Recently my friend Alice Shabecoff, co-author of Poisoned for Profit (a labor of love inspired by her grandson’s disabilities), asked me what I, as a new grandmother, would like to see happen nationally. That is, in a big way.
I have been thinking about this and the only answer I can come up with is everything. I want everything to change. But if I could choose one thing it would be to change our way of thinking.
OK, I’m going to dredge up the Einstein quote, which has been paraphrased endlessly, but here is what he really said: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our way of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
(Einstein actually wrote this in a fundraising telegram that launched the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the nuclear disarmament movement in 1947. I used to be an editor at the magazine. That’s how I know.)
I thought of my antinuclear past the other day when I read this scary article about the new futurists who believe that by 2045 or maybe as soon as 2015, technology will take over human evolution and we will be forever changed. They call this turning point “the singularity,” and R&D dollars are flowing toward it.
The first guy to put forth this possibility was a scientist named John von Neumann, in the 1950s. Von Neumann was fresh off the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bombs and had helped Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam work out the calculations that made hydrogen bombs possible.
Strange but not so strange, the mad scientists of today worship at the altar built by the mad scientists of yesterday. By “mad” I mean way smart but not wise. Einstein and a handful of those involved with the Manhattan Project did leave madness behind and tried to stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle, but it was too late.
My colleagues at SEHN—and many, many others but still not enough of us—are trying to harness science to wisdom so as to avoid other catastrophes large (the planet) and small (a grandchild’s brain). Actually, Albert Einstein’s words are too mild for what we face today. We aren’t drifting toward catastrophe; we’re running full tilt.
Who will stop them (us)?
On the same day I read a long, rambling, wisdom-filled interview with the Native American leader Oren Lyons, an heir to the mantle of the Great Peacemaker, founder of the Iroquois Confederacy 500 years ago—although Oren calls himself “an elder just by elimination.” If no one else is available, someone has to step forward and so he has.
The Great Peacemaker, you recall, articulated the rule of the seventh generation. All decisions must be made with the good of the seventh future generation in mind.
Here is Oren’s description of his encounter with the world economic powers at Davos:
Morality is a problem for most banks.
I was in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Everyone wanted me to speak, it seemed I was the most popular guy there. I was asked by Dr. Schwab who had asked me to make a presentation to all the world corporate powers that were there, and I said I would, under one condition. I said we take the people I’m going to talk to up to the top of the Alps and keep them there for 24 hours, when they come down, I’ll talk to them. He said that is a good idea, but they’re not going to do that.
So he still talked me into going over there and I said I think I might have something that they’d be interested in hearing. So finally I wound up talking to their inner sanctum, their high-level committee asked me to speak to them. It was a very select group of powerful folks from Russia, the United States, Argentina, and other nations and corporations. I was a curiosity to them. I said before, you asked me a question let me ask you a question.
I said, I know that all of you corporate leaders know that the earth’s resources are finite and yet you’re running your governments and your corporations like it’s infinite, like there is no limit there. I said you know better than that. My question of you is why are you doing that when you know. Finally one very distinguished gentleman stood up to answer and said, well Chief, as a CEO, I have to respond to what my stockholders want and my stockholders want a profit. If I don’t show a profit, I’ll be fired. I said, the stockholders? You don’t have anything to say about that? He said, well we are here to make money and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and they watch what I do. So it is the stockholder’s fault I asked and he said, well you could say they are directing the traffic. And so I asked, who are they? And he said, probably you. I said, I work as a professor at the University of New York, probably in my retirement there are stock investments, so he was right.
So I asked the question and it was me! I said, well let me respond a little bit to that. Let’s take one of your businesses, you’re always in competition, let’s take the shoe business, Adidas, Nike, all you guys have a horse, everybody wants to be number one. They said, yes. So you are in a race to be number one. They said, you could say that. I said okay, so around the far turn, you are coming down to the finish line. It is not an electronic final line, it is a stone wall and you’re looking at that, and I said, right now look at that wall, you’re not pulling your horse, you are whipping him to get to that wall. Where is the common sense in that? They didn’t really respond to that, they kind of agreed.
So after this exchange, I asked this man, do you have any grandchildren? He said yes, I have an eight-year-old grandson. I said, why I have a grandson eight years old too. So we were two grandpas talking about our kids. I asked him, when do you cease being a CEO and become a grandfather? And there was silence. He couldn’t answer that. It got very uncomfortable in there.
So here is my question, my challenge: What if grandparents became grandparents first and foremost? What if we laid that moral challenge in front of every grandparent we know?
Just by elimination, we are the elders.