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The Rights of Future Generations
Alex Steffen, 1 Sep 09

Some people seem to have a hard time even understanding the concept of the rights of future generations. The idea that people who do not yet exist have the right to assert their needs in our lives is one that seems to be hard to fully grasp.

Think of this example: If someone set a bomb to go off in a public square 100 years from now, is he committing a crime? Should he be stopped? Almost everyone would say yes. Should he be tried before a court of law and prevented from doing further harm? Most of us would agree that he should.

Now, here's the tricky part: climate change is the bomb, and your great-grandkids are the victims.

By transgressing planetary boundaries, we are seriously and effectively permanently undermining the ability of the planet to provide the kind of climate stability, ecosystem services and renewable resources that future generations will need to maintain their own societies. In the worst case scenarios, we are in fact dooming many of them to extreme suffering and early death. Life on a planet 10 degrees hotter is not something we would wish to have inflicted on ourselves.

And we don't really have the ethical or legal right to inflict it on our descendants. There is no legitimate basis for thinking that we have the right to use the planet up, that the property rights of our generation trump the human rights of all generations to come.

Put it another way: ethically, our riches are not our own. We hold the planet in trust, and as long as we don't use more of the planet's bounty than can be sustainably provided in perpetuity, we have the ethical right to enjoy the best lives we can create. But the minute we stray into unsustainable levels of consumption, we're not in fact spending our own riches, but those of future people, by setting in motion slow-fuse disasters that will greatly diminish their possibilities.

Unfortunately, nearly everyone in the developed world now enriches their lives at the cost of future generations. As Paul Hawken says, “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P."

Now, obviously, most of us did not intend to find ourselves in this situation, and so we have a legitimate argument that we need a reasonable amount of time to change and eliminate our ecological impact. What a reasonable amount of time is, though, is becoming the subject of fierce debate, especially since it's clear that many people's definition of a reasonable time for change is sometime after they're dead.

The really interesting question: if future generations have legal rights -- and it's pretty clear they do -- in what courts might those rights be defended, and how?

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Comments

So following on from the Stern Review regarding projecting economics into the future, it seems that the legal profession needs a similar "bring back the ethics" moment?

Given the wide literature on the "meaning and role of the law" and the lack of agreement on that subject, it should be an interesting debate...


Posted by: John Kazer on 1 Sep 09

Although I've made it clear in the past I don't believe the doomsday "global warming" scenarios - I'm willing to bet they'll happen before any meaningful "bring back the ethics" moment occurs in the legal profession.

Suing someone on behalf of "future generations" sounds like an interesting idea for a new "internet scam"...


Posted by: nightliter on 1 Sep 09

"especially since it's clear that many people's definition of a reasonable time for change is sometime after they're dead."

Just say the word and I'll start pulling the trigger and lobbing grenades at these folks so they ARE dead and we can get on with it.

In all seriousness; nobody wants to be a fear monger and face this argument, it won't happen. The ones who will attempt to prosecute and get justice are the future generations.
Just like the huge financial corporations and banks of today grew huge in a time of slavery, and although if indirectly befitted hugely from it, nobody will bring a successful trial against the descendants of slave drivers.


Posted by: dave on 1 Sep 09

While I agree with the spirit of this article, it contains some faulty reasoning. First, the analogy with bombs doesn't quite work. The reason we can arrest and try someone today for setting bomb that will go off in 100 years is essentially because direct responsibility and intent to do harm, or even by knowable negligence. In the case of climate change, nobody has the intent to do harm. We might have knowable negligence, but then the problem is the lack of direct responsibility. We have collective responsibility. No one person, or select conspirators, cause this to happen.

Secondly, you make the assertion "There is no legitimate basis for thinking that we have the right to use the planet up," without any evidence in support. This implies to me that you don't understand the nature of our instinct to consume. While I don't think we *do* have that right, there certainly is a *basis* for the right, or at least a basis for the tendency.

Our instinct here comes from evolution. (That doesn't excuse it. It just identifies the source and scope of the problem.) To give a simplified overview, genetic instincts that give us greater reproductive success are the ones that survive and grow and others get weeded out.

Acquiring resources improves reproductive success. This is true in terms of health, survival, and sexual selection. (Demonstrating you are a person that can acquire resources becomes an instinctual attractor for the opposite sex because those with the genetic tendency to select such mates tend to pass on their genes more often, which reinforces and grows the attractor.)

While the dependency on acquiring resource has become less in modern society, evolution of instincts is generally slow and it still has some effect, particularly in developing countries. Such success is lowest in socialized societies because wealth doesn't equal health or survival. The more raw competition and lack of social safety nets, the more reproductive success that comes from instinctively acquiring resources.

The problem is that you can't evolve instincts to avoid catastrophes. Evolution only works slowly in the context of the local environment over time. The dinosaurs could not evolve protection for surviving a meteor impact prior to it happening even if they knew it was coming. Likewise, we can't really evolve instincts to fend off a coming catastrophe.

The reason essentially is the Tragedy of the Commons, or rather, the related principle of evolutionary suicide. Anyone who volunteers to reduce their resource acquisition will tend to have lower reproductive success than those who don't, so again the innate conditions that drive people in that direction will tend to overtake such efforts. That's the basic math.

I am unaware of a workable solution to this problem yet. What should happen is that we'll overuse resources and many humans will start dying out from starvation and war for resources. If we don't complete wipe out Earth's ecosystem, we might reach some equilibrium. Estimates suggest that equilibrium might be somewhere in the 2 billion people total.

Other options might be that other mechanisms can be more powerful than such an instinct. Certainly controlled birth rates help and forced limitation on acquiring resources, but that leans heavily toward totalitarian actions. And, of course, the instinct to resist such efforts not only already exists but would tend to grow since resisting them would increase one's reproductive success.

As far as I can tell, the best way to deal with it is twofold. First, minimize the effect that acquiring resources has on reproductive success. This can be done by making sure there are the best social safety nets in place. Survival, health, education, and welfare of children should not vary from poor to rich. That will diminish the health and survival aspects. The sexual selection aspects might be harder because they take on a life of their own (like the peacock's tail). Effectively, acquiring resources needs to be made unsexy, and our genetic tendency towards following fashion trends (which helps sexual selection) might be manipulated for this purpose.

However, this isn't an argument for a truly socialist society. It only socialized the general welfare and infrastructure. Raw competition is much more effective a pushing the state-of-the-art technology which is the second necessity. We need to maximize efficiency, both in terms of energy and food production. That is, a lifetime of energy needs can be met with less and less interference in the environment. For example, collecting energy from the sun or geothermal directly at high efficiency will have negligible effects. Likewise, for food, getting more food per square footage of earth would be good, even farming towers, with the least waste and consumption.

These might not be a sustainable solution forever, particularly since there are thermodynamic limits to efficiency, but they might slow things down significantly.

While I appreciate the sentiments, I'm not sure that chastising people will ever accomplish much. In fact, it tends to turn people off and dig their heels in. But the spirit of your message is a good one.


Posted by: Dashing Leech on 1 Sep 09

I completely agree that we are taking ecological goods and services away from future generations at an unsustainable rate. The problem is that large portions of society and policymakers have a hard time looking at the long-term affects of water/energy usage, CO2 emissions, etc. Therefore the costs and benefits of taking environmental action are often skewed and distorted because we do not consider the future.

Environmental issues are not only transboundary but intergenerational, we must create a sustainable economy that propels us and our grandchildren into the future.


Posted by: Michelle on 1 Sep 09

> "No one person, or select conspirators, cause this to happen."

How about the people bankrolling the denial effort?


Posted by: Anna Haynes on 3 Sep 09

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