-mass population levels of humans in those places.

As Graeber and Wengrow write in their brilliant new book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, “By 8000 BC, [human] efforts had contributed to the extinction of roughly two-thirds of the world’s megafauna [large animals]…”

And many of those humans remembered their lessons of environmental destruction, food-animal extinction, and the crises and famines it caused; they passed those stories down for thousands of years in their oral traditions. The story of Noah’s Ark and it’s 4,000 year-old flood-myth predecessor Atrahasis may even be one of them.

Embedded deeply in the cultures of the indigenous people of virtually all those places, there’s one recurrent theme: sustainability.  

Nearly every one of those societies had grown to the environmental and population limit of their existing agricultural technology, blundered into extinctions or wars among themselves (the Haudenosaunee prophet Hiawatha, who brought the idea of the Seventh Generation, was called “the Peacemaker”), and nearly every one figured out a way to live with those around them.  

Probably the most well-known of the laws indigenous people put into place to prevent destruction of their environment or way of life was the rule that every decision must be made with future generations in mind. It pops up in ancient culture after ancient culture, all around the world.

Among the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people, this is sometimes referred to as the principle of the Seventh Generation.  As the Haudenosaunee Confederacy notes on their website:

“When the Haudenosaunee and the first colonists made the original agreement on our treaty relationship, it was about sharing the natural resources on this great land. By agreement we established a way to share, respect each other, and resolve disputes peacefully. Those principles still apply today.

“However, when those first agreements were made, the waters were clean and healthy. All fish could be eaten. The birds, plants and animals were plentiful. Now we face an environmental holocaust that threatens human existence. This is not acceptable. Our land, water and biological systems have been polluted by unchecked growth.” 

And while it may seem all “New Agey” to today apply lessons learned millennia ago by native peoples, it’s not a new idea by American standards.

“So much in answer to your inquiries concerning Indians,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in June, 1812, “a people with whom, in the early part of my life, I was very familiar, and acquired impressions of attachment and commiseration for them which have never been obliterated.  Before the Revolution, they were in the habit of coming often and in great numbers to the seat of government, where I was very much with them. I knew much the great Ontasseté, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees; he was always the guest of my father, on his journeys to and from Williamsburg.”

On June 19, 1754, when Jefferson was only nine years old, Ben Franklin had introduced the Albany Plan of Union at a meeting attended by both his revolutionary compatriots and a delegation from the Iroquois Confederation.  He later wrote to his friend James Parker about how the colonists should borrow their ideas of a future government from the Iroquois:

“It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies...”

Franklin, who at the time didn’t consider “ignorant savages” a slur but merely the language of that day, had earlier attended an Iroquois Condolence Ceremony in 1753 and used Iroquois symbols both in his language and his design for early American currency.

In 1770, Franklin wrote, “Happiness is more generally and equally diffus'd among Savages than in civilized societies. No European who has tasted savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” 

The great Cherokee Chief Ontasseté was a frequent visitor at the home of Peter Jefferson, Thomas’ father, and Thomas was present as a teenager when Ontasseté left on a ship to England to demand that King George II stop killing his people and despoiling their land.

“I was in his camp when he made his great farewell oration to his people the evening before his departure for England,” Jefferson wrote in that letter to Adams in 1812. “The moon was in full splendor, and to her he seemed to address himself in his prayers for his own safety on the voyage, and that of his people during his absence; his sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated action, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration….”

Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Paine and others drew heavily on lessons learned from Native Americans as they developed the first modern democracy in our history. 

“That [Cherokee] nation, consisting now of about 2,000 warriors, and the Creeks of about 3,000 are far advanced in civilization,” Jefferson continued in his letter to Adams. 

“To collect together the legislation of the Indians,” replied Adams, “would take up much room, but would be well worth the pains. The sovereignty is in the nation, it is true, but the [balance of the] three powers are strong in every tribe…”

It’s time for our “younger culture” ethos of unchecked growth and exploitation to learn from “older cultures” who’ve been through local ecosystem collapses and absorbed their lessons. 

I’ve traveled the world in my 70 years and met with, lived with, and learned from indigenous and aboriginal people from Austraila to Asia, Africa, and North and South America. Every group that still has even fragments of remembered continuity with its ancient past has the same concept at the core of its culture: without sustainability, without consideration of future generations, we lose our fundamental humanity and become a curse to the Earth and all the life on her.

As Graeber and Wengrow note, “Any student of agrarian societies knows that people inclined to expand agriculture sustainably, without privatizing land or surrendering its management to a class of overseers, have always found ways to do so.”

Why? Because they, like us, could learn from their mistakes. As Graeber and Wengrow point out, “[O]ur early ancestors were not just our cognitive equals, but our intellectual peers too.”

Their efforts, experiments, and mistakes, however, were local; ours are now planetary, something entirely new for the human race, raising the stakes beyond anything in our pre-history.

Thus, I’m proposing an amendment to our Constitution, or at least a law, that requires Congress, when making decisions, to consider them in the context of their impact on the fate of the grandchildren of today’s babies:

Amendment XXVIII: “Congress shall make no law respecting any development of land, use of natural resources, or permitting or regulation of business activity that does not first demonstrate conclusively that the outcome or impact of that development or law on the seventh generation will be either beneficial or, at worst, benign.”

I’ll leave it to the lawyers and lawmakers among us to work out the bugs and the language, but it’s patently insane that we are willing to create a hellscape for our own grandchildren just so a few thousand morbidly rich fossil fuel billionaires and a handful of petrostates can continue to destroy our biosphere with 250-million-year-old fossilized plants that captured ancient sunlight all those eons ago.

The blah-blah-blah about fossil fuels has to end. If it doesn’t, our children and grandchildren are “screwed.” 

This is one way to reveal how shallow and rotten so much of our lawmaking and business activity is today: put every decision to this test.  How will it affect the grandchildren of our children?

Only when we’ve established that standard as our culture’s new “Great Law” will we be able to call ourselves truly civilized, and become capable of creating a future that is worthy of our species and this beautiful world into which we have been born.

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