Saving the climate for future generations

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Students rallying in Melbourne (screenshot via YouTube)

The recent school strikes held across Australia signalled the importance of protecting our planet for our children, grandchildren and beyond.

THE “SEVENTH GENERATION PRINCIPLE” is attributed to the Iroquois people of North America. It says that any public decisions we make should be capable of providing a sustainable future for our descendants for up to seven generations. The principle is brought to mind by the recent “strike” of young school students to show their concern about the future of the planet.

Their banners lacked the sophistication of the protests that can call on well-paid marketers and graphic designers, but this fact seemed to make their points all the more forcefully for their simplicity. “Save our Future”, they said; another one read “The Oceans Are Rising and So Are We”; more pointed was “It’s Our Future”.

The response of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, that they would be better off in class might be applauded by many but not by educators who understand that this kind of action is a sign that schools are successful in doing more than what bureaucrats, politicians and managers think should be done.

If there is something about which current events like the proposed Adani mine should convince us, it is that profit will always take precedence over good policy.

Companies involved in activities that harm the environment will make large amounts of money from coal and oil, from fracking and chemical pollution. But in doing so, they will endanger the health of the community, something whose spread will be in inverse ratio to the age of those affected.

Any of those young protesters could explain that this means the younger you are, the longer you are exposed to the health risks of unchecked commerce.

There was a time when university students were at the forefront of demonstrations on social issues — the Vietnam war, South African apartheid, Whitlam’s dismissal. Now, we rarely hear from them. Carefully cozening their precious ATAR, some of these “elites” have enthusiastically joined in the scramble for money and cannot be seen to have had any part in criticising the very organisms they are crawling all over each other to enter.

It is sad that the fight they abandon has to be taken up by their younger siblings.

It is encouraging for those involved in similar protests almost half a century ago to see that the sense of fairness and the struggle for justice has not been completely abandoned by the young. The reaction of the establishment, summarised by the Prime Minister as “go back to your lessons”, is as predictable now as its equivalent was back then.

Knowing how to solve a quadratic equation or to summon up enthusiasm for modern poetry is more important, these adults are saying, than making a point about your future and that of your children, even if you do not quite go seven generations ahead.

Let us praise these kids for reminding us that we in the wider society are letting them down.

A U.S. government report released the day after Thanksgiving described climate change as the biggest inter-generational issue of our time, ominously warning that drought and rising sea levels could cause severe humanitarian crises by the middle of the century.

By then, the kids who left their classrooms for a day back in 2018 will ruefully think that while it is too late in 2048 to do anything about it, their small protest at least warned their elders too worried by petty politics to do something.

As for the original Iroquois principle, the U.S. report had this damning prediction

It is very likely that some physical and ecological impacts will be irreversible for thousands of years while others will be permanent’.

To put it in another way: will there even be a seventh generation?

Frank O'Shea is a retired teacher of quadratic equations.

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