29 October 2020

The need to leave a legacy

The need to leave a legacy..... topic by Sara



Essay by Lawrence


Although strictly speaking a legacy means money or property inherited from someone we can use a broader meaning to include what we leave as individuals and a society to others or to future generations.


At the individual level a legacy might include other non material things such as works of art, literature, music, gastronomy, philosophy, ideal, political insight and so on. We can describe these legacies as some kind of super memes that permeate into society as a collective meme; such examples include, Marx, Nietzsche, Marie Antoinette to mention just a few.


Unfortunately, not everyone who has contributed to society in their time is remembered in history. But at least most people are remembered within a generation or two in a family so their legacy survives them (ie survives us) for a few more years. Our immediate friends and relatives are aware and might even appreciate our contribution to friends, family and maybe even our immediate society. We have all come across benches in parks with the name of a person who bequeath or patroned in memory of someone for public use. We might not know the person but the intention of having a bench for people in the future to rest on is being fulfilled.


So why do we have a need to leave something for future people? And what is the connection with philosophy? Let us first do some disambiguation of the question. There is a difference between a person thinking of the need to leave a legacy and other people (us) identifying a legacy left by a person from the past including the immediate past.


Maybe the individual does not really think of creating a legacy when trying to express themselves or trying to achieve some mission in life. Sure, some might think in terms of legacy when they do have a legacy to leave, but the main motivation is to achieve one’s objectives. Even more, the individual does not benefit materially from their legacy after passing away.


I would argue that the need for a legacy is more a feature of those who are alive than a personal need of the individual leaving the legacy. These inherited legacies can be used by others for their personal or collective needs. For example a long passed away relative can give the family a sense of pride and thus help people to connect with their family’s past and present prestige. Thus an inherited legacy is also an inherited personal identity and an inherited family identity. Monarchs and royal families are masters at family and personal identity over eras of time.


We can also find this model of personal legacy at the level of society. Pride and social identity are very much the concern of a society which many times transcends into national patriotism and nationalism. This usually ends up with unintended consequences that result in great harm to society. But the need for legacies at the social or national level is real and relevant; I would also say that today we are also well involved in global legacies.


But whilst the common individual might not be too pre occupied with a legacy extending throughout society this is not always the same with leaders, governors, emperors, kings, presidents or prime ministers. There are few social leaders who can be remembered in good stead for who they were rather than what they did. So far leaders have tried to be remembered by erecting grandiose monuments in the form of pyramids, cathedrals, palaces and cities. This might also explain why poor societies, throughout history, tolerate their leaders to build expensive mega projects that at face value serve no purpose other than to bankrupt the country and give temporary employment to people at abusive remuneration.


I now would argue that the era of the mega monument has passed on  to be replaced but other concepts. Today the trend seems to be towards conceptual legacies rather than material legacies. After the Second World War a more robust United Nations was set up. At the same time European countries came together and entered into unions to prevent the carnage of the first and second world wars. From the Council of Europe in 1949 today we have the European Union with a population of nearly 500 million people. This union has brought prosperity, peace and a semblance of functioning human rights to most of the continent of Europe.


In the mid sixties and seventies people wanted to leave a legacy of the demise of nuclear power and energy especially nuclear weapons. Once again unintended consequences and lack of understanding the issues means that today nuclear weapons have proliferated into countries with very weak regimes. But nuclear energy has also given us nuclear medicine that has probably save more lives than the victims of the atom bombs over Japan.


Even legitimate intellectual legacies like nuclear energy have their down side, from complicated means to dispose of nuclear waste, negligence with the management and building of nuclear power stations, and the criminal recklessness in protecting fissionable material. The real crime of nuclear energy is the use of radiation to harden conventional weapons to make them more distractive. But the legacy of these conventional weapons is that the residual radio activity of these weapons keeps killing people long after the conflict has stopped. Where are the mass marches against radioactive conventional weapons?


The anti nuclear movement did not really succeed in leaving a valid legacy, but at least they created a legacy of ad hoc popular organisations to fight for human rights, one’s living conditions and the conditions of the environment. Of course, like all intellectual models based on knowledge these popular organisation models can be used for good causes as much as bad causes unfortunately.


The legacy of popular protest has evolved into the historically establishment, such as political parties, lobbies and global charities. Many of those who were protesting twenty or ten years ago are now members of parliament and ministers of government. Unfortunately, those who today are fighting against global warming and the environment are destined to make the same mistakes of the past. First these two issues are not part of the same problem but two separate problems.


The less serious of the two is the condition of our environment. There is no reason why we should abuse our environment, and many countries in Europe are more organized than others at looking after their environment. Hence, environmental issues tend to be more local and therefore, a lot depend on the political legacy of a country to look after its environment. A healthy environment is a legacy we can easily inherit with some will from politicians and local people and the least complicated problem to leave in good order to our descendents. Why should we care? A healthy environment is healthy for us, and the “us” involves people over a few decades: and because we are human.


However, global warming is as elusive as nuclear weapons: we look at the effect of global warming (weather, floods etc), but not the cause of global warming and climate change. I would argue that there are two key causes of global warming and climate change. The first is that it is very easy for rogue or greedy countries to avoid pollution controls and to exploit the environment. Today we know for a fact that the seas are saturated with plastic and plastic particles, not to mention the mercury and other toxins.


The problem with global warming is that it is the product of massive movements of money. Most industrial activities generate and require massive amounts of money but the profit margins might not be that high. This, I would argue, is an invitation to cheat and abuse any laws that regulate pollution or clean productivity. It is also an invitation to exploit poor countries for example by deforestation of pre historical forests or river pollution for mineral exploitation.


A legacy we inherited from the mid 1960s was the off shore tax havens: these banking institutions that are legitimate banking systems are also exploited to hide illegal money or money generated from abusive practices from legitimate governments. Failure to control this banking system and financial flow legacy will prevent any real progress in global warming and climate change practices. Like nuclear power protesters are too busy looking at the effects whilst they have little understanding of the causes.


Legacies give us immediate material benefits or even enhance our personal identity. But as I have argued we are moving away from structural legacies to intellectual legacies. In a way there is nothing new here. Both agriculture, including animal husbandry, and medicine have been intellectual legacies from the mists of time. The difference today is that we employ the scientific method to justify our intellectual legacies. And that is a game changer for the future of global legacies.


Best Lawrence



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