‘Are we being good ancestors?’

Earlier this week in Cambridge, I had the pleasure of listening to Robert Macfarlane in conversation about his recent publication Underland; he spoke passionately and enthusiastically about the book, deep time, nature and the individuals he encountered in his research, but I left thinking about a remark he made in reply to a question from the audience.  A lady had asked for advice regarding which groups, charities or societies were best to join or partake in amidst the ecological crisis and Macfarlane responded by suggesting that it was essentially positive to actively engage however the individual was able or pertaining to their interests.  He also included in his response a question that we should all be asking ourselves regarding our own actions and behaviour towards the natural world and fellow humans, which is ‘Are we being good ancestors?’.  This resonated with me as I have sought to question and amend my own actions and behaviours over the last few months to try and reduce my own ecological impact, but it also resonated because over the last few weeks several global incidents have occurred which demands the question of us all.

In early May the IPBES,delivered its findings regarding a three-year study comprising of over 310 contributing authors and 145 experts who have assessed the changes in biodiversity and ecosystems over the past fifty years.  The headlines are shocking in their mere simplicity; ‘1,000,000 species threatened with extinction’, ‘Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions’, ‘Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992’.  Nature is being swallowed up, destroyed and effectively driven to extinction by anthropocentric desires, not necessities, wants.  ‘Are we being good ancestors?’

 The Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg has inspired and led a global student movement whereby children and young adults strike or march on Fridays demanding government action and policy changes to ensure there is a world for future generations to inhabit.  Thunberg has travelled Europe speaking at rallies, conferences and summits, sat down with politicians and media, but the frenzy surrounding the movement is not yet reaping ecological rewards; via social media Thunberg has stated this week a truth we all know, ‘There’s absolutely no change in sight.  We have to prepare ourselves to go on school striking for a very long time’.  ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ 

 In April the world was astonished and saddened as fire engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying centuries of human architectural history, religious artefacts and hearts in the process.  In response to the huge amount of money raised in mere days to rebuild, many ecological commentators were criticising and remarking on the speed with which the money had been donated, contrasting it with natural sites which languish with no economical support.  Several responses have subsequently and justly suggested that the financial and emotional response to Notre Dame is not erroneous and suggestive of an apathy towards nature; Dr Manu Saunders– comments that ‘Notre Dame and Nature are incommensurable, especially in terms of intrinsic value’, and Professor Jeff Ollerton– states that ‘The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame.  Both are equally valid.  Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever …”. Whilst taking the importance of both human culture and nature into consideration, the response seems to be ‘Are we being good ancestors?’

 The answer to the question inherently feels negative; we have known the consequences of human actions on nature for decades, we know we are not good ancestors, but we could be, there is still time.  In light then of the IPBES report, our youth demanding their future and a controversial human response to the destruction of a human made building, a better question that could be asked concerning the individual, business and governmental response to the ecological crisis is ‘What will it take?’.

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