6. Acting for Future Generations
Our lives can have transcendent meaning, but only if we act on behalf of our descendants.
Ernest Becker, early in Denial of Death , powerfully summed up the key social issue that death confronts us with: `People will lay down their lives for their country, their society, their family. They will choose to throw themselves on a grenade to save their comrades; they are capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But they have to feel and believe that what they are doing is truly heroic, timeless and supremely meaningful. The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up ... the churning of our age, is that the youth have sensed a great social-historical truth: that just as there are useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars, so too there is ignoble heroics of whole societies.' (Emphasis added. We have adopted modern convention by substituting "people" for "man".)
People need, in short, real not illusory "immortality projects" that will imbue their lives with meaning beyond the grave. But our leaders, major institutions, and culture have failed to provide us with them.
On the contrary. Our leaders and institutions, by failing to halt the deterioration of the biosphere, are presiding over a slow but steady species "suicide project."
What is most chilling about today's growing threat to the biospheric systems upon which we depend for life is that it endangers our children, grandchildren and descendants far more than ourselves. In the past great calamities - war, disease, famine, natural disasters - affected mainly the living. Today we will suffer far less from the damage we do the biosphere than our offspring.
The uniqueness of this situation, combined with the suddenness with which it has come upon us, has created an unprecedented human horror that none before have had to face.
No one now alive would say they consciously wish to harm their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and grandchildren's grandchildren. Adults continue to invest time, money, effort and emotion in their offspring, save for their kids' education and a "starter home", amass trust funds for their grandchildren.
And yet, by destroying their biosphere upon which they will depend for life and amassing massive budget deficits they will be forced to repay, we are harming them in ways that will far outweigh the benefits we bequeath them.
We face the prospect, in short, of being cursed rather than honored by our descendants. And our knowledge of this, however conscious or unconscious, has robbed us and our societies of dignity, meaning and purpose.
If our leaders and institutions have failed to save the biosphere, however, their failure has paradoxically provided the rest of us with the one "immortality project" that can indeed be heroic and "supremely meaningful": to create grassroots movements that fight for the rights of future generations, beginning with their right to a biosphere that can sustain human life. Our leaders' failures, in short, have provided the rest of us with a genuine "immortality project" that can see us live on and be honored in the minds and hearts of all who will follow us.
Our unique crisis is that we just happen to be alive at the moment when human beings first began to damage the biosphere for all life that will follow. Our opportunity is that, if we can act to save the biosphere, we will in fact contribute to the well-being of all future human life in ways that no generation before us could. Never before has one generation known beyond any doubt that if it acted on the great global issue of its time it would directly contribute to the survival of all who would follow it.
This does not imply, again, that the key is to get involved in an environmental movement that has failed so profoundly to achieve its goals, though support for environmental organizations is desirable. It is rather a call for each of us, in whatever we are doing, to first surface our own desire to contribute to the well-being of future generations and then, from where we are, to act on their behalf.
A life-affirming death awareness leads directly to concern for future generations, both for their sake and our own. It is impossible to genuinely revere life and not actively wish to pass it on intact to our descendants. Our lives become imbued with "supreme meaning" when, in the face of death, we rise above our immediate concerns and act on behalf of the future generations who will live at our mercy.
In saying this, we need not offer ourselves false comfort in the face of death. If we truly love life, we will go to our grave feeling increasing sadness at the prospect of our death, even as - if we allow ourselves to fully feel this pain - we can enjoy an increased measure of aliveness and love.
Our love of life will be immeasurably increased, however, if we can extend it out into time, toward our descendants - people whose faces we will never see and whose voices we will never hear, but who alone will bear testimony that what we did in this place and this time had a meaning that transcended our creature-deaths.
If enough of us do this, our species will in fact enjoy better lives than have we. And knowing this can give us some measure of peace and satisfaction.