The Master List

“When the system on which life depends starts to collapse, all other problems fit inside that problem.”

Naomi Klein
No is Not Enough

Deep in a dream, some primitive part of your brain smells the smoke. Something’s not right. The world tilts, your dream gives way and suddenly, you bolt upright. Smoke is pouring in from under your door. In a flash, you realize that your house is on fire. Not a moment to lose, you leap out of bed, rally your loved ones, grab what you can and head for the door. 

But what do you take with you? If you’re like most people, you’d go for the irreplaceable valuables and any useful items within arm's reach. You grab your photo album, your laptop, passport and vital documents, maybe some cash. And that’s it. You’re just going to have to say goodbye the rest. You hesitate for a moment, wishing you could take more, but the heat in non-negotiable. You burst out the door and now you’re on your way to a new, radically different life. 

The metaphor is obvious. Our planet is bursting into flames, both literally and metaphorically. Smoke is seeping into every corner of our lives and spirits. The crisis is no longer somewhere out in the future. It’s here and it’s urgent as hell. The era of ‘biological annihilation’ is underway. We’ve overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and the sixth extinction is upon us. The apocalypse is now.

It’s an emergency, so we have to triage. In fact, we can forget about our mega-ambitious goals of saving the earth or the totality of the biosphere. Even with a heroic effort and species-wide cooperation, it’s just not possible. The best that we can hope is to save a few key elements and hope that our descendants will find ways to use them. The question before us: What can we save for the sake of the 7th generation?

Conservationist Aldo Leopold famously wrote “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the cogs and wheels.” Wise words to be sure, but it’s simply too late for such advice. Many of the cogs and wheels are already gone and a lot more are certain to disappear in the next few years. So we might well update Leopold: “The first rule of long-term survival is to save the most vital cogs and wheels and give our descendants a fighting chance.”

This is why we need a universal master list for the planet. Such a list will help us cut through the clutter and chaos of our emergency. It’ll help us focus our attention on a smaller, manageable number of items. Instead of spreading ourselves over a billion possibilities for activism, we’ll put our energies where they can do the most good. Don’t save the earth; save the list.

critical habitat and species

First and most importantly, we need to save critical habitat the species that live there. Most especially, we need to preserve the corridors that link intact ecosystems. By preserving these key areas, we also save fresh water and ecosystem services that will be vital to our descendants. Likewise, we need to save genetically-diverse seed stocks for future agriculture, in whatever form it might take. This work falls under the domain of conservation biology.

human health and physicality

Second, we need to preserve the health and physicality of our bodies. Our future is unknown, but resilient bodies will be vital, especially in a post-antibiotic world. Obviously, we must preserve basic medical knowledge. Likewise, we must preserve the experience of robust physicality, embodied in people around the world. Currently, we are in serious danger of forgetting the robust nature of the body. No matter how the planet changes, strong people will always be useful. This is the domain of doctors, health professionals, trainers and pro-social athletes. 

practical knowledge and skill

Third, we need to preserve the basic knowledge and skills that will be vital for survival in a post-industrial world: How to use hand tools, how to do basic electrical, plumbing, craft and carpentry. How to purify water. How to grow food. How to salvage materials. Some of this practical knowledge can be saved in written or digital form, but more importantly, it should be saved in circulation and frequent practice. This is the domain of teachers, craftspeople, hobbyists and survivalists.

core ideas, stories and values

Fourth, we need to preserve certain core ideas and stories and that can guide us towards sapience in the midst of epic survival challenges. We do this through writing, speaking and conversation, keeping the wisdom in circulation. This is the domain of writers, film makers, storytellers and teachers.

Obviously, not everyone will agree about which stories and ideas should be preserved, but perfect coherence is unnecessary. As long as we’re driving toward sapience in the telling of these narratives, we’ll be giving our descendants some valuable perspectives to work with. They’ll say to one another “This is what our ancestors believed.”

The first foundational narrative is Big History, the story of our world from the Big Bang to the present moment, revealed by scientific evidence. The most impressive telling of this story comes from David Christian in his series by The Great Courses.

The second vital narrative is indigenous knowledge and the experience of our ancestors. These people knew the world in its original form. Their understanding of the natural world, experienced through the body, will be essential for anyone trying to build a life in a post-apocalyptic world. 

The third vital narrative is interdependence. One of the oldest human ideas, this is the story of relationship and the idea that  everything depends on everything else. Nothing exists as isolated fragments; there are no independent objects. Likewise, the story of big health and the long body. The body is not a stand-alone organism. It is continuous with the so-called “external world.” The skin is not a boundary, but a sensory organ that connects us. 

The fourth vital narrative is ubuntu. This is an African social philosophy in which personal identity is synonymous with tribe. “We are people through other people.” “I am who I am because of who we are.” Closely related are the ideals of democracy and social equality. “All men are created equal.” 

The fifth vital narrative is the scientific method: hypothesis, experimentation, data collection and most especially, revision. The actual findings of today’s scientific enterprise are obviously exciting and important to us, but for the 7th generation, the basics will be more important. They’ll need a scientific perspective to explore and survive in their new world.

The sixth vital narrative is the humanities, the world of art, music, dance and emotional expression. Our descendants will have their own story to tell and they’ll want to do it in many forms. They’ll work with new languages, new music, new dance and new visual arts. By preserving the best of our art for their benefit, they’ll have a source of inspiration and a sense of their history.

sacred work

The master list includes the most precious elements that we can pass along to our descendants. It focuses our attention. It tells us where to apply our energy, and when to take risks. This will be our gift to the 7th generation. This is the most important work that we have on the planet right now. In other words, it is sacred. If you’re wondering what to do with your life, choose one of the above.