Terrain.org recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?
A brief essay on what it means to be human.
When I speak with audiences about our responsibility to bear in mind the needs of the generations that will come after us, a century and more in the future, I am often asked why we should care about people who do not even exist. The first time I encountered this question, I had to puzzle before answering. Assuming that those unborn future generations bear no genetic link to ourselves—as the vast majority of them will not, even if we happen to have children—there is no biological reason for caring whether they flourish or suffer. Nor is there any logical reason to care for them, since the quality of their lives can have no direct effect on our own well-being.
What I realized, as I pondered this challenge from the audience, is that the impulse to care about the fate of unborn generations arises from my sense of taking part in the human lineage. We are born into a world filled with blessings as well as curses inherited from previous generations—mathematics and nuclear weapons, antibiotics and racism, art and war; and we die passing on a world either enriched or diminished by our having lived. Our big brains enable us to remember and learn about the past, and to imagine the consequences of our actions. A failure to recognize our participation in this human lineage is to waste our distinctive gifts.
I feel a deep sense of gratitude for the goods we’ve received from previous generations, including the bounty and resilience of nature they have taken pains to preserve. Likewise, I feel a deep sense of regret over the legacy of damage those generations have passed on to us—from slavery, sexism, genocide, pollution, and the like. The regret prompts me to reduce the damage I might cause by my own way of life, and to resist the most damaging aspects of my society. The gratitude prompts me to help preserve the sources of our well-being—clean water and air, biodiversity, public lands, knowledge, art, democracy, among many others—and to add whatever new goods I can fashion with my limited time and talents.
Caring about the fate of unborn generations—strangers who exist, as of now, only in our imagination—is an essential part of what it meansto be human.