This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2018

Dear Future Great-Grandchild… Forgive Us

The world we'll leave behind won't be a pretty one

Michael Polanyi


I will likely never meet you. I will never know the mid-21st-century world in which you will live. I hope you will be blessed with the opportunities and joys that I have experienced: the magic of visiting a pristine lake, the friendliness and generosity of neighbours, an array of vocational opportunities, and hope for the future. But I fear you won’t be.

As I write this letter, our world is increasingly subjected to human-induced and climate-related fires, floods, droughts, diseases, extinctions, and conflicts. I fear that the planet you will inhabit in 30 or 40 years will be a stark and brutal place, where the wealthy and powerful use violence and mass weaponry to protect themselves and their resources from the many more poor and desperate people.

And so, although I will never meet you, I want to apologize to you. My generation was warned for decades that we must fundamentally change our ways—and drastically reduce our reliance on fossil fuels—in order to allow future generations to share in the bounty of the earth. But we have dithered and debated and delayed—and failed to act with urgency. I hope this will change. But I fear it will not.

Many can be blamed: fossil fuel companies that obstructed change, advertisers who made millions peddling unsustainable consumption, and government leaders who have failed to stand up for the public good and the future.

But, in the end, those like me who live comfortably in wealthy countries really only have ourselves to blame. People have come together to end slavery, to defeat fascism, to stem the nuclear arms race, and to fight for the rights of those who are unjustly persecuted. Today, we are failing to tackle the biggest challenge of all: a global climate crisis arising from the very lifestyle of freedom and abundance that we have fought to defend.

It seems we just aren’t willing to give up the excitement of long-distance travel, the convenience of driving our cars, the comfort of large homes, the tastes and traditions of an animal-based diet, and most of all, the idea that we can consume our way to joy and fulfillment. I know I have often I been unable to resist the relentless advertising telling me that my happiness and self-worth depend on achieving more, having more, and doing more. But another part of me knows that buying and consuming does not deliver the meaning and sustained joy that I, and others, assume it will.

Indeed, even as we have pillaged and polluted our planet, our competitive consumerism has undermined our physical health and mental well-being, as well as the human spirit of caring and solidarity that might save us. We have become more and more immersed in social media and online entertainment, and rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness—particular among our youth—have soared.

We may still come together one day soon to forge a more modest, more equitable, and more fulfilling way of life based on learning, community, compassion, on the joys of creating rather than consuming, on sharing rather than accumulating, and on finding beauty and peace close to home. I fear we lack the courage and imagination to do so. I wish, today, I could offer you, dear future child, some words of hope and wisdom. But all I can say is this: Forgive me, and forgive us, for we have forsaken you.

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