Should we care about future generations?

Future generations

The agreement by 195 countries at the Paris Climate Change Conference is a landmark consensus that climate change is a global problem requiring global commitment. Some people believe spiralling populations and associated development in India and China is the biggest issue. Others believe greenhouse gas emission control will be ineffective with the growing trend of factory farming. Not only do farm animals produce methane, but forests are felled to plant crops for animal feed.

Another question often asked when considering climate change and the depletion of non-renewable resources is why should we care about future generations? Don’t we just live the life we want and leave future generations to deal with the fallout?   

The rate at which we’re using the world’s natural resources combined with population growth is a pressing environmental problem. Energy-related resources (such as oil, coal and natural gas), mineral resources (such as copper and iron), and biological resources (such as wood, soil and food) are in greater demand than ever before. In business and residential developments, resource conservation must be considered so that resource consumption doesn’t exceed availability. With the right balance, current needs can be met without exhausting resources for future generations. But do we have any duty or moral obligation to future people? 

Future generations don’t exist so how can we have responsibilities to them?

Based on the Utilitarian maximum happiness principle of acting in a way that gives maximum benefit to the most people, we have no obligation to respect the rights of people who don’t exist. Even if we argue they will have rights when they exist, we don’t know how many generations of people will exist and therefore how much of our current resources they’ll need.

Author of Environmental Ethics Joseph DesJardins points out that at the 1997 Kyoto conference in Japan, where representatives from 160 nations met to debate reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. argued that a significant reduction would be disastrous economically. But environmentalists said we need to accept economic consequences so that future generations might be protected from global warming. DesJardins argues the same set of people will be harmed if we do nothing and that we have a choice to give these people a better life or not.

At the Paris Climate Conference, a commitment was made to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, but while the global commitment is admirable, individual countries are left to decide just how far they go. New Zealand, for example, will continue to approve oil mining permits in territorial waters on the basis that if they don’t meet the demand for oil, then another nation will fill the gap. This attitude prioritises the here and now, contrary to the forward-looking climate change agreement.

It could be argued that different policies would mean different people are born, so there is no one future generation to be better or worse. But regardless of who the specific people are, we will violate their rights and risk their interests if we don’t consider the environment that we leave behind. DesJardins refers to philosopher Mary Warren’s point that although specific people may change depending on decisions, the level of happiness or suffering will not. Our obligations are “minimal requirements of moral responsibility.”

Why should we care about future generations?

We care about our family, friends, neighbours, community and country, and we may even care about current environmental issues. But how can we care for people who don’t exist? But if you think about it, we already consider people who don’t exist when we build museums and sports facilities, especially on the scale of the Olympic Games, because these facilities provide a legacy for the future. We also donate to charities to help people we don’t know. Some cultures care about ancestors, passing on stories and living in a way to make their ancestors proud. We might extend this care to our descendants so they may be proud we have passed on a thriving planet.

We can only care about future generations in an abstract way, by projecting the care we feel about current generations. Ecologist Diane Hunt suggests this may be easier to do for the near future, for our children and our children’s children, but if each generation thinks this way, “the future will be cared for in a succeeding chain of concern.” If we need a personal interest so we care, we might consider that future generations could be our own bloodline.

How do we know what future people will be like and what their needs and preferences will be?

A Utilitarian view would be that we have an obligation to minimise suffering and maximise happiness. We don’t know what type of society future people will live in – society changes constantly with new inventions often born out of looking for cheaper, more efficient, easily produced options. However, we can make a reasonable guess for the near future because people’s needs will be similar to ours. They will need air, water and soil free from excess pollution and fossil fuels, and we also know what poses a danger to health and wellbeing.

How do we balance their needs and preferences against those of the living?

How do we define basic needs? Is it shelter, food and clothing only, or does it include anything for pleasure? A Utilitarian might argue that the maximum happiness of people alive is most important, but should future people’s basic needs be overruled by our preferences? An economic argument would discount future interest, but life and health aren’t worth any less in the future. If a resource is non-renewable and there is no substitute then shouldn’t we ensure that future generations can meet their basic needs? Minerals are an example, essential to human, animal and plant nutrition. Fossil fuels are needed for heat and industry, unless water, wind, solar or nuclear energy can be used.

DesJardins refers to philosopher Mary Williams’s argument for employing sustainable practices now that will enable us to maximise wellbeing into the indefinite future—a Utilitarian plus. But this might mean living frugally now, taking great care with resources and impacting some people’s lives negatively, without knowing if it will be in vain. Is it fair to consider future generations when the distribution of resources now is unfair between developed and undeveloped countries, denying some people quality of life?

DesJardins puts forward philosopher Brian Barry’s suggestion that if we use non-renewable resources now then we must compensate future generations for denying them an equal opportunity to use goods and services that resources provide. Compensation would involve investment in technology and the development of alternative energy sources and sustainable farming.

How should we consider future generations?

Renewable resources include natural resources always available, such as water, sunlight, wind and waves, as well as resources that can be replaced, such as crops, forests and animals. We need to understand resource life cycles to manage their use. Unfortunately, economic factors come into play where past investments force a policy of continued resource use. We need to consider balancing resources we use—fish and trees, for example—with the rate at which they can be replaced so that depletion doesn’t occur, and also keep water, air and soil in a state that allows other resources to be generated. Sustainability advocates are concerned that although technology can find new ways of using renewable resources, these may also rely on non-renewable energy and materials. 

Non-renewable energy resources have a fixed supply, and mineral resources can be recycled but not regenerated, so these resources should be used no more than to satisfy basic needs. Economists might argue that this generation should continue to use resources and generate wealth to pass on a society as advanced as possible in science and technology. That way, although future generations may inherit fewer resources, new resources can be discovered. However, new technologies take time to develop and industry is polluting essential resources of soil, air and water. Economists argue that taxation on pollution will encourage improvements in industries while sustainability advocates look at reducing and gradually replacing the use of fossil fuels with renewable resources. 

Ecological economists may have the answer

A workable solution that balances economic and environmental concerns may be found in the transdisciplinary research area of ecological economics.

“As the Science of Sustainability, Ecological Economics must advance the transformation of the economy to support rather than debilitate the processes that sustain our living planet. Most fundamental to such an economy is its support of basic live support systems like food, water and energy, and its support of social justice and a quality life for all.”  International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE)

Predictions for future environmental disasters of climate change, irreversible pollution, resource depletion and rampant population growth may prove to be scaremongering. However, as rational, caring, moral beings we have a moral obligation to conserve resources and preserve species to provide future generations with the opportunity to live the life that we have. At the very least, we must provide for basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing but ideally the spiritual benefit of the beauty and knowledge of the world’s biodiversity.

Changes may be costly to current generations, but what is the environmental cost to future generations of continuing with such self-centred, runaway consumerism?

DesJardins, Joseph. R. (2006). Environmental Ethics, 4th Ed. Chapter 4 “Responsibilities to Future Generations”. Thomson Wadsworth
Hunt, Diane. (1986). ”Responsibilities to Future People” in John Howell (ed.) Environment and Ethics – a New Zealand Contribution. Canterbury, New Zealand: Lincoln College Centre for Resource Management.

Image credit: Islamic Peace by Trey Ratcliff on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)