Grandparents for Grandchildren and the Great Lakes: The Future is Now

By Jim Olson

“With my Grandma I like to walk along the beach and find Petoskey stones. With my Grandpa I like to go in Lake Michigan and body surf the waves,” my 11-year-old granddaughter Ava Bachmann reflected in late August when she stood with me along the shores of West Grand Traverse Bay. We were ruminating together about the bond that grandparents and grandchildren share, and the responsibility that we elders have to leave behind a healthy legacy for our descendants.

“I just hope the waters can stay clean as long as they can possibly be clean,” Ava added. “It’s really fun to be spending time on Lake Michigan with your grandparents.”

Several recent events have prompted me to think about the urgency for those of us who are grandparents—whether by ancestry or the passing years—of wanting to do more for our grandchildren in the next decade. This urgency led to the idea of a new campaign that FLOW will launch that enables grandparents in the Great Lakes region to respond to this urgency to care and act for our grandchildren while we can. While we help out parents and care for our grandchildren day-to-day, what better way to care for them for a lifetime than increasing our awareness, support, and work to protect the integrity of water, communities, health, ecosystem, and quality of life right here in the Great Lakes Basin? “Grandparents for Grandchildren and the Great Lakes” is the name of our new campaign. We intend to form a continuing, engaged network of grandparents who are committed toward doing more to mitigate and improve the lives our grandchildren will experience in 20 to 30 years. To do this, we can form a network to increase our effectiveness by forming a network to work together.

I write “urgency” because I’m feeling a greater urge to care, act, and do what I can for grandchildren who in the coming decades will face tumultuous change—climate, pollution, flooding, droughts, collapsing safety nets of drinking water, health care, infrastructure, and political instability, in the midst of global upheaval and migration. Admittedly, this is made more poignant because of my age, 70-something, and the birth of my seventh grandchild (two more step-grandchildren will soon be added to the family tree). It seems as a grandparent I’m suddenly pressed to pay more attention to grandchildren—future generations—everywhere. To the power of the future in the present intensifies as the years pass. To the threatened if not certain cataclysmic changes to the air, water, land, forests, and life on this planet if people, states, and countries do not take sweeping action. The future is now.

In October 2018, the UN International Panel on Climate Change issued a grave warning about a narrow window for humanity to act to prevent the global temperature from rising more than another 1.5 degrees Celsius. The range of effects will unravel life as we know it if we do nothing; our grandchildren have a chance to experience the planet we know and love—if we do all we can in the next 10 years. Otherwise, the effects will whipsaw as extreme heat, flooding, drought. Here in the Great Lakes region, according to a recent scientific report published by Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, the next decade could bring as much as a 30-percent increase in precipitation—translate that as flooding, infrastructure damage to coastal areas, erosion, property loss, and the loss of tillable land for food, plants and wildlife. If we think water levels and damage to ecosystems, wetlands, shoreline property, and public infrastructure are high this year, “we ain’t seen nothing yet.” And, of course, it’s not just the increase in precipitation. The other extreme, drought and low water levels, are just as real. Two billion people could be without water, portending death, suffering, and mass movements of people from one region to another for water, food, and survival.


Grandparents are the solution

I don’t write this blog as another “doom and gloom” threat with no solution. We have one—grandparents everywhere. Most of us grandparents want to do something for our grandchildren; it is human nature. We can all do something. If we do this together, the benefits to our grandchildren will multiply.

In June, this urgency must have been in the back of my mind when I walked by Ed Roth’s hat and t-shirt design store on Front Street in Traverse City before I reached the FLOW office. I noticed a hat with the words “crazy grandpa,” and a rush of emotions about grandchildren and the coming decades screamed, “Buy it.” So, I did.

In August, FLOW filmed a short clip of three of my grandchildren standing with me on the shore of West Grand Traverse Bay. The interview is a prelude to FLOW’s new “Grandparents for Grandchildren and the Great Lakes” campaign. My granddaughter Ava described her passion for swimming, searching for Petoskey stones, kayaking, and fishing, her voice joyful and clear as water. Then her voice turned more serious when she said how uncertain she was about the future of water in her lifetime. The words from a Leonard Cohen poem flashed through my mind: “Oh, and one more thing/ you aren’t going to like/ what comes after America.” And, these triggered lines of Fan-Chih from a collection of Cold Mountain Poems: “A hungry bird will gorge itself to death/like a man who’ll die to get his hands on property/ Money’s the thing that ruins humans/ the wise will keep it at a distance.”

The next day FLOW’s board chair Micheal Vickery sent me an email with a terse note: “What you think about this?” sharing the poem “Questionnaire,” by Wendell Berry — from his book Leavings(Counter Point, 2009). A few days later FLOW’s former chair Mike Dettmer sent me the same email.

How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please name your preferred poisons.

For the sake of goodness, how much

evil are you willing to do? Fill in the following blanks with the names of

your favorite evils and acts of hatred.           

What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security, for which you would kill a child. Name, please, the children

whom you would be willing to kill.

Disturbing. How did we turn life and nature upside down? When did we start sacrificing life, natural spaces, water and health for gods of progress, money, and patriotism? Strange how reason can hide desire and excess, how the mind can slip into sophism—fallacious reasoning that covers up disastrous ends with supposed benefits—to justify our actions or apathy as sacrifice for money, markets, and nationalism.


We must sacrifice profit

The answer to Berry’s question is to turn sacrifice right-side up. How can we grandparents sacrifice our grandchildren and the planet with untold suffering in the face of the reality that we have a decade to prevent this suffering? Ironically, the traditional notion that we accumulate wealth to pass on to our children or grandchildren has become sophistry. What good is the accumulation of wealth or materialism in the name of legacy, when that legacy destroys the planet and the lives of our grandchildren? This has become a sophism, a falsehood. The truth is we cannot continue to slide into apathy when it comes to our grandchildren’s future, when it comes to climate change, water, human dignity, and, yes, the Great Lakes.

We are hundreds, thousands, millions of grandparents. The answer for us grandparents to protect and gift our grandchildren with life is to reverse Wendell Berry’s “Questionnaire.” How much world trade and free markets are we willing to sacrifice for our grandchildren’s health? How much land and water are we willing to preserve for their food and thirst? What blanks would you fill in for acts of goodness and love? What energy source, security, financial investment are you willing to sacrifice, give, to prevent flooding, drought, landslides, massive fires, or cause that kills a grandchild?

This is why we at FLOW have decided to announce our new campaign to build and sustain a widespread coalition of Grandparents for Grandchildren and the Great Lakes—a wave of grandparents and businesses whose single mission is to reverse the culturally perverse sacrifices we’ve made in the past. A new culture, one with the deepest roots of all, that chooses to sacrifice, give, and support all those acts of love, care, protection of our grandchildren and the water, hydrosphere, land, liberty, life, and civilization that they inherit. What better stewards, what better way to establish a trust for your grandchildren, a public trust ethic that protects what is essential for the quality of their lives across generations.

It is time for us grandparents to join together, compress time, give, sacrifice, conserve, support the ethical increase in taxes required for rapid actions to reverse or mitigate the harsh realities of climate change and impacts. It is time to become sensitized to the realities of the future our grandchildren face here in the Great Lakes Basin, really, grandchildren and generations everywhere. Stay tuned for the launch of this new campaign for grandparents in the Great Lakes region, grandparents everywhere, who want to do what we can for the Great Lakes, our communities, and future of our grandchildren and future generations. FLOW and I welcome your emails, texts, posts, comments and ideas as we launch Grandparents for Grandchildren and the Great Lakes. The time is now.

Jim Olson is the founder and President of FLOW. He and his wife Judy have seven grandchildren.



How grandparents can help:

• Join our “Grandparents for Grandchildren and the Great Lakes” campaign and pledge to pass along a healthy Great Lakes to your descendants. Click here to support FLOW’s work.

• Join a Great Lakes Beach Cleanup initiative

• Talk to your grandchildren about water protection, and about issues that affect the health of our Great Lakes and groundwater, such as Line 5, PFAS, and the lack of septic protections.

• Enjoy the Great Lakes with your grandchildren. Swim with them, look for Petoskey stones with them, bodysurf with them, fish with them.

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