THESE ARE ANGRY times. The Earth itself is angry. Flames roar through the land, human tempers flare and the political world is angrier than it has been since the 1960s. A furious sixteen-year-old rails at the United Nations in an incandescent speech built around the refrain, ‘How dare you!’
When things go so badly wrong that the future of human life on Earth seems in jeopardy, the prophetic voices of youth cry out in alarm, as they did in the ’60s with the threat of nuclear war looming as an immediate prospect. Now that those who were young then are old, where are their voices? In Indigenous cultures, a crisis in the relationship between the people and the land is a call to the elders to diagnose the causes and propose remedial action. Yet the Boomer generation cruises into the ‘senior’ category, assailed with advice about health, fitness, finance and care services, as if our public responsibilities were over and we had nothing to care for but ourselves.
There is little or no public discussion of what it means to be an elder rather than just a senior. Given the fundamental importance of elders in sustaining bonds with the land and environment, what is the role of the elder in a world where culture and location have come adrift through the mass migrations of the past two hundred years?
YOU CAN BE old for a long time. As I approach my seventieth birthday, I think of my grandfather who, at this stage of his life, had another thirty-two years to live. Heinrich Haeffner was born in 1888 in Rückersdorf in Bavaria, but was sent away to London at the age of eighteen to establish a new branch of the expanding family company. Separated from a close community in a traditional village environment, he had to make his future alone in a foreign metropolis where the language and customs of city businessmen were heavily coded. It must have been a daunting challenge.
The company flourished, specialising in commercial colour supplies based on innovative chemical compounds. One of its prized contracts was for the supply of a new bronze pigment for the Mars Bar wrapper. Heinrich married and started a new family, which became a dynasty as his three sons had families of their own; grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered around him, and he adored them all. His first wife died young, but he made a second marriage in his mid-sixties to Maureen, a warm and vibrant woman fifteen years younger, who helped him maintain ties with his German relatives. Every year on his birthday, he made the trip back to Rückersdorf to see them.
On the day he turned a hundred the English family organised a party, tactfully holding it at lunchtime so that he would not get too tired, but he nevertheless left early. Maureen drove them to the airport, where they boarded a Lufthansa plane for Germany. As they waited for take-off, there was an announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot. Today is a special occasion. We have on board Mr Heinrich Haeffner, who is celebrating his one-hundredth birthday. So all our passengers will be served with a glass of champagne, to drink to his health.’ Maureen, who recorded this in her journal, insists his birthday was never mentioned when she booked the flight. The ground staff must have noticed it when they checked his passport.
Grandpa Heinrich was a model example of a high-functioning senior devoted to the wellbeing of those around him – something any of us might aspire to be. He was a provider. That was his mission in life, as he sustained his modest enterprise through two world wars, sitting out the first in an internment camp as an enemy alien, and maintaining a stoic equilibrium through the second as bombs fell on London and who knows what horrors were unfolding around his family in Germany. In the aftermath, he provided for his cousins and nieces in Rückersdorf, strengthening the bond with every passing year.
If you spend a whole century on the Earth, you live through massive changes – technological, cultural, political and climactic. I think back to when I was the age my grandfather was when he left his birthplace to take on the responsibilities of a company manager. In 1969, my final year at high school, I spent hours on end in my attic bedroom, playing Bob Dylan records instead of studying for fast-approaching exams.
What a time it was to be young. And no one talked, wrote, sang about being young like Dylan – or was more cruel about the aged. ‘It took me a long time to get young,’ he said in a speech at the Bill of Rights dinner in 1963. He was accepting an award, but turned brutally on the assembled company of suited dignitaries who had come to honour him. ‘I only wish that all you people that are sitting out here tonight weren’t here, and I could see all kinds of faces with hair on their heads…everything leading to youngness.’ He will be eighty in 2021. He’s ten years older than me – to the day, in fact. No matter how old I get, I will always be ten years younger than Bob Dylan. Until, that is, one of us checks out.
At the age of thirty-two, Dylan wrote ‘Forever Young’. Three years later, in 1976, he played it at the Band’s farewell concert, recorded for posterity in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz as a raucous, elegiac occasion that seemed to be saying goodbye to the youth of a whole generation. He still has hair on his head, and is still living the life of a touring musician, playing to live audiences. Through his late seventies, he has maintained a schedule that shows he continues, in his own way, to thumb his nose at age: in November 2019, aged seventy-eight, he played seventeen concerts in the US. If he makes it to one hundred, maybe he’ll be boarding a plane somewhere, guitar still round his neck, take-off will be delayed while the pilot makes an announcement, and they’ll play that song. Seriously, though, who wants to stay forever young?
HIGH-FUNCTIONING OLD age can be a blessing or a curse, not just for those who live to experience it, but for those who are subject to its enduring influence. Seniors in control can do a lot of good – and a lot of harm. Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe both died at the age of ninety-five. Mandela in his later years continued to occupy the public stage as an advocate for justice and democracy; Mugabe retained tyrannical control of the government in Zimbabwe until two years before his death.
Rupert Murdoch, now in his late eighties, has maintained a stranglehold on the news media in the UK, the US and Australia for two generations, using his power over public opinion to determine policy direction in favour of a hardcore free-market agenda. One of his most distinguished contemporaries in the world of journalism is Lewis Lapham, who served as editor of Harper’s Magazine for twenty-three years, during the time when Murdoch was working to ensure the dominant role of Fox News. Lapham retired in 2006 at the age of seventy-one to found a new journal, Lapham’s Quarterly, where, at eighty-five, he continues to comment on the state of the world, driven by a stern commitment to the public good.
The spur to write this essay came from reading an issue of Lapham’s Quarterly on the theme of Trade. In his preamble, ‘Globalization’, Lapham writes about his early life in a family that was bound up with the founding of Texaco. His godfather Torkild Rieber, who was chairman of Texaco in the 1930s, where he proved himself ‘adept at running the world’s business’, was a formative influence. Lapham recalls spending time with him in the 1960s when, at the age of seventy-eight, Rieber, a master mariner, was still licensed to command any ship of any tonnage on any ocean. Rieber’s skills had been put to darker uses. In the years leading up to the Second World War, he was involved in the provision of oil supplies to the Nazi Condor Legion, which was operating with Franco’s Nationalists in Spain. In 1939, he made a personal visit to Hermann Goering to negotiate exit visas for his tankers in return for continuing shipments of fuel to the Nazi war effort. Influenced by this ‘history lesson’ in which ‘money was invariably the hero of the tale’, the young Lapham developed a lifelong interest in the ruthlessness of the capitalist dynamic.
As I was reading the issue, I thought of my grandfather, supervising the transnational expansion of a business but steering it through the decades of the mid-twentieth century as a family firm, with limited corporate aspirations. He was never part of what Lapham calls ‘the remorseless process of dehumanised money-making’ that took hold in the later twentieth century. Nor was he angry with it. Grandpa Heinrich was not an angry man. He had the serenity of someone who was grateful for the good things accorded him in a life course tracked through hazards and catastrophes in the world at large.
But serenity alone is not the stuff of which elders are made. It must be blended in equal parts with anger, born of a sense of responsibility for what has gone wrong. Lapham has the anger in him. He is one of the non-Indigenous elders faced with the challenge of speaking from a cultural tradition that has pulled up whatever roots it had in land and location to engage in global adventuring and reckless profiteering.
In a recent editorial for an issue on Climate, Lapham reflects back on Harper’s enduring thematic concern with the Anthropocene, and contemplates the strangeness of his own life course. ‘Learning that I drew the breath of life not only from trees to which I hadn’t been introduced but also as a gift from unseen phyloplankton in the sea, I moved on to discover that with no more than a slight shifting of the astral dust of which I was composed, I might have ventured into the world as an eggplant or a killer whale.’ It’s a resonant counter to the prevailing ethos of competitive individualism and a reminder that, however far we have moved from the lands of our ancestors, we are still Earth dwellers, subject to natural law.
Surely such a statement could only be born from the psyche of an elder, someone committed to hauling the wayward consciousness into a larger frame of meaning? In every issue of the Quarterly, Lapham trawls the annals of history and literature for buried insights, many of them taking the form of reprimand or warning.
It’s work that Indigenous elders might commend. ‘Like the baker’s blinkered horse, we cannot look behind,’ writes Bruce Pascoe, who blames historical blindness for the ‘gulf of incomprehension’ between Aboriginal and settler Australians. Pascoe, whose own ancestry has become the subject of hostile challenges, is circumspect about his claims to Indigenous heritage, acknowledging in Salt (Black Inc., 2019) that the genetic evidence pronounces him ‘more Cornish than Koori’. Perhaps, when it comes to the elders of the contemporary world, it is the voice that matters more than the genes, and Pascoe writes as someone with a lifelong commitment to the authority of the land itself.
His writings give voice to a cultural anger that emerges in scathing denunciations of colonial influence. The European brain, he says, ‘was so intrigued by its own superiority that it rendered every other civilisation encountered as savage’. Yet he has a stoic capacity to resist personal forms of indignation. In a 2012 essay for Griffith Review, he said he’d sit down for a beer with Andrew Bolt, one of his most strident detractors, ‘without the least rancour’.
THE AUTHORITY OF elders anchors enduring principles. It is their role to adjudicate on breaches of law and lore. When those breaches yawn wide, threatening the ruin of cultural tradition, the elders’ wrath sounds as an elemental force with a commanding influence. In later years, it was not Dylan who kept the voice of wrath. To those still wanting him to be their prophet, the message was ‘it ain’t me you’re looking for’. It was Leonard Cohen who took on the prophet’s calling. At fifty-eight, Cohen released one of his angriest lyrics in ‘Anthem’ – a song that took him ten years to write. With his warning to the killers in high places, Cohen gave a metaphysical edge to political fury. The wrath of the elders must be kept on a slow burn, extending beyond the present and the personal, and responding to particular situations in relation to an expansive view of their place in the larger scheme of things.
Speaking at the opening of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in 2011, Lowitja O’Donoghue adopted a conciliatory tone in warning her own people against the sniping and naysaying that could divide them, but issued a forthright reprimand to the nation at large. ‘Since the 1967 referendum, Australia has been living a lie,’ she said. ‘It has patted itself on the back as a fair country, one that treats its citizens equally and, especially, protects the vulnerable.’
If the challenge for Indigenous elders is to sustain and recuperate a damaged heritage, the challenge for those whose heritage is tainted with the crimes of the past is to face up to the consequences and work to correct the wrong turns that have been taken. Therein lies a prolonged and inflamed political debate, but this does not have to be about some unhealthy incubation of ancestral guilt. The call of the elders is not to dwell on the past, but to renew awareness of our roots in it, and our place in a longer time scheme. If the recognition of guilt has any value, it is as a spur to change and redirection.
This really starts to happen when the wrath of the elders meets the rage of the young. On 17 February 2018, three days after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, nineteen-year-old survivor Emma Gonzalez fronted a crowd outside the Broward County Courthouse and delivered a speech that cut through hackneyed responses from politicians and other public officials. Starting off a little shakily as she pushed back tears and struggled to gain control of her voice, she rose to a searing crescendo with a litany of indictments, each ending with the refrain, ‘We call BS!’ The recording of that speech has been viewed almost 3.5 million times on YouTube.
A month later, two student journalists from Stoneman Douglas were invited to ‘take over The Guardian’ as guest editors, and recorded an interview with veteran Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders. ‘What do you think is the importance of students and young people getting involved in politics?’ they asked him. The question hardly needed an answer. As the oldest contender in the 2016 presidential election campaign, Sanders received higher levels of youth support than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined. In early 2020, he was still polling significantly more strongly among voters under thirty-five than any of the other contenders. ‘Younger people in general don’t know their political strength,’ he said. ‘They can turn this country around.’
Running again in 2020, Sanders at the age of seventy-eight shows some signs that the physical stress is telling on him. His voice is not as strong as it was three years ago, and after a minor heart attack in October 2019, he was forced to reassess his campaign schedule. Not that he is much older than his rivals Joe Biden (seventy-seven) and Elizabeth Warren (seventy) or their arch opponent Donald Trump, who three years ago, at the age of seventy, was the oldest president ever to be inaugurated. In the fourth primary debate held on 5 October 2019, Elizabeth Warren responded to a question on her age by promising to ‘out-work, out-organise and outlast anyone’. She is known for sprinting up flights of steps with an agility her aides can’t match, but Sanders has another kind of energy. If, in policy terms, he was still the one setting the pace in early 2020, it was because he had an intensity of vision unmatched by anyone else in the field.
In a major speech at George Washington University on 12 June 2019, Sanders harked back to the movement of renewal led by Franklin D Roosevelt. The principles of the New Deal that lifted the US economy out of the Depression of the 1930s, Sanders proclaimed, should be the basis for the next economic transformation in ‘a defining and pivotal moment for our country and our planet’. With forty million Americans living in poverty and more than half a million sleeping on the streets in the midst of a ‘so-called booming economy’, it was time to insist that economic rights are human rights. The speech was infused with a kind of vitality that has little to do with the stamina involved in sprinting up steps. Sanders connects with young audiences because he is driven by the same energies of rage and fierce dissent. They ‘feel the Bern’, as the slogan goes, because he reflects back to them their own determinations, reinforced with the tenacity of long and varied experience, and the wisdom of hindsight.
It takes young energy to power a movement of cultural change, but it takes an elder to see the present as a hinge between the past and the future, capable of the mighty swing they want to create. When a cultural era begins to die, developing irreversible rigidities, dulled senses and enfeebled modes of thought, the lifeblood of a new age is drawn from the deeper veins of history and tradition.
NOT ALL ELDERS are revolutionaries, but those who hold to enduring principles of human value and conduct will inevitably find themselves in collision with those whose course demands more immediate forms of advantage for themselves. The Seventh Generation Principle of the Iroquois Nation requires that consideration of the impact on the next seven generations must be paramount in all decisions about the environment and natural resources. When First Nations Americans converged to support the Sioux protest against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016, they drew inspiration from the ‘seventh generation’ prophecy attributed to nineteenth-century Lakota leader Crazy Horse. This predicts an uprising of the ‘Red Nation’ in ‘a time of seven generations’ after first contact with Europeans. Time was up.
In October 2019 Greta Thunberg visited Standing Rock, where she was greeted by ceremonially dressed chiefs who praised her for ‘awakening the world’. The occasion marked a crossing of the immense cultural divide that is Pascoe’s theme. In earlier addresses to the United Nations and the UK Parliament, Thunberg spoke as one of a generation of European children brought up to believe they could have everything they wished for – things their grandparents could not have dreamed of – only to find that, in the profoundest way imaginable, they were now the dispossessed, betrayed by a culture that regarded the seven generations principle as outmoded and economically unrealistic. In response, the Extinction Rebellion movement has enshrined the principle at the head of their manifesto.
Thunberg’s speech to the UK Parliament is reprinted in Climate, the Fall 2019 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, where, terse as it is, it effectively forms the centrepiece to the edition. She and Lapham echo each other’s reflections in striking ways. In his editorial preamble, he recalls how in 1945, at the age of ten, his future seemed assured. The war was over. Henceforth, it was to be all about prosperity and progress. Nature ‘had little to say in the matter’. Thunberg also looks back to her primary school years, when she and her peers were led to believe they were the beneficiaries of this legacy, unaware that their future had been sold to enable a few people to make ‘unimaginable amounts of money’. It has taken Lapham a whole adult lifetime to reach a point where the consequences of the sellout have become fully evident, but Thunberg confronts a sharply truncated timeline. By the year 2030, when she turns twenty-six, it is projected that those consequences will have become irreversible.
Sometimes the momentum for change can be spurred by reactivating the turning points of the past. Lapham singles out the occasion when the crew of the Apollo 8 space mission pointed their camera back at the home planet and took ‘Earthrise’, now known as ‘the photo that changed the world’. That was on Christmas Eve 1968, but the image still triggers a cognitive shift. What scale are we thinking on, we earthlings? Consciousness – dislodged from the place at which a ten-year-old is led to imagine she can become whatever she wants to be to one where the vast cosmos spins individual being into a transient irrelevance – must seek new orientations.
Lapham, with his genius for expansive thinking, erases the boundaries of the self to accommodate an identification with the infinite shape-shifting capacities of micro-organisms and astral dust. Thunberg has the same instinct for scaling up as a way out of the confinements of an end-stopped life course in a world bound for extinction. She cites the method of ‘cathedral thinking’, which involves collective investment in a design that may take several generations to bring to completion. The metaphor suggests aspirational determinations, too, but not of the kind belonging to individuals and households in the market economy. We need to cultivate another order of aspiration, cultural and timeless.
And for this, we need other kinds of selves than those encouraged by parents and educators who tell the young what Thunberg was told: to dream big, become whatever you want to be. What she has become reflects ironically on whatever dreams she or they may have had. The age of narcissism is over, and as the adults of the future, Thunberg and her generation will need to be made of sterner stuff. As they trawl through the mountains of trash left by their parents and grandparents, they will not just be ‘creating’ the future, in line with the delusional ambitions of the past century, they will be engaged in a process of salvage and recycling. They will have to rebuild their economy on fundamentally different principles, and return to time-honoured cultural values that have more in common with Indigenous traditions than those of their own immediate forebears.
Grandpa Heinrich, a model of the mid-twentieth century businessman, was committed to principles of honourable trading and employment that the corporate world has since thrown overboard. It is too late to try to restore them. There is more radical work to do as we seek to transform to an economy that harks back to the ancient principles of the commons, and the original idea of common wealth. We are all born with shares in the planet and accordingly share the responsibility for sustaining its resources.
Though a generation of teachers have been coached in the ‘STEM first’ view of how to educate for the future, putting the planet first involves learning more than the skills required for employment in a new technological era. It means looking back as well as forwards. Here is where the elders are needed, to return our attention to the fundamental question of what we as a species are doing on Earth, and what on Earth we are doing.
Lapham, L. (2019). ‘Globalisation’ Lapham’s Quarterly on Trade, Vol. XII, 2, Spring, pp.13-21.
Lapham, L. (2019). ‘Paying the Piper.’ Lapham’s Quarterly on Climate, Vol. XII, 4, Fall, pp.18.
Pascoe, B. (2019). Salt, Black Inc, Melbourne, pp. 62 and 73.
Pascoe, B. (2019). Salt, Black Inc, Melbourne, pp.186.
Pascoe, B. (2012). ‘Andrew Bolts disappointment’ in ‘What is Australia for?’, Griffith Review 36. https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/andrew-bolts-disappointment/
Goodall, J.R. (2019). The Politics of the Common Good, NewSouth, Sydney, pp. 258.