Talking to our elders about the future of our planet teaches us about sustainable solutions

by Céline Semaan

There is a great misunderstanding and lack in modern culture, where elders are seen as less and less capable, “in touch” or relevant to the youthful world of Productivity. Knowledge from our elders is so important to our cultures, from the perspective of environmental sustainability as much as personal connection to our ancestors.

When climate change hits, not only will our cities be underwater, but our stories, our traditions and our culture erased. This is often not taken into account when discussing climate solutions, where the modern technological industrial culture that has driven us to the brink of climate disaster is also supposed to be the solution, where the conversation inevitably centers on clinical scientific jargon and clever technical inventions.

In my research and throughout the climate classes Slow Factory provides under the free education program Open Edu, it is clear that sustainability or climate efficiency is not a new concept, in fact, it is anchored in traditional ways of being. I often stress that we cannot buy our way into sustainability, it isn’t so much what we buy, rather it is about lifestyle and how we live. It is a Culture, with a capital C, and it encompasses many different cultures from the Global South all the way to Traditional Indigenous Knowledge.

On a recent trip to O’ahu, invited by Kanaka Maoli group O’ahu Water Protectors, our Slow Factory team spent a large portion of the week discussing the future of our planet with Kanaka Maoli elders, Kūpuna, who shared with us the importance of looking to our ancestors to better understand our future. This is a key concept in traditional knowledge in the Global South, and the ways in which our cultures hold our elders at the center of our homes, and at the center of our way of living.

I find that talking to our elders has become less and less a topic of discussion in a climate movement with a disproportionate focus on youth activists, betraying a desire to de-responsibilize the previous generations who were mostly in climate denial, hoping the youth or next generation will “save them”. Within these previous generations and ancestors, however, are also sustainable practices that we have completely lost today. The skills to repair anything that breaks, the skills to creatively reuse or repurpose, and the mindset to look first to what we already have rather than searching to acquire and consume something new. Aside from individual skills that are passed down, there is the perspective and the story-telling that is lost and missing when we discuss climate in the mainstream media.

I have always been inspired by my elders and their stories of a life I never knew. It goes beyond nostalgia and dives into it as archeological knowledge. For instance, through the stories my grandfather shared, I learned of a time before colonialism in my ancestral region (Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt), and our traditional knowledge regarding Nature and spirituality which aren’t recorded in dogma or religions. We come from what is now designated as a climate UN-designated Red Zone, zones that are currently facing climate disaster first. We are also a sacrificial zone, an area designated for extraction, in our case, extraction of fossil fuels, and proxy wars. When climate change destroys a country or a region, it also erases the knowledge people of that region held.

Back on O’ahu, the Kūpuna explained to us that we shouldn’t see our elders so much as standing behind us as we walk forward in time, exploring out in front into the unknown future. Rather, we should imagine that our ancestors are walking before us, showing us the way.

Engaging and actively listening to knowledge across generations is a key tenant underlying Slow Factory and New York Live Arts’ Planet Justice festival, where climate justice and social activism are championed equally intergenerationally, coming together across geographies, exploring traditional knowledge, culture and the role media and the arts play in addressing climate change. The esteemed Dr. Vandana Shiva speaking alongside youth activist Xiuhtezcatl, bridging the worlds of music, performances and advocacy allows for the necessary breaking down of silos and barriers to entry into climate justice solutions and sustainable theories as opposed to redundant talking points not quite backed by clear strategy.