Commitment To Posterity

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That our own generation no longer believes deeply in posterity or feels any genuine obligation to it is self-evident. The natural resources of the country belong to no one nation but to our descendants “to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Earlier generations exploited them, to be sure—bemused as they were by the illusion of infinity; but it is our generation that has visited the most nearly irreparable destruction on rivers and lakes and oceans, on soil and air, and on those resources of oil and gas and minerals upon which the future depends for its very survival. Jefferson thought that no generation had a right to impose its debts upon future generations and proposed wiping out all public debts every twenty years. That was not very sensible, but it was certainly more honorable than our own policy of piling up a debt of some six hundred billion dollars for posterity to pay. We know now that atomic leaks can poison whole communities and that atomic weapons can end life on this globe, and our leading atomic physicists predict an atomic war by the year 2000; but though we already have enough atomic bombs to destroy mankind many times over, we go on our insensate way, piling up arsenals of atomic weaponry.

In small things as in large—and the small are often more illuminating of popular attitudes—we demonstrate our indifference to the well-being of our children and of posterity. We spend billions on automobile highways but cannot afford bicycle paths as impoverished countries like England and France do—for the safety and health of our children. We tolerate on television a continuous diet of violence and vulgarity that blunts the moral sensibilities and corrupts the intelligence of our children; even Denmark, which exercises less censorship than any other country on earth, bars violence in television that children might see. Instead of providing that healthy exercise and play which are available in most European countries as a matter of course, we condemn our children to be voyeurs of sport and exploit them in the lethal competition of Little Leagues and competitive school games largely for the entertainment —and vanity—of adults.

How explain the evaporation of the sense of fiduciary obligation to posterity? There are practical and historical considerations: that the “homeless and tempest tossed” who, through the years, turned to America as the land of the future no longer seek “the golden door”; and that geographically the nation is complete, the frontier is gone, there are no new commonwealths to be created and no expectation that there will be new Utopias. We have lost our faith, too, in millenialism, religious and secular alike. We no longer believe in the religion of education, or that education will assure progress and happiness to future generations; in education and politics the high hopes of earlier generations have given way to disillusionment. We no longer embrace the notion of progress except perhaps in the material and the scientific arenas, and we are afraid of innovation in the political arena. Who now says what James Madison wrote in The Federalist :

Is it not the glory of the people of America, that …they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?…Happily for America, happily we trust for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. …

Probably the most decisive of all the forces that contribute to the neglect or the repudiation of posterity is also the most elementary and the most obvious: that with the threat of a nuclear holocaust hanging over us, there is no longer any genuine conviction that there will be any posterity, and therefore there is no compelling need to think or to plan far into the future. This may well prove to be the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.