I've been reading Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment. I share everyone's enthusiasm for the kind of eco-consciousness it provides, laced as it is with logics of reciprocity and mutuality (as if he has read Levy Bruhl and Marcel Mauss) . His critique is also articulated to a vague critique of capitalism. While the latter remains largely in the well rehearsed Christian moralist tradition of critique of greed and instrumental logic, it is nonetheless articulated to a 'critique of political economy' more than anything that has ever come out of Rome.
Among the many thoughts it generated, one thing that drew my attention in particular is his use of 'we' when he speaks of what 'we' need to do to ensure that the earth/the creation is kept viable across generations. He is hardly the only one that does this. Lots of greenies do to.
I am a bit oversensitive to this pseudo inter-generational diachronic 'we'. Let me explain why.
I am teaching the anthropological theories of the gift at the moment and am particularly working with and around Annette Weiner's work 'Inalienable possessions' on 'the paradox of keeping-while-giving'. An important element of her argument is broadly concerned with the interplay between what one gives horizontally to create social networks and what one keeps which also means what one gives vertically/downwards or intergenerationally to maintain identity and group continuity. It can also be an opposition between what one instrumentalises and what one holds too sacred to instrumentalise. which is what one generation thinks is crucial or even essential (pertaining to one's essence) for the later generation's viability and survival.
This brings me to my point. The inter-generational we is precisely created by the act of 'keeping', bequeathing and inheriting, the mechanics of inter-generational cultural transmission and reception. That is, the intergenerational 'we' is not an a priori entity that can be taken for granted. It comes to existence by the way the older generation ensures that there are important things for the younger generations to inherit.
When we are dealing with the ecological crisis though, isn't one of the crucial points that the older generations are failing to protect anything from instrumentalisation and leaving nothing sacred for the younger generation to inherit? That is there is no such thing as an inter-generational 'we' today. Asking the existing older generations to help save the core of creation is like asking capitalists to stop exploiting workers, racists to stop engaging in racism, etc…. it is meaningless and it actually shies away from saying the obvious. Like the workers facing the capitalists who rob them, and the colonised facing the racists colonialists that has appropriated their land and their environment and their resources etc... the ecological crisis creates and heightens an inter-generational contradiction that requires inter-generational struggle and resistance not some pseudo collective trans-generational we. the younger generation has to struggle against the older generation to reclaim the squandering of what should have been their inheritance.