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Good Ancestors

My friend Henry Lickers, the Environmental Science Officer in the Department of Environment for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, gives a great talk on seven-generation thinking. An ancient philosophy of the Haudenosaunee people widely embraced by many other cultures, seven-generation thinking is about deeply considering how the decisions we make today honor our great-grandparents and affect succeeding generations of yet unborn great-great grandchildren. This kind of thinking is more about community and society than just immediate family, though. Lickers challenges his audiences to live up to the responsibility of being good ancestors. 

I was thinking about how we can all be better ancestors this fall when I reviewed the summaries of two sobering reports on the risks of failing to address climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report bluntly stated that we have only a twelve-year window to dramatically reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere if we are to avoid increasingly catastrophic conditions. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, detailed projected climate change impacts in the United States. The Midwest chapter projected notable losses in agricultural productivity; risks to the health and resilience of forests, biodiversity, and ecosystems (especially fresh water); threats to human health; and disruptions to transportation and infrastructure.

All of this is a lot to hand off to the generations that follow us. 

What can we do about it? First, we can talk about climate change, make it a part of everyday discussion. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications summarizes the short message on climate change this way: scientists agree; it’s real; it’s us; it’s bad; and, perhaps most important, there’s hope.

With only 9% of the public firmly dismissive of the concept of climate change itself, the rest of us—the overwhelming majority of us—have the opportunity to explore positive ways to move this conversation forward. “Midwest nice” and conflict avoidance won’t buy us time. Call it climate change or global warming—it doesn’t really matter. But focus on solutions, and talk about them. Let’s move this topic into America’s conversation about what is important and urgent. At the very least, it will make us feel better. At the most, we will see some real change.

Indeed, we’ve seen some progress in reducing Wisconsin’s carbon emissions over the past five years, from extraordinary growth in Wisconsin-generated solar energy to innovative energy strategies embraced by local governments to countless other advances in Wisconsin’s private sector. These are all promising signs, but they are not enough. By rapidly building on the Wisconsin know-how and leadership already invested in solutions, we can be in the vanguard of The Big Solution.

And that might just qualify us for “good ancestor” status.


Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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