We have expanded our right to live on the earth to an entitlement to conquer the earth, yet conquerors of nature always lose. To accumulate wealth, power, or land beyond one’s needs in a limited world is to be truly immoral, be it as an individual, an institution, or a nation state… it is our children’s world which is being destroyed. It is therefore our only possible decision to withhold support for destructive systems, and to cease to invest our lives in our own annihilation. Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival. – Bill Mollison, from Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual
When talking to children and teens, I’ve been known to describe adults as kids with bigger shoes (and hopefully better hair). They laugh at this, but are surprised at the comment. After all, we teach young people to look up to adults with respect, because of our knowledge, experience and the care that we give to our children. But the question is: at what point does a child turn into an adult? It is a process that takes place over hundreds of decisions, of learning how to do things for ourselves, being responsible for our actions, and hopefully maturing after making mistakes. I’m in the process of raising a teenager, which is almost as interesting as raising a toddler, when a human first starts to interact with the world around them. The difference is that with a teenager their awareness relates to relationships and figuring out the rules of society. Since many of those rules are contradictory, the process is complicated. As a society, we prize individualism above cooperation and personal gratification over giving; children and teens see this reality, despite being told otherwise.
One of Bill Mollison’s beliefs is that personal responsibility needs to be a priority for all of us. Sounds easy enough, but simplifying things down to a logical level rarely works for us humans. If that was the case, we’d all be fit, would not smoke, drink, gamble, swear or hit, never mind be mean to, small animals. Yet we lecture our children about vices, to try hard at school, cooperate with others (e.g. don’t grab toys), and clean up after themselves. “Do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the order of the day. Given that the world is in rather a mess and we are not yet working on a cohesive way forward, and given that it’s adults not children who make the decisions, you would think we would be busy doing everything possible to turn things around. The problem is that short term interests often shape our priorities as governments, businesses and households.
A few days ago I went to hear Joel Salatin speak at a Young Agrarian conference in Langley, British Columbia, near where I live. It was most gratifying to see 500 people packed into a room to discuss food and farmland. On the way home I went to the library to pick up his book Folks, this ain’t normal from the library (sorry Joel, my book buying budget is done for this month). In chapter one, Salatin discusses personal responsibility and how we turn youth into responsible adults. Despite most adults working longer hours than a generation ago, children and youth actually have far more leisure time, and it’s not necessarily being spent in productive ways. For example, putting our kids in endless after-school activities keeps them busy and builds skills, but it is not integrating them into the overall family unit. We isolate these activities, driving kids to soccer or math tutorials, paying for an ‘expert’ to teach our kids. Yet studies show that in affluent countries we don’t expect our kids to do much in the way of household chores and contributing to the family’s wellbeing. Salatin makes the point that “when the biggest thrill in life is becoming competent enough on the video game to achieve level five performance, what kind of environment are we creating for our future leaders?” He argues that historical normalcy meant our kids and teens were busy with chores to help the family; gathering wood, hauling it to the house, splitting it and stacking it, helping in the kitchen, working in the garden. Of course there was also time for fun, and for running around outside (again, many parents now think this is too ‘dangerous’). With a lower energy future coming, don’t we have a responsibility to teach our kids some practical life skills? Problem is, how many adults in the Western world now have those skills to pass on? Time and again we hear how just one generation of lost knowledge means we lose skills and need to learn them from sources other than our own family, as it was in the past. Perhaps after-school programs could be concerned with teaching a wider variety of skills to help fill that gap.
At a rare trip to the movie theatre recently, my husband and I noticed how much social behaviour has changed in the past 20 years: we now need to be reminded about what is acceptable, and how to be responsible. The pre-movie adverts include not only the usual turn-off-your-cell phone reminder, but also admonishments not to talk during the movie and not bash the seat of the person in front of you. When we left the theatre I was amazed to see how almost everyone left garbage behind — because theatre staff are waiting outside to clean up afterwards, people feel no sense of responsibility to clean up after themselves. There was no clean-up crew when I was a kid. This is happening on a global scale, so the next question is: who makes the adults accountable? In the Causes for Consumerism article Zaia Kendall writes “in this blaming society, we are desperate for choices to be made for us, which they amply are. We are unable [or unwilling] to make choices for ourselves most of the time, because there are so many of them and we have never been taught how to make responsible choices.”
I grow weary of hearing slogans about ‘saving’ the world for our children – are we adults not part of this world, too? Shouldn’t we be concerned about future generations in addition to the quality of our own lives? Self-interest is certainly a motivating factor. The same is true of adverts about ‘environmentally friendly’ products. Since we humans require a planet to live on, we’re not doing the earth any favours by living in a way that ensures our life support systems stay viable; frankly, we’re doing it for ourselves.
Boy Scouts are taught to leave a campsite in better shape than they found it; that’s just common sense as they will likely return to that site someday, so if everybody degrades it, what a mess to have to come back to. Permaculture asks us to put as much into life as we demand from it. Which brings me to the last question: just what do we expect from this world and others in it? David Holmgren writes about the second permaculture ethic (people care) that “by accepting personal responsibility for our situation as far as possible, rather than blaming others, we empower ourselves. If we can recognise that a greater wisdom lies within a group of people, we can work with others to bring about the best outcomes for all involved.” Time to put on some bigger shoes.