A major hurdle in getting people to act in environmentally friendly ways is that we are rarely held responsible for our actions. No one even notices most of the choices we make. Did you recycle that bottle? Did you buy sustainably-raised food this week? Chances are that no one else knows, and most of these acts have no visible consequence for our own lives. So what’s the motivation to be good?
Many religions teach that God is keeping tabs on us. Others emphasize that our dead ancestors are watching what we do. Even Santa Claus knows when we are sleeping and when we are awake. This is a persistent theme among traditional religious beliefs. The idea that someone is looking over your shoulder is a powerful motivator, and it probably influences how a lot of people act.
But what if you’re a skeptic? What if you’re not sure that any divine being is looking down on us? Maybe you think of your ancestors as still living in the grass and flowers that their bodies have become, but you doubt that they still have a conscious mind that can see you. And maybe you even believe that the North Pole is a vast ice field without any toy factories at all. Is nobody watching?
Our descendents might be watching. They are probably the most feasible observers given our modern scientific understanding of how the universe works. The idea that our grandchildren will have the technology to literally watch the goings-on of today on a video screen has been explored in science fiction (e.g. Pastwatch: the Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card, and the recent movie Déjà Vu). I don’t know if our ability to reconstruct the past will become that powerful. More realistically, our descendents will experience the consequences of our actions: if we waste resources and soil the planet today, we’re screwing them over tomorrow. But the thought of future humans watching what we are doing right now taps into that primal part of the brain that fears the judgment of others. And for some of us, it’s easier to believe in than, say, angels are.
As far as I know, no religion has made observant descendents part of its dogma. This is ironic, because the idea is so similar to the observant ancestors idea that has been so important in many cultures (e.g. in ancient China and several African societies). To me, at least, it makes more sense to behave morally for the sake of my descendents than for the sake of my ancestors. And I know it’s not just me… most people probably value their children more than anything else, and they work very hard to ensure that their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, will be well-off and happy. Many people don’t think about the effects of all their actions, though. Why spend years working to pay for your children’s education while at the same time giving them an impoverished planet to inherit? People already have the right core values, namely, we seek the welfare of our decendents, and respect and honor from others. If we just get people to imagine their descendents watching them, maybe they’ll start to behave more justly.
As the Iroqouis’ Great Law of Peace advises, we should consider the effects of our actions for seven generations to come. Because, perhaps, they will know what you did last generation.