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What example are you setting for your descendants?

I watched a television programme recently which highlighted the work of a Japanese cooper—a maker of wooden barrels, casks, and tubs. A simple enough task, you might think—but you stand to be re-educated, as I was. The choice of wood, how to treat it, how to shape it into staves, how to create a curved shape using metal hoops and no glue, toasting the interior wood to add flavour and character—all of that requires deep artisanal skills. There is art here, there is craftsmanship, there is science, and there is history.

Where do these skills come from? No one is born an expert in anything; we are all taught by those who came before us. I listened to one such cooper, who explained the reverence in which he held his ancestors, for they had bestowed remarkable skills on his generation. And here is the crucial point: he pointed out the pressure he feels in making his work the best it can possibly be, because he would not want the coopers (and their customers) who come after he is gone to ever view his craftsmanship and feel he did a slapdash job.

Please stand to clap.

What an excellent philosophy for life—to not want to let down the people of the future. As I have written here before, we are all part of a chain of humans, stretching to us from the past, and stretching from us into the future. Our only job is to ensure we strengthen the chain in our time, and not break or degrade it. Such a simple thing to do; and yet so many fail to be good ancestors.

The decisions we make today have long tendrils that stretch into the future. What will our generation be known for? The indications are not good.

We are the generation that has put unprecedented amounts of carbon in the atmosphere, thrown plastic into the seas, cleared obscene amounts of forest cover. The legacy we will bequeath will be of an earth gasping to breathe, of dramatic flooding and scorching forest fires, of lost coastlines and submerged oceanfronts. Indeed, nature seems to have accelerated that legacy, so that we are likely to face our own ruinous inheritance in our own lifetimes.

Closer to home, we are the ones who have ruined our cities. We once had well-planned, orderly urban areas where robust infrastructure was put into place in advance of properties, and where strict rules applied. All that has been out of the window for a while. Developers build where they like, as high as they like. Trees are razed without a second thought. Riparian boundaries are ignored with glee. The drainage system for our capital city, as comedian Amandeep Jagde tweeted recently, is evaporation. Yet those who hold the reins will no doubt have the nerve to blame this on the gods. Yes, we know the gods you mean: greed, corruption, self-importance. Your worship of them is everyone’s downfall.

It is in our time that the cancer called corruption has been introduced into the body politic and the body economic. It has spread its tentacles and strangled every organ that was once healthy. Every project, every initiative, every emergency is merely an inflated budget, there for the looting. The few must benefit at the cost of the many, so that they can buy yet another mansion, yet another fleet of cars, yet more glitter to fritter.

How will they judge us, our children’s children? The clowns who screwed it all up, and left a stinking mess? The gluttons who ate it all up, and bequeathed generational poverty? The guzzlers who soiled their own planet and endowed the remains? Of what use is a narrow focus on self, when the bigger deal of humanity is lost and we bestow only difficulty and suffering?

Let us not point this finger just at politicians, much as they carry the fundamental blame. Our personal ethical standards are ours, and we cannot denounce the world around us if we ourselves are no different. Being a good ancestor means leading a good life, a life that demonstrates good intentions every day. How we bring up our children, how we conduct our businesses, how we show up to do our work, how we treat our employees, how we regard our neighbours—every action is a brick in the edifice of the future. We set the precedents. What we stand for, what we promote, what we decry, what we vote for, what we buy—every action counts. We must embody the traits we wish to see in our successors.

Like my Japanese cooper, each of us has the potential to be a link in the chain of humans that is strong and true. The ask is simple: don’t let down your successors; don’t be the laughing-stock of your heirs; don’t pass crap down to your inheritors. The task is harder: to live life in a way that is valuable, inheritable, and worthy of respect.

(Sunday Nation, 5 May 2024)

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