Part of a series, Walking with the Elephant, on mindfulness


Where societies have a more cyclical view of time, a concern for what is passed on to those who are younger, and the idea that what has past is still with us, travel together. In turn, this also breeds a respect for the knowledge of those who are older.  But in our western outlook, time tends to be considered as more linear, and even though we do consider the needs of both those who are older and those who are younger, we typically keep them in separate compartments, and too often privilege the present.

For many, past and more frugal times can influence current attitudes. “Grew up in an Italian family. Everything was composted.” “We moved around a bit , therefore couldn’t have many possessions … grandparents quite spartan.” “An actual emotional dislike of waste. Probably comes from not ever having a lot to throw away – the appreciation.”  “My parents [were in] World War I … it’s just in the blood.” “I grew up growing vegetables. I was educated in that way by my grandmother.” “… lived under tank water!”

But what influences those with more privileged backgrounds to understand the difficulties likely to be faced in the future? “I seriously worry about … my daughter. She will face the issues first hand. I don’t … there is still water in the tap, stuff in the supermarket … Can still breathe the air … swim in the ocean.” “A big indicator on how I’m feeling [about the environment] is whether I would like to have children. Not long ago I came to the … point that I wouldn’t.” We seem not to bring these past, present and future perspectives together, possibly to some detriment. “Astounded by how selfish young people were – after taking a group to […]. They thought it was hard because they couldn’t use their mobile phones”; “… their friends buy them expensive plastic stuff.”

One response is a call for greater environmental education at curriculum level for primary and secondary students. But while this is important, adults will retain our society’s decision-making powers for the critical future and should not displace these responsibilities onto our children.  A better approach might be the idea of “Adults as role models.” “Trying to teach my children – and words have zero presence. [So] when we go fishing we leave nothing behind. Going on bushwalks and … not breaking things.” And, importantly, the influence can work both ways: “My kids got onto me too …”

Think of ourselves as being within a ‘bounded present’. Ensure age generations receive the knowledge of each others’ experience. Design all actions to include connections with those older than oneself, and with those younger than oneself.

Greg Paine is an urban planner interested in sustainable development.  These articles draw on his research work in the field.

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