I write from a heart filled with love for my grandchildren. With every word I see their eager young faces at play, asleep, or cheerfully engaged in every aspect of their life adventure. I don’t need to introduce them to you, for, if you are a grandparent, you know them in your own dear ones. If you are not yet a grandparent but expect one day to be one, you will know them in your children. If you are otherwise a friend of children, you will know them in your heart. So many children, so much love, so much to look forward to.
What do we wish for them? A life as rich in every way as our own, or more so? Minus the heartaches, for we have had a few and know how they hurt. But not too easy, for through challenge and struggle come life’s satisfactions. What can we offer them? Some help along the way—financial support, advice, time, knowledge—yes, all of that, but mostly love. Knowing that we care deeply about their future, and we will do whatever we can to help.
That’s what grandparents have always done. But for us there is a difference. We have lived our lives through a great anomaly in human experience. Ours were the generations from the 1930s into the 21st century that saw a previously unknown explosive growth in the human presence on the planet—in people, in technology, but mostly in material consumption and its inevitable impact on the Earth’s resources and its delicate living systems.
Is our life experience a model for our grandchildren? This is a deep and searching question we must ask ourselves, and depending how we answer it will greatly determine the kind and quality of life our grandchildren will know.
I don’t claim I can present a definitive answer to the question. What I will seek to do , however, is to lay out the case, as honestly as I can, that there is no longer any question that the lives our grandchildren live in a patchwork of civilized cultures across the planet, will be fundamentally impacted by the lives we, their grandparents, have lived in the second half of the 20th century. If current generations continue to try to live like that, the consequences for them and the Earth will be severe. Knowing this, the challenge for us, the grandparents, the elders, the adults who should be the stewards of the planet, is how best to engage with those following us to give them the opportunities our hearts would wish for them.
Prosperity and Hope: Dreams for Our Grandchildren
I have called what I write here “Prosperity and Hope: Dreams for Our Grandchildren.” The words are carefully chosen: prosperity, used in the sense that they might enjoy lives filled with meaning and satisfaction; hope, because this gives all of us the energy to strive for the best; dreams, our unique human ability to see what might be and work to accomplish it.
Let me say a word more about dreams. One of my late dear friends was Robert Muller, who passed away recently after a long and distinguished life as Assistant Director General of the United Nations and one of the world’s great elder statesmen. In his retirement years, Robert served as honorary Chancellor of the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica. Outside his small and rustic cabin on a hill overlooking the university campus Robert had a “Bench of Dreams.” Beside the bench was a bucket of small stones. He explained that he would sit on his bench, take a stone in each hand, close his eyes, and envision a wonderful, optimistic dream for the well-being of humanity and the Earth. Then he would open his eyes, put one stone back in the bucket to anchor the dream, and put the other stone in his pocket to remind himself to keep working for it. Robert’s life was guided by dreams of what might be. Many he accomplished. Many more he seeded for others to carry forward. It is in this sense that I speak of “Dreams for Our Grandchildren.”
As a grandparent, too, Robert was a good model of what I want to encourage all of us to be. Another model is James Hansen, a distinguished earth scientist and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. His book, Storms of My Grandchildren, is a must read to understand the perils that climate change poses to the lives of our grandchildren. I will have much more to say about that later. Let me just acknowledge for now Hansen’s clear words in the Preface of his book: “Citizens with a special interest—in their loved ones [as opposed to the “special interests” that influence government decision making in the wrong direction for a sustainable future]—need to become familiar with the science, exercise their democratic rights, and pay attention to politicians’ decisions…we need to acknowledge now that a change of direction is urgent. This is our last chance…I [do] not want my grandchildren, someday in the future, to look back and say, ‘Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.’”
My aim in what I write here is also to make something clear: there is no alternative now to a fundamental change in direction for human development to take into the future—not just about issues of climate change, but about practically every aspect of our lives. If there is one thing I have become absolutely convinced about, it is that prosperity and hope for our grandchildren depend upon a shift in the whole framework of the way of living that emerged during the lives of those of us who are now the grandparents and elders in society.
Dreams and More
However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. For now I am still on the subject of dreams for our grandchildren. We need the dreams to encourage us to act. I mentioned above Robert Muller’s “Bench of Dreams.” Well, I have one, too. You see, we invited Robert in 1996 to come to Vancouver where I live to speak to a congress of young people about the future. He gave them much inspirational advice on how to be good Earth citizens, and he told them about his “Bench of Dreams.” He had brought with him a supply of plastic “Bench of Dreams” stickers that he had personally designed. He went around Vancouver putting the stickers on public benches. One group of children subsequently commissioned a “Bench of Dreams” for their school. Robert gave one of the stickers to me and my wife, Gerri, and we put it on a bench in our backyard. It is still there with its bucket of stones. I must admit that over the years I have not used it as effectively as I might, but I now commit with the launch of this project on “Grandparents for the Future” to sit every day on my “Bench of Dreams”, summer and winter, through all seasons, fair weather and foul, and spin out dreams of what we might accomplish together. Perhaps you can create your own “Bench of Dreams.” Robert would be pleased.
But we have to go far beyond dreams and hope. That’s just where we start. The urgency of the dangerous future facing our grandchildren is too great. I believe that we as grandparents are called at this time to act in whatever way we can to move changes in the direction most likely to benefit the young ones who are the inheritors of the problems we have created. We all have unique talents and life experience to bring to the task. Individually our influence is limited, but collectively we can be a great force for change. To be effective, however, we need to be as clear in our understanding of the issues as we can be. That is where I intend to be helpful.
Four Overarching Interlocked Issues
In the posts that follow I will present as succinctly as I can the best thinking I can find from the most reliable sources that come to my attention. The focus will be on four overarching interlocked issues and how they need to be addressed: a precariously unstable financial situation now enveloping the economies of all nations irrespective of size and power; rapidly worsening environmental problems around the world driven by excessive pressures of human activity; looming shortages in energy and depletion of natural resources that are the foundation of civilization; and the massive threat to civilized life of human induced climate change in which conditions are now precariously close to tipping points beyond which there can be no return to anything like the favourable climatic conditions that have prevailed on Earth for thousands of years.
If that list sounds formidable, it is. But because all of the problems are human induced, they can be addressed by collective human action. The point for us now is to act in ways to promote the best options for our grandchildren, and not to act in ways that promote our own comfort but imperil theirs.
I am inviting all who read these words to be fellow travellers on a journey that will continue far beyond our lifetimes. For the part of the journey left for each of us to share, may we do our very best to be a full and helpful participant. I encourage you as you reflect on these issues to engage with others—grandparents, parents, fellow citizens—to decide on what each can do to ensure that change moves in the directions favourable for our grandchildren. Our love for them surely demands from us no less than that.