Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Loving our (generational) neighbours

“An important basis of all ethics has been the golden rule or the principle of reciprocity. You shall do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But the golden rule can no longer have just a horizontal dimension [...] We must realise that the principle of reciprocity also has a vertical dimension. You shall do to the next generation what you wish the previous generation had done to you. It’s as simple as that. You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself. This must obviously include your neighbour generation. It has to include absolutely every one who will live on the earth after us. The human family doesn’t inhabit earth simultaneously. People have lived here before us, some are living now and some will live after us. But those who come after us are also our fellow human beings [...] We have no right to hand over a planet earth that is worth less than the planet that we ourselves have had the good fortune to live on. Fewer fish in the sea, less drinking water, less food, less rainforest, less coral reefs, fewer species of plants and animals, less beauty.”

- Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie's World, speaking at PEN World Voices Festival.

I have written previously about loving our (climate) neighbours. This quote highlights another kind of neighbour that climate change (and other ecological crises) bring to our attention. A neighbour is one who is nearby. Proximity can be spatial, but it can also be temporal.

But perhaps we can expand this one more step. Proximity can be spatial or temporal, but perhaps it can also be agentive: that is, my neighbour is anyone whom my life touches, anyone who is affected by my actions. In a world where our actions now affect people on the other side of the planet in real and detrimental ways, it is difficult to deny that those suffering as the result of our overconsumption are also our neighbours. In a world where we are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and oceans for millennia to come it is also difficult to deny that more distant generations are now our neighbours.


Lionel Windsor said...

Another fine application of the parable of the good Samaritan. Thanks!

byron smith said...

Land/water grabs are one of the latest developments in how the rich are directly affecting the poor these days. If I am buying my food or filling my engine with resources grown using land and water that is no longer available for an African farmer to feed his family, then I am part of the problem. If I am voting in governments that allow this continue, then I am part of the problem.

Lionel - Mentioning the good Samaritan reminds me that inactions as well as actions define our neighbourliness.

byron smith said...

"When we fill our car with petrol or fly from London to New York, we need not only to believe that this is morally wrong or that it will have long-run economic costs. We also need to be able to feel that future generations are watching us, to consider what they might think, to ourselves in their shoes. Such an empathetic connection may stir us into changing how we live and what we do."
- Roman Krznaric, "Empathy and Climate Change: Proposals for a revolution in human relationships" in Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic Imagination (edited by Stefan Skrimshire. London: Continuum, 2010), 162.