Seventh Generation Sustainability - A New Myth?

Peter Wood

Walk through any upscale supermarket these days and you are likely to come across some Seventh Generation, Inc. products. It’s a company that sells diapers, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, baby wipes, sanitary pads, toilet paper, facial tissues, dishwasher detergent, paper towels, and lots of other “household and personal care products.” And it is an expert in “green” marketing. It invites customers to become part of the “Seventh Generation Nation,” (free coupons!), join discussion groups about environment-friendly lifestyles, and “Ask Science Man” about the hazards of chemicals in the home. Jeffrey Hollender, “President & Chief Protagonist” describes his work as making the company “as responsible and sustainable as it can possibly be.” It attempts to reach that “deeper business purpose, where economic growth is merged with social justice.”

I respond to such rhetoric as I might to the discovery of a nest of centipedes in my bedroom slippers. But I suppose I am not Mr. Hollender’s target demographic. Seventh Generation’s products may be perfectly good. This isn’t about paper towels. It is about the company’s name, which has helped to propel a sustainability clichés into wide circulation.

Seventh Generation? The term has its own stub on Wikipedia, of course, which explains that it is “the idea that decisions should be considered for their impact on the seventh generation to come, inspired by the laws of the Iroquois.” There is also a proposed Constitutional Amendment by that name “to put ecologically sensitive areas under government control,” as well as Mr. Hollender’s Vermont-based company. An article in the magazine Fast Company got to the heart of the company’s brand a few years ago:

Fifteen years ago, when we started the company, there was a Native American woman working for us. She knew the words of the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, which says, "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Given the mission of our company, she thought Seventh Generation would be an appropriate name. We loved it.

High-fives in the comments section from Native Americans and their non-native admirers for getting this ancient tradition right.

Maybe.

Here’s a little experiment. Follow that link to the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy and read through it until you find the “words” that the Native American woman working for the company recalled. (If you are in a hurry, search “seventh,” but you’ll miss the fun.) It offers instructions on funeral orations, keep-out signs, council fires (no chestnut wood allowed), thanksgiving to the forest trees, divisions of responsibility among the tribes, qualifications for office, and a great deal more. It is through and through a fascinating document.

But there is not a word in it about considering “the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Not one word. The Great Law does present some anodyne advice to the effect that lords of the Confederacy need to consider the future welfare of the people, including those not yet born. Edmund Burke and a great many other philosophers have reminded us of the same need. But seventh generation?

Possibly the woman who passed on this bit of lore was mis-remembering a detail. The Great Law does mention the number seven, by way of advising how thick the skins of leaders should be in the face of angry and offensive behavior:

The thickness of their skin shall be seven spans -- which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy.

Or possibly someone just made it up.

I don’t want to discount the possibility that there is an actual Native American tradition, perhaps among the Iroquois themselves. But so far I am not finding much in the way of promising leads. The Great Law of the Iroquois is quoted on another Wikipedia page that supports Mr. Hollender’s version:

In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.

The trouble is that the only source cited for this is Mr. Hollender himself.

I rather suspect that what we have here is a modern myth disguising itself as ancient Native American lore. There seems to be no shortage of contemporary Native Americans willing to sign on to the myth. For example, PBS’s Bill Moyer, who is a kind of universal magnet for fake wisdom, elicited from a contemporary Iroquois, Oren Lyons, a declaration along the lines that all our decision have to be weighed in light of their effects on the seventh generation.

But is there any evidence of this being a pre-contact belief of the Iroquois? A more widely disseminated Native American belief? An emergent idea during the period of colonial contact?

I mean these as open questions. I don’t have access to my library at the moment and can’t go digging for the answer, but my suspicions are aroused. This wouldn’t be the first time that Native Americans have been credited with an aura of in-tune-with-nature virtuousness that actual Native American societies were entirely innocent of.

Nor would it be the first time that strangers ascribed an interesting custom to strangers. Herodotus describes the Persians as deliberating “upon affairs of weight when they are drunk,” and then considering them again when sober; or if they misstep and deliberate while sober, the Persians “reconsider the matter under the influence of wine.” Tacitus tells the same story of the Germans. It is, I would say, a bit more plausible than the Iroquois sitting around the council fire trying to decide how a shift in rules will play out some 150 years or more down the road.

But let’s say they did. “Your plan for exterminating the Neutral Nation and the Erie Indians to the west sounds good to me, Tadodaho, but I see it working out only to the fifth generation. By then hostilities with the Huron will require investing more in our northerly campaigns.” “No, Gawasowaneh, you are forgetting that we will defeat and absorb the Susquehannock in the sixth generation. It is more ecologically sound that we kill all the Neutrals and Eries right now.”

The “seventh generation” standard, of course, works only as a figure of speech—and an extravagant one—because the long-term consequences of most of our actions are simply unknowable. The “seventh generation” trope may be good for marketing soap suds and baby wipes, but it really doesn’t have anything much to do with how serious people govern their lives. If we take it as a Burkean exhortation to remember that we should look out for the interests of generations to come, well enough. But that’s not the world’s most specific advice. It doesn’t settle the matter of whether we should be trying to build the most robust economy we can so as to bequeath prosperity to future generations, or forego economic growth in order to bequeath more untapped resources. There is an element of risk both ways. We enjoy the Interstate Highway system because an earlier generation answered “economic expansion.” A policy of bequeathing untapped resources might be seen in the eyes of the seventh generation as culpable negligence. We just don’t know.

Back in May, we published an article by Michael Booker titled, “O Cosmic Birther! The Lord’s Prayer Meets the American College Textbook” which described how a college textbook presented as a scholarly fact a ludicrous fiction about how The Lord’s Prayer would translate literally into English. In June, Christina Hoff Sommers published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she took to task a feminist law professor, Nancy K. D. Lemon, for repeating in a new edition of her textbook, Domestic Violence Law, an error that Sommers had already pointed out. Lemon was continuing to retell a fable about the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb,” (as the width of a rod with which a man could legally beat his wife) and perversely sticking with her claim long after the myth was exposed.

Given the immense popularity of sustainability on campus, it seems pretty likely that the “seventh generation” conceit will be fodder for textbooks too. If that happens, let’s hope that it turns out to have an actual historical basis. Higher education in America these days is less and less a place where the facts actually matter in the face of an appealing story. But we really do have an obligation to get things right. I would think whatever else the seventh generation thinks of us, they would scorn self-indulgent fantasizing that leads us away from the truth.


Image: "Seventh Generation Natural Dish Liquid" by Steven Depolo // CC BY-SA

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