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Can you imagine the impact of your actions on your great-great-great-great-grandchildren?

Game Changers: Every decision we make today should take into consideration seven generations of people ahead of us

The small girl in the white tights is unsmiling. She is not the focus of the day. Her older brother in his brass-buttoned communion suit is the star. They are sitting on a low wall in a garden with their great-grandparents. The older woman’s face is creased with smile lines, etched with kindness. Her hair is snow white. She wears a pink cardigan buttoned up with a brooch at the top. Her long-fingered left hand is holding just above the girl’s left wrist.

That grumpy five-year-old was me, and Agnes was my great-grandmother. My hands are veined like hers now, even though I’ve a few more decades before reaching the age she was then. I love this photograph, evidence of the hand that once held mine, a connection to a wonderful woman born in the 19th century who lived a street away from where we live now. Agnes had a pear tree which she willed unsuccessfully into fruiting every year, her granddaughter (my godmother) once told me. The year she died it produced its first bumper crop.

The picture makes me think about the Seventh Generation Principle, the idea that every decision we make today should take into consideration seven generations of people ahead of us. It’s profound indigenous wisdom that situates us as part of a collective of people past, present and future rather than lone individuals entitled to extract and burn all the resources we can.

Much of what we talk about in climate and biodiversity conversations is about time. Seven-generation thinking takes imagination. The picture gets fuzzy. We lose touching and knowing distance from all those future people. But what if we situate ourselves in the middle?

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Icelandic writer Andri Magnason brings seven generations into the span of one girl’s arms in his book On Time and Water. The writer describes sitting in a kitchen eating pancakes with his 94-year-old grandmother and his 10-year-old daughter. He asks his daughter to work out the future date of her 94th birthday and the 94th birthday of her 10-year-old great-granddaughter. The question makes his daughter the hinge to seven generations. “You can touch 262 years with your bare hands,” he writes.

Magnason’s maths is something we can do with our own friends and families. We are already surrounded by small people who will be citizens of the 22nd century. And they are powerless to make the decisions and take actions to make that future habitable. The work of the next seven years will have the most profound impact on the future that humans may ever have. It’s an intergenerational conversation, and it’s incumbent on us to be the grown ups.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests