This is the all-time challenge for our species. Will we show the wisdom to act with the guidance of science? Will we have the compassion to help those most impacted by the unavoidable global warming already happening? Will we have the intelligence to find new opportunities in transforming our sources of energy and the way we live?
– David Suzuki
American writer Rebecca Solnit has caused a stir with her recent op-ed in The Guardian in which she points to a striking truism emerging from the global coronavirus pandemic, i.e. in the midst of fear and isolation, we are learning that profound, positive change is possible.
Solnit points to the common perception that disasters such as coronavirus expose the truth about human nature as being fundamentally brutal, and the beliefs that displays of selfish indifference, violence, authoritarianism and heavy-handed policing are inevitable
She offers an alternative view, i.e. there are nearly always selfish and destructive people, but they are most often the ones in power. Our society has created systems that reward such personalities and applications of their principles. She holds that, on the other hand, the great majority of people in ordinary disasters behave in ways that are anything but selfish, and disasters in fact reveal much creative and generous altruism and widespread grassroots activism.
Rebecca Solnit’s article has been the catalyst for a recent active and wide-ranging Google Group discussion amongst the Elders on national and global ills and trends as seen through a lens shaped by the coronavirus situation. We humbly suggest that our deliberations summarized below provide some useful (and dare we say insightful?) pointers to principles, frameworks, and applications for our own Elder group endeavours.
As one Elder expressed in the online discussion “It is a surprise and a delight to engage in something so critical on everyone’s mind, especially for our grandchildren for whom I feel so responsible, and to have a strong sense of urgency. It would be a drastic mistake to leave it to politicians”.
Hope is the cornerstone
Hope offers us clarity that, amid the uncertainty ahead, there will be conflicts worth joining and the possibility of winning some of them. One of the things most dangerous to this hope is the lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were.
Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.
The time is surely ripe, a golden opportunity, to catch politicians in this, dare we say, vulnerable position —to call for meetings of any kind when no one can go anywhere, to reverse and undo the colossal damage of the last 40 years of neoliberalism. It will take some planning and research to uncover the irrefutable facts and then present them for serious and forthright deliberation.
The challenge for the Elders
These are thought-provoking and challenging concepts. Clearly the milieu in which we as Elders attempt to operate is changing rapidly. The question is: are we, as Elders with our espoused principles, values and current programmes, up to the task of mentoring, motivating and supporting other elders and younger generations in dialogue and action on the rapidly emerging issues in this new world?
Some of us are of the opinion that we are already doing valuable work in fulfilling our role as Elders through meetings, sharing, giving, and learning. Each of us, through our life experiences, have acquired knowledge and practical skills on many topics and issues and are therefore drawn to specific areas of application. We offer this knowledge and these insights to the Elders group(s) to see where there might be a fit for joint action.
What we do
Recent examples are our contributions to the Drawdown Project, supporting youth activism, offering specific topics for public salons, learning to engage in challenging conversations, linking health and climate change, addressing food waste and policies, and much more.
We are, however, currently miles apart from, and never have had any kind of discourse with, the right-wing of our society where we might have tried to understand each other for a congress that works for all of us instead just gaining power and holding it for the corporate interests.
The Suzuki Elders already have a mechanism for forward thinking of a sort in our Strategic Planning process, where we in effect appraise where we are and where we might go forward. It seems sensible to adapt the Strategic Planning process by considering how, if at all, our role in this new world could be changing, and how we might respond in new ways.
Who we are
In this time when the foundations of the collective are being traumatized and shaken, when people are grieving losses and fearing the future, we Elders can have a calming and stabilizing influence. All of us, throughout our lives, have had our foundations shaken in one way or another. We have survived, learned new and valuable skills and perspectives and, in the process, have emerged wiser and more resourced. This requires that we prioritize the ‘being‘ of eldering while attempting the ‘doing‘, that we metabolize and process the changes ourselves so that we can access a state of mind that doesn’t crumble when it meets fear, anger, hopelessness in others, but rather helps to transform it. In effect it requires that we become living embodiments of wisdom and examples to emulate. Not easy tasks!
With our extended sense of history we Elders have a corresponding extended timeline and a wealth of lived experience. We have knowledge of what has worked in various instances (and what has not), what the traps are, how to assess opportunities, how to find potential allies, how to learn from failure and meet obstacles. With our specific history some Elders have practical stories and skills that could once again be useful.
When much of the population is trapped in their fears of the current coronavirus crisis, Elders can remind others of the larger picture and of what really matters, e.g. the importance of gratitude, sharing and contribution. We can help others hold the seriousness of this time and to appreciate what is at stake alongside the opportunities of the current moment. We can point out what is currently being learned by the collective – things like the value of interconnectedness, how to live with uncertainty, the benefits of radical creativity, and what is being done right at this time as well as warning of potential dangers, e.g. cultural fragmentation and increased authoritarianism.
To live into these potentialities and more it is critical that Elders challenge rather than buy into the dominant cultural narrative that equates age with ‘old’, ‘burdensome’, ‘redundant’ , ‘in decline’ etc. but that we see the enormous value and potential that Elders have in this time. While it is important to respect cultural differences, First Nations Peoples reserve an honoured place for elders as caretakers of cultural wisdom, story, values, perspective and caretaking of the land and future generations. What might we respectfully adopt as Elders ourselves and what might be at stake for us doing so?
Why ask questions
What has worked well in the past is to answer questions. That way the questions are providing clarification on something they do not adequately understand. The process then proceeds incrementally. This increases the general capacity of citizens to better understand the issues and to recognize and support an authentic solution when they see one. This approach requires continuing education on the part of ourselves in order to remain relevant. There is not always one right or best way, and other approaches may work as well.
The time is ripe to catch politicians in this “vulnerable” position. We should be calling for meetings of any kind and adopting any method of reaching out to the decision-makers and the electorate to reverse and undo the colossal damage of the last 40 years of neoliberalism. It will take some planning, much research for irrefutable facts, and serious and forthright presentation.
However, going forward, it will be increasingly important to ask questions for which there is no easy answer and to be willing to deeply listen to, and consider, viewpoints that are new, difficult or uncomfortable.
As interest groups we are miles apart from one another and have never had any kind of discourse with the right-wing where we might have tried to understand each other for a congress that works for all.
Writes one Elder “I have been thinking about one subject for years, i.e. a virtual round table of all political camps with people who are capable of discourse and compromise. Rather than being those who aspire to be politicians or power-hungry candidates they would be policy makers, strategists and those who can and will recognize that we have reached an intolerable inequity from two generations of a planned ideology of funding cuts”.
Getting to grips with the specifics of questions
Bearing in mend that information, data, and analysis lead to action, there are questions we should be asking to provide insight and guidance.
1.What is the message, or messages we want to share? Is it about climate change, or about broader aspects, e.g. stewardship of our planet, protection of Gaia and Turtle Island, sustainability, communication, cooperation, empathy, gentleness, humility, thankfulness, and appreciation which we are both learning and teaching? What about the importance of relationships, friends, and family and how we can strengthen these when we cannot even meet face to face?
2. Who is the audience, and how should it be chosen?
3. Are we intentionally including Indigenous and young people for their wisdom, strength, and commitment?
4. What does the audience need to better understand our message, and how can we provide that? What message mediums are most effective? Do we offer a series of interviews and will people want them, identify with them, and watch them if they are on-line?
5. Do we want to identify specific actions to accomplish what the messages identify, e.g. how to take specific actions to reduce CO2 emissions on a daily basis? Do we want to act as a clearinghouse for information flows?
6. How do we tackle larger questions of social inequity, the lack and the failures of leadership at many levels?
7. How can one person “make a difference”? Consider the COVID-19 lesson – “take care, wear a mask, social distance, self isolate, protect others from our possible infection until infection rates have declined for 14 days, and keep doing these actions”.
8. The strength of “tribes” or groups, and how do we create “action tribes” to accomplish some of the pressing priorities?
9. What do we want to create from where we are now, and will be in the next few months? Key items for consideration are food security, regenerative agriculture, forestry, jobs that create a resilient, equitable society and economy, dramatic reduction of fossil fuel extraction and use (and in BC, export), education based upon resilience, equity and sustainability rather than economic growth and extractive industries.
10. What approaches create resilience and will help us avoid the severe financial, economic, health and other disruptions we are facing, or will face individually, municipally, and nation-wide?
11. How can we most effectively organize to avoid repetition (and competition), as there are dozens of groups address many of the issues above? Are there emerging organizational paradigms and structures and vehicles to optimize our efforts?
12. One approach to organizing our ideas and extending them to the community is the idea of developing campaigns so we can best respond to others with similar intent. Our essential role as Elders is to help the younger be more effective in whatever they want to do. Key questions to ask in developing a campaign are:
(a) What do we want to accomplish (intent)?
(b) What will we focus on (concept)?
(c) What coordinated steps will we take (strategy)?
(d) What resources (money, people, time etc.) do we have?
(e) How will we pull it all together?
Movers and Shakers in Society
Many politicians believe they know the answers to most of the frequently-posed questions, and they are one group within society that has the power to make positive changes. Another group that has the power to change our futures is the extremely wealthy.
Both these groups have the ‘public stage‘ and it is a significant advantage when dealing with the mass public. They are the ones on whom the mainstream media focus. They are the ones who can literally change the face of the Earth without our consent; rarely do they ask our ‘permission’. Money definitely talks, so the majority of us have to figure out how to make our voices heard through the rhetoric of “the privileged” if we want to bring about grassroots change.
Many people live long enough to acquire and develop the seven grandfather teachings – Bravery, Truth, Humility, Honesty, Respect, Love, and Wisdom, although there are some young people who seem to have been born with them. Successful leaders are insightful, articulate, likeable, considerate, dedicated, and hard working. All of them need like-minded followers.
Social activism organizations now more than ever need to come together in alliance to increase our collective voice. The organizations that have formed around Greta Thunberg, David Suzuki, Maude Barlow, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Al Gore and many other individuals have a prime opportunity to do exactly that and it is happening gradually.
If it is not hope alone that is our cornerstone then certainly it must be with the great beauty of our world and the great joy that is found in its children.
Post compiled from submissions to the Suzuki Elders’ Google Group by Roger Bryenton, Marilyn Daniels, Stan Hirst, Janet Hudgins, Dan Kingsbury, Jill Schroder, Paul Strome and Ray Travers.