The following is adapted from the book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in A Reckless Age, by Bina Venkataraman. Copyright © 2019 by Bina Venkataraman. Reprinted with the permission of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Watch Venkataraman’s TED talk on the same topic here.
A few years ago, I visited my grandmother in India. Memories flooded back of childhood trips to see her, of my sister and I pinning jasmine garlands in our hair and filling a bucket to pour water over our sticky bodies in the bath. For as long as I can remember, all have been welcome to pass through the wrought-iron gate into her home: gossiping neighbors, whiny street cats, and droves of mosquitoes with a taste for American-born blood.
On this recent visit, she had something she wanted to give me. She directed me to climb onto a rickety chair in her bedroom and reach above her armoire to bring down an heirloom that she had saved for me. We sat together on the mattress, hard as a coffin, as I unraveled the fraying rope and unfurled the batik cloak that clung to the antique.
The heirloom belonged to my great-grandfather, a music and art critic named K. V. Ramachandran, who had defined for Western ears the rhythms of Indian drumming. The instrument I held in my hands, called a dilruba, had been custom-made for him as a gift, and its 22 strings had once reverberated with a sound that aroused the image of a melancholy wanderer in the Himalayan fog.
I did not know this man, my great-grandfather, although I had read some of his criticism. I only vaguely knew him from my grandmother’s stories, as the person she had most admired. He insisted on her ongoing education, in a time and place where girls were given away as child brides in their early teens. He taught her to sing, and hired a teacher who trained her in the classical storytelling dance known as Bharatnatyam, which she later performed for the Sultan of Brunei and the Queen of England.
The heirloom sits with gleaming new strings in my living room today. Its connection to my great-grandfather’s memory and its ageless beauty haunt me. To trace its wooden carvings and inlaid pearl with my fingertips, to pluck its strings, is to be linked to an unknown time and place. I had never really thought about my great-grandfather until I had something in my possession that linked me to him, that made him feel present. Now I think about him often.
While the instrument is in my possession today, I know that it doesn’t actually belong to me — it belongs to the generations of my family that came before, and to the ones that will come after. It belongs to time itself.
Within a family, an heirloom transmits traditions, values, and stories of the past. It carries with it the notion that future generations matter to the present generation, and that past generations will matter to the future. Each generation serves as an heirloom’s steward, imbuing it with its own meaning, while carrying forth its tradition — like jazz standards that can be performed differently by successive groups of musicians.
Heirlooms position us as both ancestors and descendants, a sharp contrast with how we tend to think of our communities and our society today. The experience of touching something timeless can shock a person out of the rhythm of ephemeral experience in daily life. I have wondered whether it is possible to orient ourselves to this way of thinking and acting not just when it comes to our own family heirlooms, but to the collective inheritance that we share as a society — irreplaceable resources such as old-growth forests, fisheries, or our climate. What would it look like?
Societies already keep some collective heirlooms. When we protect elements of cultural heritage like Petra, the Taj Mahal, and the Mona Lisa, we do so because of what they represent to us about the history of humanity, and for the sake of the future of it. Heirloom keeping, you might argue, is the mindset that has allowed national parks in the United States to persist for more than a century, despite increasing demands for land and resources and ongoing public controversies about protected species like wolves that thrive near parklands.
In my own work, I have witnessed firsthand how communities can come to treat a resource as a shared heirloom.
Eleven years ago, I traveled to the far western reaches of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where fishing villages speck the coastline — outposts that at the time were hundreds of miles from hospitals, paved roads, and cities. Motorboats departed at dawn from their harbors for the wide blue frontiers of the Pacific Ocean.
I spent several weeks on boats and on land with lobstermen from nine villages there, to learn how their fishery had become one of the most lauded in the world. They had protected and rejuvenated the Pacific red rock lobster fishery at the same time that their counterparts in the Yucatán Peninsula were decimating lobster populations, and trawlers in Mexico’s waters were killing dolphins with their seine nets while sweeping for tuna.
The lobstermen across the villages I visited are organized into fishing cooperatives that date back to the 1940s. A crash in the local abalone population in the 1980s, caused by erratic El Niño weather, spurred local leaders to band together to protect the lobster fishery as a resource and way of life that could be passed down to their sons, and their sons after that. Within the lifetimes of the elder fishermen in these villages, they had transformed from hunter-gatherer ways of catching lobster to farming the sea, collaborating across the communities and with generations yet to be born.
Here’s how it works: The fishermen from the nine cooperatives plant their bait in traps on the seafloor and mark them with buoys color-coded for each fishing team. They return a few days later to crank up the cages with pulleys, using calipers to measure their catch. They methodically throw back lobsters that are too big and could be strong breeding stock, or too small and needing time to grow. The Pacific lobster has no front claws, like its cousins in Maine, but brandishes a voluptuous tail, whose meat simmers with spices in the taquerías and backyard grills on the peninsula.
The cooperatives together form a regional federation that polices the fishery to keep each village and fishing group honest and to protect the fishery from poachers. They do not rely much on government enforcement of their fishing concessions. The cooperatives own the boats and fishing gear, painted and marked clearly to denote their permission to fish for lobster along this coast. The federation divvies up each season’s allowed catch among the fishing cooperatives. They have essentially extrapolated the concept of a family heirloom to steward a resource, the lobster, across communities.
I learned of other shared heirlooms from people I met while researching my new book, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in A Reckless Age. Stewart Brand, the futurist and technologist who inspired many of Silicon Valley’s leading inventors and the modern environmental movement, told me about the Ise Shrine in Japan, a Shinto temple that was first built in 4 B.C.E. For more than 1,000 years, people have rebuilt the wooden shrine on a 20-year cycle, creating a perfect replica next to the existing building and then dismantling it to repurpose the wood for other shrines. Brand calls this a “living monument” because it has been perpetually renewed. It is also, in my view, a collective heirloom, shepherded by successive generations whose belief in Shinto Buddhism imbues them with the responsibility to keep up the tradition.
A secular version of collective heirloom keeping has protected a forest in the Italian Alps known as the Bosco Che Suona, or, loosely translated, the woods that sing. The spruce trees in this forest were first discovered by Antonio Stradivari and his colleagues more than three centuries ago, and their wood was used to fashion Stradivarius violins. The wood is believed by many musicians and craftsmen to have qualities that make for the most melodious instruments in the world. The careful harvest by luthiers of spruce trees from the forest helps clear the way for sunlight to reach small saplings that rejuvenate the forest. The cultural heritage of the forest and demand for its wood across generations have prevented it from being either clear-cut or not harvested at all, and therefore not replenished. It is treated as a sacred, irreplaceable object, not readily exchangeable for money across generations. It is an heirloom.
In each of these instances, a community’s size, or at least its cultural continuity between past and present, has made it easier to create and steward collective heirlooms. Across democratic societies, we see great diversity of family and cultural histories and interests. Societies today change rapidly, thanks to their integration into global markets and their exposure to technology. At this scale, it is difficult to imagine shared heirlooms springing up often. Even if a small group chooses to steward a resource, it may lose out if others neglect or deplete that same resource, playing out the so-called tragedy of the commons.
So how can we come to see ourselves as both ancestors and descendants in today’s advanced societies? We will need ways to bind decisionmakers to considering the consequences of their actions on the future of humanity. Wise policy might encourage the protection of important shared heirlooms amid greed and periods of neglect. Laws and government programs could compel the reckless — certain political leaders and publicly traded corporations — to serve the role of stewards.
The U.S. National Park Service and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre are examples of how collective heirloom keeping can be codified into law and norms and sustained through organizations’ support. Institutions with longevity — universities, libraries, philanthropies, and places of worship — can also play a role. Creating this kind of infrastructure could create barriers for those who in any particular era might prefer short-term gain over stewardship of shared heirlooms.
Georgetown legal scholar Edith Brown Weiss thinks that intergenerational equity should be enforced more aggressively when governments and companies make decisions about natural resources and cultural heritage, so that future generations are consistently taken into account. When Weiss first proposed this idea in her book In Fairness to Future Generations in 1988, she recommended that the United Nations designate a high commissioner for future generations; this has yet to happen. Nevertheless, in recent years there are signs that the principle of equity across generations is at last gaining traction, even if not at the level of global deliberation.
Several judicial decisions and lawsuits that have emerged around the world show the potential of enshrining the idea of intergenerational equity into law. At least 20 countries, Weiss says, have had courts make the interests of future generations relevant to their decisions. In some instances, courts have given legal standing to children as representatives of future generations, including a seminal decision in the Philippines in the 1990s in which the country’s Supreme Court banned the granting of new timber licenses for rain forest clearing on the grounds that it infringed upon the rights of young and future generations to a “balanced and healthful ecology.”
In the United States, a groundbreaking lawsuit is making its way through the courts as of this writing. Its goal is to hold the federal government accountable for the harm imposed on young people and future generations from burning fossil fuel energy, including the leasing of federal lands for oil, gas, and coal development.
The Supreme Court of India has made two decisions in the 21st century to prevent deforestation and to protect historic water reservoirs, citing the rights of future generations. The country’s Supreme Court also limited the amount of coal mining that could be carried out in the state of Goa, and granted a permit to mine only on the condition that the company create a trust fund for future generations to compensate them for the harm from the mining. In Brazil, the High Court handed down several decisions between 2007 and 2011 to protect the environment, citing a legal duty to future generations. The International Court of Justice has also begun to consider obligations to future generations in its opinions.
Another way governments can provide voice and weight to the interests of future generations is by designating ombudspeople to represent them in national governments. The legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau inspired the French government to establish a council on the rights of future generations in the early 1990s, of which he served as the chair. (As a result of controversies over nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific, the council was short-lived.)
Finland has a committee of 17 members of its Parliament who represent future generations, and for six years, Israel’s Knesset had a Commission for Future Generations, which looked at bills before the legislature relevant to science, health, education, technology, and natural resources to recommend ways to make the policies more farsighted. Hungary, Germany, and Wales have all had similar positions for ombudspeople at various points.
Politics has gotten in the way of some of these efforts. The trick is to insulate such positions from political maneuvering and to ensure that the people who are appointed are credible and steadfast in carrying out their duties on behalf of the future, not current special interests.
The climate crisis is likely to define today’s generation of humanity as either those that made a giant leap in foresight, or the last ancestors at the party. We have a high degree of certainty of the dangers to both present and future generations from society’s current course of action, including threats to social order and public health, rising seas, and catastrophic damage to Earth’s landscapes, oceans, freshwater, and biodiversity. We also know what we could do today — cut emissions and prepare for disasters — to reduce the harm to future generations.
We have the power to change the way we look at this problem from one of avoiding economic loss to one of stewarding collective heirlooms — the atmosphere, the oceans, the diverse landscapes of the planet might each be seen as resources to be shepherded across time. Iconic cities, forests, rivers, prairies, and beaches could also be seen as cultural heritage to be preserved as heirlooms. We would need ways to understand costs and benefits, and to enforce this way of seeing our resources so that societies take action to avert the worst of climate change.
It may seem a tall order given this time in politics and on our planet to make such a significant shift from recklessness to foresight. The seeds of change, however, lie in the many choices that all of us can make today. Most important among those choices is how we vote and exercise our voices in our communities and society to bring about political change. And as that change happens, we will have the opportunity to establish more shared heirlooms.
Legal scholar Mary Wood, drawing on Edith Brown Weiss’s idea of intergenerational equity, has proposed a way that principle might work in practice for shared natural resources such as clean water and forests. Wood thinks we should treat such resources as a trust, with each generation serving as both trustees and beneficiaries, codifying our roles into laws and treaties. As co-beneficiaries, we share what lies in the trust — minerals, forests, ocean life — with others alive around the world, which creates the obligation to use it equitably within a generation.
To leave more options to future generations in the spirit of heirloom keeping, we would invest far more heavily in scientific research into renewable and cleaner forms of energy, and new ways of transporting ourselves and organizing our cities and communities, so that we can pass that technology on to future generations. We might even pursue more research schemes to cool the planet, leaving the future the possibility to use that knowledge.
In my view, passing shared heirlooms will require us to have more contact and connection between young and old, not just in our families but in communities and society. Governments at the local, state, and national levels can create venues and channels for youth to participate in government, before they are even of voting age — as advisers to city councils or ministries, for example. Churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues can create intergenerational groups, instead of segregating youth groups from the middle-aged and elderly. Businesses and organizations can designate board members to represent the interests of future generations and consult youth not just as consumers but as idea generators and advisers on values.
The young can lead the old, as the high school students who survived the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida, did in 2018, when they sparked a national movement of teenagers asking parents to sign contracts pledging political support for safer communities. And the old can lead social movements on behalf of the young, as have a cadre of “grannies” worldwide who are using their free time to advocate policies to avert climate change.
Every object we excavate from our parents’ basements cannot become a family heirloom. Similarly, we cannot make everything in our midst a collective heirloom. It would not be practical to steward every resource, artifact, or investment a society makes across generations. But we might decide that the most important resources deserve the architecture of shared heirlooms. And we might call upon the practice of heirloom keeping when we are faced with choices today likely to most dramatically impact future generations.
We may not know what people in the future will wear, how they will travel, or what devices will be implanted in their brains. But we do know that people, however long we persist into the future, will retain something of what it is to be essentially human: the drive for survival, and the need for natural and cultural resources to support that survival. The pursuit of pleasure, knowledge, love, beauty, and community. We know they will seek a sense of belonging to time, as the ancients did and as we do today — one that connects them with the past and with the future. And that tells us something about what is most important to protect.