Calling out for long-term thinking and integrating the 7th generation

The political choices we make today have consequences for future generations. Not just 30 years from now, but even 200 or 500 years from now. How can we ensure that our decisions consider and anticipate long-term effects? And how can we empower the generations that will follow us? At Missions Publiques, we advocate for including this perspective into our citizen dialogues. Let me tell you what triggered this idea.

We all have pivotal moments (or several) in our careers, events or encounters that change our perspective and evolve our professional or personal stance. For me, it was 13 years ago at the Congress of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California(1). This organization was founded by Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon. In 1971, he returned from his lunar mission (Apollo 14) as a transformed man. Like all astronauts, he was deeply affected by what is known as the “overview effect,” the cognitive shock they experience when observing the Earth from space, whether in Earth’s orbit or from the moon: a direct perspective on Earth’s situation in space that raises awareness of its fragility(2). In 1973, Edgar Mitchell founded IONS, a research center and laboratory for direct experience specializing in the intersection of science and profound human experience.

At their 2010 Congress, an Iroquois shaman closed the event. She explained to the assembly that in her nation, no decision is made without consulting the seventh generation. This principle ensures that decisions are sustainable and do not endanger the future of the Iroquois nation. Her speech was a kind of revelation and resonated strongly with an issue I often confronted: the reference to future generations in political discourse and the fact that ongoing decisions had a massive and significant impact on the next 200 years. Yet, the involvement of future generations was and still is often limited to consulting young people. However, this is a bias. Firstly, future generations are not the youth of today. Secondly, young people are not inherently more capable of understanding the future than others. Symbolically, it may sound reasonable, but overrepresenting them does not guarantee better decisions. Lastly and most importantly, it delegates responsibility to them, a burdensome and unbearable weight.

Building a narrative by connecting with the 7th generation

To integrate the voice of the seventh generation(3) into participatory processes, I envisioned a protocol that I successfully experimented with for the first time in 2011 in São Paulo, Brazil, as part of the 25th anniversary of the University for Peace. Since then, I have facilitated dozens of similar processes in different cultures. This process is based on a conviction – confirmed since then – that we all have the capacity to connect with the long term within us. The guided visualization I developed allows us to activate this possibility.

The process is simple: we start by defining a question that we would like to ask a person from the seventh generation. Then, we visualize a meeting with two individuals from that generation. We engage in a dialogue with the question, listen to the response, and continue the conversation. The interview concludes with an exchange of gifts. Back in the present time, participants discuss the question, the conversation, the gifts exchanged, and the meaning it holds for the topic discussed.

At Missions Publiques, we are gradually incorporating this innovation into our approaches. For example, in the recent local Citizen Convention for Climate in Est Ensemble or in a climate action project involving around a hundred young people aged 12 to 18 from a community in Réunion Island. Between 80% and 90% of participants managed to establish this connection between themselves and the long term within about thirty minutes. What are the resulting effects? Firstly, it raises awareness of our strong connection with future generations and the significance of our present choices. Secondly, it invites us to focus on the essentials. The consideration of common goods emerges: What has become of water? How do we sustain ourselves? Technological issues rarely appear in the discussions, which remain centered on human dimensions.

Moreover, this process allows us to imagine living conditions in 200 years, contrary to the dominant dystopian narratives that often depict humanity struggling to surpass the end of the 21st century.

"By depleting available natural resources, by doing so little to counter or even exacerbate climate degradation, current generations are jeopardising the lives of future generations.

Yves Mathieu

Founder and co-director of Missions Publiques

Thinking long-term in the face of the ecological crisis

Projecting 200 years ahead is not science fiction or a mere gimmick of a friendly facilitator. Today, 200 years symbolically represents the lifetime span of two individuals: a 100-year-old elder holding the hand of a baby who may potentially live for another 100 years. This is not trivial because when it comes to climate and sustainable development challenges, thinking in the long term is an absolute necessity. In 2015, I co-facilitated a workshop with the former Minister of Culture of Ecuador, Ramiro Noriega, to connect long-term projections with the rights of the living. The participants concluded that all fundamental laws organizing human society should explicitly refer to the long term.

The responsibility of current generations towards future generations is even the subject of a declaration by UNESCO dating back to… 1997! This text includes several articles, such as “preserving humanity,” “protecting life on Earth,” and “environmental protection.” It stipulates that present generations have the responsibility to leave future generations a Earth that is not irreversibly damaged by human activity. Each generation temporarily receiving the Earth as an inheritance must ensure reasonable use of natural resources and prevent harmful modifications to ecosystems that could compromise life. Present generations must strive for sustainable development and preserve the conditions of life, particularly the quality and integrity of the environment, so that future generations are not exposed to pollution that could endanger their health or even their existence. Unfortunately, apart from being declarative, this fundamental text has had no tangible effect. Decisions continue to be made without considering the seventh generation.

This is also what David Van Reybrouck states in his book “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy”: by depleting available natural resources, by doing so little to counteract or even exacerbate climate degradation, current generations are jeopardizing the lives of future generations. They are “colonizing the future” in the worst sense of the term.

We invite you to join us in engaging in dialogue with the seventh generation within forthcoming deliberative processes. As political decision-makers, we encourage you to integrate this principle of long-term responsibility into your decision-making process. For truly sustainable governance, the voices of future generations must be heard and considered starting today.

Yves Mathieu

(1) The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) was founded in 1973 by astronaut Edgar Mitchell to encourage and conduct research into the interconnected nature of reality through scientific exploration and personal discovery. It is a private organisation based in California.
(2) This is also the meaning of Carl Sagan’s photograph, The pale blue dot, the most distant image of the Earth ever taken, which turns our planet into a small “blue dot”, and of the “One home” project developed by Jean-Pierre Goux, which offers images of the Earth taken by the DSCVR satellite almost in real time.
(3)The principle of the 7th generation is thought to have emerged when the constitution of the Haudenosaunee confederacy – the real indigenous name of the Iroquois, meaning “the people of the longhouses” – was being drafted in America between the 12th and 16th centuries. The Iroquois confederacy was the most powerful political entity in North America for two centuries before Christopher Columbus, and for two centuries afterwards.
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