Twice today I have read someone who is worried what people in the future will think of us. Have I been seeing this more lately, or is it just an accident? In both cases, the worrier was an environmentalist. It just seems to both them to think that people in fifty years would look back and not give us a good grade. Some sense of having let the world down, I think.
I have children and grandchildren. Any idea of someone fifty years from now evaluating my performance has nothing to do with any environmental actions. Those relatives are more important evaluations to me. Yet a general grade from the future is not completely opaque to me. Historians, professional and amateur, look at actions of individuals and groups in the past and weigh whether their decisions were good. One of the problems with this is that we know what happened next and much of what passed seems inevitable to us now. We have a hard time putting ourselves into the heads of the people fifty or five hundred years ago, when the outcome was not known. But we like to have the imagined approbation of those who will come after.
Perhaps the two are related? Environmentalists don’t seem to be people having a lot of children. Decades ago I read a magazine article (?) complaining that once the faithful had children they didn’t come around to the protests anymore, stopped volunteering, and eventually let their memberships lapse. I wish I could find it again. Perhaps that’s not true anymore anyway, as popular culture has been known to change. Still, Bill McKibben’s book about having children was Maybe One. The cart and horse may have gotten disguised on this one. Those who have less interest in having children may go looking for some other way to have a lasting impact. Those with children are more likely to seek out religious or cultural continuity to give their time and resources to. (Some without children might prefer those as well. The aesthetic pleasure of reducing carbon doesn’t have the same oomph as a library or a chapel, I don’t think.)
Looking back on ourselves from an imagined future perspective would seem to be less self-centered, anyway. It would bring the mind to larger questions, of what’s really important in the long run? Where are the greatest risks and dangers to our descendants? Those seem at least a step up from keeping the focus on ourselves and whatever stuff we can get now. Thinking of others and all that.
Or not. Those questions are variations of what do I want my legacy to be? It depends on what side of the telescope you are looking into. Neither more nor less self-centered as how I might ask the question of myself. Answering the question in an environmentalist way is a declaration that culture is less important than physical surroundings. My opinions on that are definite. Imagining a future world that has important Christian values preserved – no, I should be more direct and say a world where there are still Christians - and western values derived from them such as a generalised egalitarianism, charity, representative government, or self-sacrifice, I don’t much care about whether we have “enough” species, or whether there is some discomfort in living because we’ve broken some important pieces of furniture, and not even whether some places are no longer beautiful that once were. I would prefer to preserve any good things, certainly, but varieties of shrimp or whether some mountains have houses instead of forests are down the list.
Imagining the other future, where we preserved the world to look much as it does now and even reclaimed some places so that they are theme parks to the year 1000 (BC or AD), but there are no churches, no major thirds, no freedom to choose one’s work or mate or reading material, I don’t want it to exist. I don’t care what happens to a human race which gave all that up, and I don’t care what grade they give me on my carbon footprint or whether we embraced wind power quickly enough.
At the change of the millennium I sealed up a cheap time capsule in a metal bin designed for the purpose. It may preserve the souvenirs, objects, and writings. It includes some things from my own mother and reaching back into my family’s cultural past. Some things I wrote are already out-of-date and a little embarrassing. My children might still be around in 2100, given improvements in life-extension. Some of my granddaughters and any later grandchildren will certainly still be here. If my church or some other followers of Christ get to see it it might have value. I did care at the time how they will view these things, and whether I can reach into the future for one last influence. I care some about what grade they will give me. But all those will be old at that point, not likely to change much. Any deeper descendants, great-great grandchildren, if they find what I held dear to be unimportant or even occasion for mockery…
Then screw ‘em. I could care less how they view me looking back. If my morality seems generally wrong (I don’t quibble minor changes) and their new improved one much better, then they are wrong and are no kin of mine. Is that harsh? Taken live, I might be even more emphatic, if I returned like Jacob Marley to speak to them. If I don’t care about those, even those, why on earth would I care what the Best People might think of me looking back?