“We have not inherited this world from our parents, we have been loaned it by our children”1.
Recognising that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves is both a humbling and an empowering thought. Like the Saxon nobleman observing the sparrow (Th. 23), we know that we only appreciate a small fraction of what makes it possible for us to walk this earth, and gasp at its beauty. It is said that Chief Seattle uttered the words of this Thesis as he witnessed the wanton destruction of the mighty redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, and saw cowboys herd the buffalos almost to extinction not for their meat, or skins… but probably just for a perverted sense of their own misplaced ‘power’.
To the North American Indians, as in many other cultures, the land was sacred. Many today might see in the custom of the Pablo Indians2 to ask of any decision that was to be taken, “What will be the implications of this, seven generations on from now?”, an explanation for why the white settlers, with their ruthless sense of “if it’s not mine, I’ll fight you for it”, displaced the Indians, and not the other way round. On the coast of Ghana the Africans3 who have lived in that landscape for so much longer than we have in our European home, have a very special way of defining ownership; the land, they say, belongs partly to those who have gone before, partly to those who are here now, and partly to those who are not yet born. In this the rights of the living to do with the land whatever they wish are always out-voted 2/1.
There is no way to wind the clock back, even if that were desirable, which it’s not. The story of old said that once man had tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge we would know that we were naked4. But we would also have the power to do something about it. Our ancestors learnt how to keep warm, to eat well, and to control disease, famine and drought. We now have a much bigger challenge. There are many more of us now than before. The population of Britain has just reached 60 million, and we are told the world’s total population could peak in 40 year’s time at 9.5 billion5. Always we have to learn how to earn our living, without upsetting the ecological balance; there will always be technological, economic and social opportunities for some of us to do well, but there will always be limits to growth. Break these, and expect to see the coming of an ice age, or the drowning of much of the world’s richest farmlands by rising sea levels. We may have the technology to send satellites deep into space, but as of August 2006 we didn’t have the diplomatic capability to prevent the crisis in Lebanon6.
The biggest problems the world faces are not technological, and they never were. What is far more difficult is to know how to control those four drives of human behaviour which, once out of control, devastate individual lives, and destroy whole societies. This is an ever present human problem. As years pass it will be on the education that we provide for the next generation that the fragile edifice that we call civilisation has to be maintained. As W. B. Yeats looked out on a landscape that seems to our eyes now to have been strangely peaceful, he feared that “the centre cannot hold”. Everywhere he looked “the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”7. That sounds too close to an analysis of today’s England where, with examination results having improved every year for the past 24 years, our young people seem so beset by a surfeit of short-term attractions that there is literally no time to learn the benefits of “delayed gratification”, the very foundation of intelligent behaviour. We have to look to the far distance, not just to tomorrow. George Orwell is reputed as saying, “The most immoral thing a man can say is — this will last out my time”.
There is an African greeting, “Umbuto”8, that a tribal chieftain traditionally asks when meeting a neighbour. It doesn’t mean “how are you”, nor does it refer to anything as prosaic as the weather. It simply means “how goes it with the children?” That sense of the absolute centrality of children to the future well-being of civilisation is the fear that we hardly dare talk about. We have allowed children to be seen as such an encumbrance to adult well-being that we invest in ever more cotton wool in which to wrap them up, for we are afraid that others will think that we’re such dangerous progressives that we’re letting them loose to discover life for themselves.
It is our failure to understand Subsidiarity, and all its implications, that is doing all this damage. Maybe it was not until you came to recognise the stark difference between delegation and subsidiarity, that you eventually realised just how badly we’re all caught up in this. It’s all because we won’t invest enough of ourselves — not simply our money, but our love as well — in equipping other people to go forth and put into practice what they have learnt to do for themselves. We tie everyone up in endless lines of accountability. We hide within elaborate webs of delegation, for we often lack the confidence to practice Subsidiarity. Personal responsibility empowers people, too much accountability turns people into fearful automatons. When Karl Marx9 described the Reformation of 500 years ago as a transformation of a society based on faith in authority, to a society based on the authority of the individual’s own faith, he was making exactly that same distinction between a society where delegation actually reinforces the power of the centre (while claiming to be doing the opposite), and a society confident enough of itself to trust other people’s judgements.