Media Reports

Children are taking stock of the next generation's environment inheritance


*Robyn Williams is presenter of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's weekly radio program The Science Show.

On a surprisingly chilly English morning last June, a crowd gathered at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to send a message to the future. There were celebrities such as David Bellamy among them - and plenty of children. Just before midday they sealed a time capsule containing letters, poems and an apology, all addressed to the young inhabitants of a world that will be incredibly different in 2044.

The ceremony coincided with similar events in the Seychelles, and in South Africa, at Pietermaritzburg, the second largest city of Natal: all three were connected by telephone so that they could reinforce each others' concerns. On the following day, the Sunday that marked World Environment Day, another capsule was buried at Ness, near Liverpool in England, in three towns in Mexico, and in Sydney and the Seychelles.

The intention, says Professor John Guillebaud, who dreamt up the idea, is to include more and more nations, until most of the world is thinking this way about future generations.

John Guillebaud looks far from the stereotypical "greenie". He is tall and slim, and wears three-piece pinstripe suits. He lives in Oxford but works in London where he runs the Margaret Pyke Centre, one of the largest family planning centres in the world. Professor Guillebaud, the author of a very well-known book on oral contraception called, quite simply, The Pill, also acknowledges having performed over 3000 vasectomies.

The letters and poems in the capsule are the result of a competition judged by David Bellamy, the "Pommy botanist" well-known for his environment activities, and Sir Crispin Tickell, former diplomat and Warden of Green College, Oxford; they selected a dozen from over 1000 entries from British schoolchildren.

The capsule also contains samples to reflect the elements worshipped by the ancients: water, earth, fire and air. Air was reasonably simple; they took a flask of fresh air from around woods in Oxfordshire. The earth came from Professor Guillebaud's garden; there were two vials of water, one from the tap, one from the sea, to give the citizens of 2044 some comparison to make with their own. Fire was a knotty one. How do you bury flames for half a century? A compromise was settled on: they would enclose a glass container of petrol. That, after all, would be in rare supply by then and its origins are deep in the earth itself.

Then came examples of technology - "good" and "bad". The good included a bicycle pump - to represent sustainable energy used in transport - and a long-life bulb. The bad was a canister of chloro-fluorocarbon, once used in spray cans and suspected to be harmful to the protective stratospheric ozone layer, and the steering wheel from a car. A final technology was popped in by Professor Guillebaud reflecting his personal interest in population - a packet of contraceptive pills!

Then there was the "apology", a letter saying sorry to the next generation for leaving the planet in a dubious state for those who are to inherit it. It is inspired by the idea that "we have borrowed the earth from our grandchildren". It begins: "We are writing this letter of apology to you in June 1994. It is World Environment Day when we hope that all citizens of the late 20th Century will think about the world which you - two generations ahead - will inherit.

"We fear that you will be facing a huge range of problems because we have failed to take effective action on population growth, misuse of resources, and care of the environment.

"Already there are five-and-a-half billion people on this planet. More than one third of them face poverty. There is growing degradation of the earth, water and air, the prospect of disruptive climate change, the destruction of natural systems and the extinction of numberless species."

Why make the message so serious? Professor Guillebaud says it is to focus people's minds on the distant future. Only when you multiply present trends by large numbers do you see that many of our practices today cannot be sustained. But what about the positive side and what can be done - and why bury the capsules in botanical gardens? The letter explains:

"We have today buried this letter and relevant objects to focus attention on the urgency of action to keep the planet in good health. We have chosen these gardens because they are a haven for plants, and because those who care for them are part of a world-wide network devoted to conservation and sustainable development. Our hope is that by the time you open this capsule and read our letter you will question the need for an apology. For that to be so, all will have to do their share and not leave everything to someone else or to govemments."

Following the ceremony in Kew, Professor Guillebaud flew to Australia to give lectures about family planning and to see the directors of the botanic gardens in Sydney and Adelaide to persuade them to take part in similar capsule events next year.

But what of 2044? Is it possible to look ahead and speculate what the world might be like at that time? A reasonably informed group of experts did just that at the First Congress of Science Journalists held under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation recently. Our findings were as follows: the world's population would be over 10 billion; global warming would still be a worry; forests would still be shrinking and malnutrition would be commonplace; AIDS would be treatable; cancer and dementia would, however, continue to be a challenge to doctors; artificial hearts would be widely used, but not artificial wombs; the organs of pigs would be transplanted to humans; simultaneous translation would be done by computers; and, the 100-metre sprint record would be below 9.5 seconds. But, surprisingly, there would not be more than 1000 people living in space and we shall not be in contact with extraterrestrial from other planets.

Such is the conventional wisdom of some "experts". It is based, inevitably, on taking present trends and seeing where they may lead. The trouble with the future, as recent political changes have shown, is that it specialises in the unexpected.

So what may the children of 2044 in Africa, England, Mexico and maybe Australia, make of the message sent to them this past June? It may strike them as over-anxious. It may appear, on the other hand, understated. Whatever their reactions there's no doubt that they will find it to be sincere. And for us: it is a remarkably original way to focus our attention beyond our every day concerns towards the welfare of others. Wherever and whenever they may be.

Published in The Australian Way, August 1994, pp. 79-80.