Science·What on Earth?

How climate action can benefit from Indigenous tradition of '7th-generation decision-making'

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how 'seventh-generation' thinking can inform climate action and how the transition away from fossil fuels can be made to benefit all of society.

Also: Transition from fossil fuels risks leaving marginalized people behind

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • How climate action can benefit from Indigenous tradition of '7th-generation decision-making'
  • Which countries have the biggest freshwater reserves?
  • Transition from fossil fuels risks leaving marginalized people behind

How climate action can benefit from Indigenous tradition of '7th-generation decision-making'

(Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

Unlike most other animals, humans have the ability to think in the long term. We plan not only for the coming days but also for years down the road: careers, children, homes and retirement. 

However, when it comes to considering the very long term — say, generations ahead — we often fall short.

Some believe that when it comes to climate action, this short-sightedness neglects to take into account how our actions today — such as continuing to burn fossil fuels or cutting down forests — will affect our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on.

Philosopher Roman Krznaric notes that Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine back in the 1950s and later warned about nuclear proliferation, asked the question, "Are we being good ancestors?"

"In other words, how are we going to be remembered by the generations to come?" said Krznaric, who recently published the book The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking

This question becomes even more relevant in an era of climate change, which promises to alter life on Earth for hundreds of millions of people in the decades to come.

This type of long-term thinking isn't new to many Indigenous groups, who are used to what is termed "seventh-generation decision-making," where people make choices based on how it will affect their community decades, if not hundreds of years, into the future.

"Seventh-generation thinking says you have enough: Earth already provides everything you need to be happy and healthy, so take care of it well," said Rick Hill, a member of the Tuscarora Six Nations in southern Ontario. 

But in contemporary times, "we're stuck with this idea that growth is necessary in order to be modern, to be competitive in the world."

Hill said that such a forward-thinking process doesn't provide quick answers. If the government asked his community for a response on a matter of importance, for example, "we would then sit down and talk to our elders, talk to our women or talk to the children [and ask]: 'What do we think about this?'" 

Arriving at a joint decision, Hill said, "could take days, weeks, may take a year. Because you're cautious, you're careful and thoughtful." 

As Hill put it: "We're out of step with modern society. But we say modern society is out of step with the Earth." 

Krznaric said that in researching his book, he encountered many Indigenous groups around the world who apply the seventh-generation philosophy, including those from the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, the Maori in New Zealand and in the Haudenosaunee tradition here in Canada.

Krznaric asks whether "those kinds of ideas [are] actually relevant if you're living in a hyperspeed consumer-culture-driven society?"

His own book suggests that the answer may increasingly be yes. For example, Krznaric points to cities in Japan that have borrowed directly from the Haudenosaunee idea of seventh-generation thinking in order to make urban planning decisions. In the process, some citizen groups are tasked with picturing themselves in the year 2060. 

"When imagining themselves in 2060, they systematically advocate far more transformative plans for their towns and cities, whether it's investment in long-term health care or climate change action or dealing with artificial intelligence or responding to COVID-19," Krznaric said. 

Other cities around the world are also taking a longer view, such as North Vancouver, which has a 100-year sustainability plan, and Amsterdam, which is aiming to have a completely circular (basically no-waste) economy by 2050.

It's more proof that modern science can learn from Indigenous knowledge.

While the steps may seem small thus far, Krznaric said that environmental organizations such as Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future show that longer-term thinking may be taking hold in broader society.

"I think these movements add up to something, which is about a recognition of the need to extend our time horizons," he said.

Changing our way of thinking is of the utmost necessity, said Hill, because "there always is a reckoning for bad behaviour."

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

Last week, Molly Segal wrote about the promises — and inherent contradictions — of current carbon capture technology, most of which is currently being used in enhanced oil recovery.

John Lyons wrote, "Carbon capture and storage is like mopping the floor while the tap is still running."

Mark Shulist wrote, "Thanks for the carbon capture article. Too many people think that science will save us from our folly. Planting trees and legislating green roofs on all buildings (including schools) would be better than the industrial carbon capture deception."

Lil MacPherson wrote, "There is now a new understanding from soil science all over the world that we have a huge potential carbon sink, and the answer is just beneath our feet, the soil, and it can save us. By focusing on regenerative organic farming practices (now called carbon farming) and no-till farming, we can sequester atmospheric carbon and start to reverse this dangerous legacy load of carbon in the atmosphere. It's the only real technology that can safely sequester and store carbon at a rate that can make a real difference to help stabilize this planet."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show! This week, after U.S. President Joe Biden cancelled Keystone XL's permit, What on Earth hears the renewed call for a "just transition" away from fossil fuels and why some think it needs to include more than just those working in oil and gas. Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The biggest freshwater reserves

Water is necessary to life on Earth, but some countries have very little and others have enormous endowments. It is estimated that a quarter of the world's population is at risk of water shortages, a problem only exacerbated by climate change. Countries like Qatar, Israel and Lebanon are among those most at risk of "water stress." Meanwhile, other countries have more water than they need — including Canada. This country ranks third worldwide in freshwater reserves, which is generally considered to be water with low concentrations of dissolved salts. It can be found in lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, bogs, ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers and even underground (known as groundwater). While Canada's resources are immense, they are only about half of those found in Brazil, the world leader in freshwater reserves.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • David Wallace-Wells, a self-described climate "alarmist" and author of the book The Uninhabitable Earth, wrote an essay of hope this week in New York magazine. "Alarmists have to take the good news where they find it," he said, before rhyming off a litany of positive recent developments, including the election of U.S. President Joe Biden, plunging costs of renewable energy, an ever-growing number of net-zero commitments and what Wallace-Wells characterizes as an end to climate denial.

  • Electric vehicle technology continues to make great strides. This week, there's news of a battery, co-produced by Israeli and Chinese companies, that could be fully charged within five minutes. For some people, that's barely enough time for a bathroom break.

Transition from fossil fuels risks leaving marginalized people behind

(Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)
With the stroke of a pen Joe Biden cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline, and now calls are growing for a 'just transition' — a shift from fossil fuels to a low carbon economy that doesn’t leave workers behind. We look at the barriers and how it could work.

In the wake of U.S. President Joe Biden cancelling the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, there are renewed calls for a transition away from fossil fuels in Canada.

But oil, gas and coal company employees won't be the only people who could feel the pinch as jobs begin to dry up. 

Especially in smaller industry towns, nearly everyone's livelihood is linked to these businesses — and often women, Indigenous people, racialized communities, newcomers and other disadvantaged groups are especially hard hit.

While many are calling for a "just transition," there is concern that more marginalized workers could still be left behind.

"When we talk about fossil fuel workers, they tend to be high-income white men, and we bring in these special supports, which they deserve and ought to have," said Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in an interview with CBC Radio's What On Earth.

"But the people who provide food and health care to oil workers — what happens to them when a fossil fuel project shuts down? They're often not eligible for the same support," said Mertins-Kirkwood, co-author of a report entitled Who Is Included in a Just Transition?

He pointed to Alberta, where, as coal programs were being phased out, employees received a range of benefits. But people in surrounding businesses — even workers on contract with the companies — did not.

"If you're providing laid-off coal workers with retraining or money to help them relocate to a new town, what do they leave behind? The rest of that community is still there, and they've lost that economic driver," said Mertins-Kirkwood.

"The people who don't get supports tend to be service workers who are more likely to be women, more likely to be racialized people and/or immigrants, or who just don't have the same sort of economic cushion to fall back on."

Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff said more attention needs to be paid to the ripple effect when industries shift.

"What we never talk about are the spinoff jobs that these sectors support. In many cases, it's five or six or 10 or 12 jobs that come with one of these jobs," said Yussuf, who was co-chair of the Just Transition Task Force for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities. "And I think governments have to be generous."

The key to an inclusive transition, said Mertins-Kirkwood, is that it's carefully planned in advance. That way, provinces can avoid the kinds of jarring shifts many have weathered in the past, from the East Coast cod fishery collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s to shutdowns in the automotive and forestry sectors in the 2000s.

Jim Stanford, economist and author of a new report from the Centre for Future Work, agrees that strategies need to be put in place well ahead of large shifts. 

"Time is the best friend of transition," he said. The sooner "we can recognize what's happening, plan for it and then encourage people and communities to make the necessary adjustments, the less painful it will be."

Because fossil fuel industries provide a significant source of employment for Indigenous peoples, those communities are hit disproportionately hard during times of transition, said Mertins-Kirkwood. At the same time, many welcome the shift toward renewables. 

He said it's important that Indigenous peoples have the opportunity to determine their own path forward. "The federal government should be supporting and listening to these communities — not necessarily telling them how to transition."

When Canada transitions from more conventional fossil fuel industries to greener ones, it could mean a positive shift for more than just the climate, said Mertins-Kirkwood. Historically, marginalized communities have been left out of the natural resource sector, but because renewable industries are being built from the ground up, there's potential to attract a more diverse workforce.

"There are a lot of opportunities here," he said, "and we need to think about those positives as well as the costs of moving away from fossil fuels."

Jennifer Van Evra

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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