I’m awed by the current outpouring of transformational energy around racial justice – in the context of decades (even centuries!) of work on justice, privilege and oppression of all kinds. Given my lifelong concern for future generations, these current events have led me to wonder what would it look like for us to treat our relationship with future people through the lens of colonization, oppression and privilege. In this post I explore some dimensions of that perspective and invite further consideration.
I sit here in my limited but very real white privilege thinking about Juneteenth and future generations.
I say “limited privilege” because of my very low income and marginalized worldview and work (far outside the mainstream legitimizing academic, corporate and government institutions as well as the issue-energetics of activist movements). And – as an old white guy – it is, in a sense, none of my business to comment on the dynamics of oppression and privilege, especially from the security of whiteness, cisgenderedness, health, education, and the rest.
But I feel called to do so, nevertheless.
HAUNTED BY FUTURE GENERATIONS
Ever since I was 12 years old (that would be around 1959), I’ve had “daymares” of not-so-distant future people gauntly leaning on vaporous barbed-wire fences reminiscent of concentration camp photos. They call out me in whispered wails to DO something so that they will have a chance at some kind of decent life, or some kind of life at all.
Those readily-accessible daymares have haunted and motivated my activist and visionary work for the six decades since then. First they were called forth by the potential global devastation of nuclear holocaust. In the last 30 years that sense of collective peril – and the appeals of future generations tied to it – has expanded into climate disruption, ecological collapse, technological disasters, pandemics, and any number of other civilization- or species-terminating developments – all of which seem increasingly near at hand.
On the other hand, I have been blessed with inspiring visions of positive possibility, most notably an expanding sense of existing and potential resources for collectively generating wisdom through which we could deepen into the transformational demands of those vast challenges into the co-creation of remarkable new forms of wise, evolving kinship with each other and the natural world.
These two contrasting personal – and collective – megatrends dance continually through my life, always accompanied by those gaunt future faces appealing to me to do what I can on their behalf.
JUSTICE, PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION
So, as waves of justice movements calling for laws, for wokeness, for reparations or healing – for blacks, for all people of color, for women, for LGBTQIA+ and more – as these waves rise and crest and transform themselves and (to some extent) the societies around them – I find myself thinking of future generations and what would happen if we thought of them in the same way.
We must, of course, think – as wise tribal peoples (on whose stolen land we live) instruct us – about the impact of our decisions on the seventh generation after us. I have to admit that I struggle to even imagine who will be living in 2150! But I wonder what it would mean – as we thought about our impact on them – for us to also think of the dynamics of privilege, oppression, exploitation, liberation, reparations, etc., that are involved in our relationships with them.
From the perspective of oppression dynamics, it can easily be argued that no population is as oppressed as the voiceless people of the future. There are ample believable scenarios in which their shared world is a horror beyond current or historic precedent – or even imagination, despite the efforts of science fiction, film and video game creators. It is even not that far-fetched to envision a world in which people simply aren’t born any more. At the very least, they have none of the (always relative) security, pleasure, and culture we celebrate – or, more often, take for granted – as citizens of civilization. From all I can see, outside of small pockets of oblivious privilege (which will likely unravel within not too many years), the future doesn’t look good, especially if we try to continue as we are.
I won’t tackle here the argument that technological progress and human ingenuity will address every threat we face. Not only do I no longer believe that will happen, but I view such arguments as signs of our arrogance and obliviousness. The fact that we use those special human powers to sideline urgent demands to transform our societies demonstrates to me exactly the kind of “privilege” I’m talking about here.
Some of the important dimensions of privilege I think we need to keep in mind here are:
1. Gaining benefits at the expense of others – or at the very least, assuming or claiming some unearned relative status because of it. This embraces not only the dynamics of direct oppression and exploitation, but even many obsolete but well-established habits of thought, behavior and policy.
2. Not having to pay attention to – or even be aware of – our privilege. Those with privilege can act as if it isn’t even there, while its systemic existence is vividly and constantly present in and impacting on the lives of those who lack it.
3. Being “real people”. There’s a tendency in those with a dominant privilege to think of people with that privilege as the norm, as “people” generically, and to minimize, ignore or distort the humanity, voices, needs and relevance of less privileged people.
4. Privilege is embedded in individual psychology, social and economic relations, power dynamics, cultural narratives and assumptions, popular media, and so much more. It is part of the omnipresent fabric of our lives. Its embeddedness can make it both hard for privileged people to realize and revelatory when pointed out by their associates, by works of art, by mass demonstrations, by disturbing experiences, or by other external prods.
WAKING UP TO SEVENTH-GENERATION OPPRESSION
So, given all these factors that are so familiar to those of us concerned about systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and the whole intersectional web of current oppressions – how might this analysis help us discern more clearly our relationships to future generations?
What would it mean to think of our extractive economies, consumptive lifestyles, and freewheeling technological developments as actually exploiting the resources and dimming the prospects of the disenfranchised future? In other words, what would it mean to see our current civilization as the most ambitious, far-reaching, and oppressive colonial imperialism ever conceived?
What if our ability to live in that oppressive empire without giving it much thought constitutes the most potent and invisible form of privilege we currently have – a privilege assumed with little awareness by the vast majority of Earth’s population and even with pride by those who run the empire?
What would it mean to see future generations – those whose resources, freedom, life-energy, and even life itself are being progressively polluted or even precluded by our own lives and systems – as the population most oppressed by their connection to us?
- What would “justice” mean in this context?
- How many of us would need to wake up to this reality, to be sufficiently woke for it to change?
- What would we feel called to do, in all the domains and on all the levels where liberation, healing, and reparations are called for?
- How do the currently highlighted dynamics of oppression and privilege – such as those we find around race, age, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, neurology, citizenship, religion, physical ability, health, and education – relate to the seventh-generational oppression in which we are all culpable?
I DON’T HAVE ANSWERS
I offer this framing as a doorway into what I see as a vital but neglected inquiry. I don’t think that this view of “generational injustice” is properly classed as a subset of “environmentalism” or “sustainability”. In fact, I suspect that close examination would reveal its profound relevance to every other form of ignorance, indignity and harm we’ve managed to generate for ourselves and each other, one way or another. I have a hunch there is much to be learned in this realm, if only we take it seriously.
Our evolving social awareness today is so blessed to have the anger and love of Black Lives Matter, Juneteenth, and the hundreds of other justice-inspired activities and reminders to wake us up, to keep us alert and engaged. It is exactly the intensity of these times that has made me wonder:
What would be Juneteenth for the Seventh Generation,
. who have yet to be emancipated from the colonial grip
. our civilization has on their lives?
 I have further wondered how the oppression/privilege/justice framing might apply not just to human people, but to the full range of people – including the four-leggeds, the mountains, and the trees. Indigenous cultures embrace all these as people in webs of reciprocity among “all our relations”. I don’t address that here, although perhaps justice for all people – in this more inclusive sense – is more intertwined than most of us realize…
 I’m certainly not the first to talk about generational justice. Wikipedia has an article on intergenerational equity but it doesn’t address the issue from the perspective of privilege. And Wikipedia’s article on Privilege doesn’t address its application to future generations. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an amazingly complex article on intergenerational justice that has so many philosophers dancing on the head of that pin that I find myself wondering if they actually know what is happening in the world around them. Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow’s “Climate Change and Intergenerational Evil” video (especially the Jim Hanson interview segment at 33:38-34:45) comes closer to the emotional/moral urgency I personally feel about this framing. If you know of any accessible, insightful article(s) online that addresses future generations’ predicament through the lens of oppression and privilege, do please add it as a comment on this blog post so we can all learn from it. Thank you.
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