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At a minimum, says Prof. Wood, we ought to conserve enough of the natural environment for future generations - photo by Darin Dueck
At a minimum, says Prof. Wood, we ought to conserve enough of the natural environment for future generations - photo by Darin Dueck

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 4 | Apr. 6, 2006

A Matter of Inter-Generational Justice

By Paul Wood
Associate Professor, Faculty of Forestry

Sustainability primarily refers to the human use of the natural environment, and implies that we should sustain…something. And for some length of time. Well, should we?

The answer, of course, depends on what we ought to sustain and for how long, and it is precisely these contentious issues of content and duration that frustrate the definition of the concept of sustainability. Also, who should do the sustaining, for whom, and why?

These are ethical issues. They are not scientific issues, although science is indispensable for suggesting how we might sustain, and for predicting the consequences of failing to do so. Instead, these are fundamental issues about how we should or ought to treat others by way of the natural environment. They are issues about interpersonal, international, and intergenerational justice; about how we ought to distribute natural resources spatially and temporally. Some would include interspecies justice. In turn, rationality, not personal opinion, is the foundation of principles of justice.

Take intergenerational justice, for example. It is not rational that one generation should get more of what it wants than others if the only distinguishing feature of the lucky generation is its prior existence in time. That distinction is arbitrary, and rationality abhors arbitrariness. Intergenerational injustice is simply raw, irrational discrimination.

So who should sustain what, for how long, and for whom? At a minimum, we ought to practice intergenerational justice, which in turn implies conserving enough of the natural environment to ensure that future generations will have the same opportunities in life that we have. Recent work on sustainability of forests, fisheries, agriculture, and other resource sectors has given us some clear insight into what we ought to do. For example, we know that we have to give fish populations time to rebuild themselves; the world’s fisheries are largely depleted from massive overharvesting. And we know that we have to learn to live without further destroying species’ habitats; we are now losing species at a rate unprecedented since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

At the same time, three ethical issues are impeding our ability to sustain. First, some still believe in the ‘techno-fix,’ that humans are sufficiently ingenious to find substitutes for any resource that becomes too scarce. Admittedly, humans are innovative, and to some small extent we can substitute one resource for another.

But the human-caused rate of change to the Earth is so large and rapid - to the point of affecting major life-support systems - that it is unlikely that future generations will be able to substitute for the damage we are doing. The preceding article by Professor Rees speaks to this issue.

Second, since we cannot know exactly what future generations will want, some people would like to dismiss the idea that we carry any obligations to those who will follow us. This is a non sequitur. We do not know the specific preferences of future generations, but we do know they will want all-purpose goods such as biological resources and tolerable environmental conditions. Yet it is precisely these conditions, including the environmental condition known as ‘biodiversity’ (the source of biological resources), that the present generation is degrading so rapidly.

Finally, the political structure of Western nations caters to the short-term preferences of the current electorate for a straight-forward reason: voters authorize liberal democratic governments to act only in their best interests (in theory). Sustainability strongly implies that Western nations -- the most rapacious consumers of the world’s resources -- constrain their rates of consumption for the sake of future generations (not to mention most currently living people).

But these governments cannot act in the interests of future generations unless the current electorate authorizes them to do so. And we do not; not by a long shot.

The one thing we should not sustain, therefore, is our current way of thinking.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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