You may have heard of the 7 generations idea or concept or phrase. It is typically understood as being derived from First Nations culture and to mean that when making decisions today we should consider the implications of those decisions on people living 7 generations in the future. As such, it is a useful and potent tool to promote sustainable thinking.
But I’d like to suggest a different interpretation of the 7 generations concept. What if the meaning of 7 generations was not about projecting 7 generations into the future? What if, instead, the 7 generations it refers to are the 3 that came before us and the 3 that will follow us, with each of us standing in the middle of a 7 generation arc?
I think this is in some sense much more compelling, if only because it is basically impossible for anyone to imagine 7 generations into the future. Whereas it is quite achievable to consider the impact on the 3 generations before us and the 3 that follow. Moreover, this is actually the real generational arc of our lived lives, if we are fortunate to live long ones. That is to say, if we are lucky we will know one or two of our great-grandparents, some of our grandparents, our parents, our children, some grandchildren, and perhaps even a few great-grandchildren. Very, very few of us would ever know any more than these 7 generations, but many of us do know these 7.
Thinking both back and ahead teaches more about sustainability than merely projecting blindly far into the future. It allows us to respect the values, experiences and wisdom of our elders while protecting, nurturing and strengthening the world our children and children’s children will be born into. This, to me, makes the 7 generations imperative far more meaningful, because it involves people with whom we share our most powerful relationships.
I actually believe that my interpretation of the 7 generations may be the original one. That is to say that I think it is an OS1 (oral culture) concept that like so many others has been distorted over time by OS2 (literate culture). And it is an oral concept, one whose origins lie in the political ethics of the Iroquois Confederacy. That political ethics is known to us via paper, having been translated into English writing in a document we know as the Great Law of Peace but which the Iroquois (or Haudenausonee) knew as Gayanashagowa. Yet this translation was not only from Iroquois to English, but also from speech to text, and in this double translation of language and medium much was lost of the original spirit and meaning of the peacemaking experience and ethos. There is, in fact, no mention of the 7 generations concept in the various translations of the Great Law of Peace available today, though even if there were it would be hard to know whether that translation reflected its original meaning accurately.
Thus we are left with a concept that existed orally long before it was ever transcribed, likely as a commonly shared ethical understanding that underlay all political decision-making, but which may have come down to us in a distorted form, like so much First Nations wisdom. So although we are drawn to the power of the 7 generations principle we are perhaps misunderstanding its real meaning.
Does it matter? Are both interpretations not promoting the same ideals? To some degree, yes. But the social ethos of orality, which is always – even at its most transcendent – rooted in palpable utility and interpersonal relationships – suggests to me that the 7 generations being referred to would indeed have been those in one’s own generational sweep.
And it does change the meaning of the term to focus on the 7 generations we ourselves can know, as opposed to some abstract unknown and unknowable descendents, because it forces us to deal always with the real. Real experiences, real wisdom, real relationships, real people, real lives. And the more that we can reconcile the real needs and truths of these 7 generations that we can reach, by fully respecting both our wisest elders and our wisest babies, the more likely we will be to achieve a sustainable future in the real world for our far-off and equally important descendents.