What do we owe to future generations?

Jeremy asked:

What, if anything, do we owe to future generations? And, far more importantly, WHY?

Answer by Paul Fagan 

In 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission published Our Common Future and was one of the first international organisations to popularise the term ‘future generations’. This occurred within an explanation of the notion of sustainable development, pithily defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (my italics) (United Nations WCED 1987, p. 43). The United Nations’ guidance would indicate that humanity should adopt a path that preserves the goods that people enjoy today for the enjoyment of future persons. The underlying rationale is that poverty, whether suffered by persons today or tomorrow, is considered to be immoral and should be prevented. Warning that we are using our resources too rapidly, whilst couched in the language of commerce, the  United Nations  advised that we ‘may show profits on the balance sheet of our generation, but our children will inherit the losses’ (United Nations WCED 1987, p. 8).

However, the prospect of considering future generations is fraught with difficulties. One commentator, namely Ernest Partridge, in his article entitled ‘Future Generations’, has provided a slew of arguments which may lead one to reject considering the needs of our descendants (See Dale Jamieson (ed.), 2001, A Companion to Environmental Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 377-389).  For example, future persons do not have rights and cannot as they do not exist. Furthermore, we cannot possibly anticipate who the future people will be as any actions we take now will cause a different set of persons to be born in the future; which logically confounds any planning we may make on their behalf. Additionally, the consideration of future persons forces us to deal with an abstract, unnumbered and undifferentiated concept. Also, the question arises as to who matters more, ourselves or future generations? There seems to be no justification for favouring one generation over another: for instance, if an attempt is made to spread resources evenly over generations, then it might not leave current persons with the resources they need to prosper. Finally, we cannot know where future people will place value, and therefore cannot plan for this: future persons may prefer desert to rainforest and would implore us to act to bequeath this situation. Hence, some may conclude that it is an impossibility to cater for future generations and therefore we should not attempt to do so.

Nevertheless, two strands of reasoning are now provided to demonstrate why, in the minds of some, future persons should be considered.  Firstly, a communitarian may argue that if we are part of an ongoing community, whereby persons alive today link the persons of the past and the future, through concepts such as identity or morality, then it is a natural consequence that the needs of future persons should be anticipated. Furthermore, the argument may be deemed to be strengthened, if past generations have anticipated our own current needs an acted to ensure our wellbeing (Partridge pp. 380-1).

Secondly, a more individualistic argument may be provided by questioning what comprises righteous conduct in the present.  To explain, most people wish to have children and grandchildren, and wish for them to live in decent conditions. Therefore, from a personal viewpoint, the concern for future generations should include our own immediate descendants; and as immediate offspring would wish to procreate and leave decent conditions to their direct descendants, it may be concluded that an ongoing consideration of future generations will perpetuate. Hence, it should not be an unnatural or impossible intuition to consider the needs of future generations for as far as one can anticipate.

Even if one agrees that we should attempt to cater for the needs of future persons, the question of which goods should be bequeathed elicits differing opinions. Often debates focus upon whether ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ forms of sustainable development are preferred. The ‘weak’ variant may be characterised by policies that allow natural goods, such as raw materials, to be converted into man-made goods, such as infrastructure; with the latter good providing an inheritance for future generations. The ‘strong’ variant may be characterised by denying the interchangeability of both types of goods and placing natural goods above any concepts of substitutability: for some, natural goods, such as climate-regulating oceans and rainforests, may be crucial to humanity’s survival and therefore precluded from conversion to man-made goods (See Connelly et al, 2012, Politics and the Environment (Abingdon: Routledge), pp. 238-241; for a more detailed discussion of the differences between the strong and weak variants).

To conclude, the relatively new concept that living persons have the capacity to impinge upon the lives of future individuals has brought forth a notion, via the UN, to refrain from impoverishing future generations because it is morally unacceptable. If the debate was more widely aired, then a consensus may emerge to more formally and more completely answer the questions posed.


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