Elders (still) in search of a cause
Just three years ago in this blog we reflected on our origins. We had originally come together as a small group of seniors in the B.C. Lower Mainland, appalled at the deteriorating state of our planet, and seeking some way to help in the repair and restoration. We lamented the disappearance of the once unfilled spaces of our youth under masses of disposed and industrial wastes, sprawling cities and mega-housed suburbs. We deplored avoidable environmental disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and impending disasters such as trans-provincial oil pipelines carrying bitumen to our ecologically fragile coast. We were apprehensive of the massive ecological global impacts starting to become evident as greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles, homes and industries added incessantly to the Earth’s climatic carbon load. We chafed at the lack of environmental awareness on the part of our national and international politicians who seemed unable or unwilling to take on the difficult tasks of grappling with the real issues.
As we wrote then, it was a realization of what we were losing that brought us as elders together in the first place. The David Suzuki Foundation offered us a home and some friendly words of advice, but told us we would have to make our own way and sort it all out for ourselves. So we sit talking, preaching and harrumphing, as elders are wont to do. We write the odd declaration to tell the world that things are in a great mess and that we don’t like it. We debate structure and function and constitutions. What we really need to do, but have so far taken only baby steps to implement, is actually remedying the situation.
Who gave us the right to call ourselves Elders? The short answer is that it was David Suzuki — that’s why his name is in our title. In his words: “When we started the David Suzuki Foundation one of the first things we did was to ask a group of elders to come and be a Council of Elders for the Foundation. My idea was that it would be like the role of elders in indigenous communities.” He had already described that role at some length in a book he co-authored in the same period.
Perhaps the key sentences are those in which he says of this approach: “It tends to honor as its most esteemed elders those individuals who have experienced a profound and compassionate reconciliation of outer- and inner-directed knowledge, rather than virtually anyone who has made material achievement or simply survived to chronological old age. It tends to reveal a profound sense of empathy and kinship with other forms of life, rather than a sense of separateness from them or superiority over them… it tends to view the proper human relationship with nature as a continuous dialogue ( that is, a two-way, horizontal communication between Homo sapiens and other elements of the cosmos) rather than as a monologue (a one-way vertical imperative). Within Native worldviews, the parts and processes of the universe are, to varying degrees, holy; to science, they can only be secular.”
Thus the establishment of the Council of Elders (later renamed to the Suzuki Elders) on this model was intended as a holistic counter-balance to the science- based work of the Foundation. We did spend some time in working to express a spiritual world-view to motivate efforts towards a sustainable future for our planet. We drew up a motion to the Foundation’s Board which said “Ethical concerns and spiritual insights … can sustain practical endeavours when other motivations cannot stand up to the disappointments and frustrations inseparable from work to restore ecological integrity. ‘Burnout’ is a perennial problem that can only be avoided by this deeply rooted spiritual awareness.” This was presented to the Board and approved, but never adequately followed up. It remains unfinished business. In particular, we made only half-hearted attempts at dialogue with aboriginal elders on this theme, on which there could obviously be a basis for concerted action.
In summary, what we need is not to stop calling ourselves Elders but to do more to deserve that title!
Marks McAvity writes -
We are entering a brave new world with a new kind of elder culture. If the community does not call us, then we do indeed call ourselves. We have grown up too much with false humility. We do have wisdom. Are we one hundred percent wise? Of course not. Are we conceited? I don’t think so. We simply have something to say. As one First Nations elder once said – it is elders that SPEAK- and we are pretty good at that. I believe that, some day, people will listen. It will be an elder version of these “square” revolts around the world, but without the violence.