A Philosophical Perspective on Sustainability
Should we be worried about future, unborn, generations? Even if we admit that there are problems of global concern which will affect our descendants, should we be worried about what might happen to people fifty, one hundred or two hundred years down the line? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prevailing view among contemporary political philosophers is that concerns for unborn people cannot be justified.
The Philosophical Status Quo
Thinkers at different times have voiced complaints against the idea that we, the presently living humans, should concern ourselves with those who have yet to be born. Herzen remarks that human development is a kind of chronological unfairness, since those who live later profit from the labour of their predecessors without paying the same price (Venturi, 1960: xx. Kant thought it disconcerting that earlier generations should carry their burdens only for the sake of the later ones and that only the last should have the good fortune to dwell in the completed building (Nisbet, 1970: 44). More recently, Wilfred Beckerman questioned the whole idea of being concerned with the use of resources for the sake of future generations:
Suppose that, as a result of using up all the world’s resources, human life did come to an end. So what? What is so desirable about an indefinite continuation of the human species, religious convictions apart?
Furthermore, even the cogency of the question of whether our choice of present actions could benefit or make future generations worse off has been questioned. Derek Parfit has raised what he calls the ‘Non-Identity Problem’. Which particular future people will exist depends on when procreation takes place. It follows that these actions and policies do not make anyone worse off: teenage pregnancies, women with certain conditions who conceive a child with a handicap, and, most importantly, misuse or depletion of natural resources. Since the people born as a result of these actions or policies would not have been born at all if an alternative action or policy had been adopted, if they have lives worth living, they are not made worse off by the policies (Parfit, 1984: pp. 351-79). In other words, the identity of the people affected by our actions today depends on which policies we choose today. It cannot, according to this argument, make sense to say that we have an obligation to someone in the future, if our actions here and now also determine who that someone will be. Therefore, it seems, we have no real duty or obligation towards future generations.
To avoid this intuitively unappealing conclusion, Parfit attempts to solve this problem by using alternative ethical theories to ground the view that we do, in fact, have certain duties towards future generations. But he confesses that he fails to do so (ibid, p. 443). B. Barry reports a similar failure, after attempting to ground the notion of duties towards future generations on the basis of Hobbesian, Lockean, Rousseauan and, finally, Rawlsian political philosophies (in Hacker & Raz, 1977: pp. 273-4, 283-4). In sum, political philosophy at the highest level considers the notion of having a duty to future generations problematic, and intractably so.
What is Wrong Here?
There are two difficulties in taking the Non-Identity Problem seriously. The first, largely technical in character, does not concern us. The second is practical. The Non-Identity Problem and analogous difficulties assume that the actions and policies that are in question will only affect generations hundreds of years from now. Given this time frame, we have reason to claim that we do not know and will affect the identities of those in the future. But the reality of the problems we face is much more urgent. The consequences of resource depletion, global warming, poverty, disease, famine and similar crises do not lie centuries in the future. Rather, they lie in what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now.” These problems and the policies with which we choose to address (or, as has been the case, ignore) them affect the generations of people who are alive now and will be born tomorrow, next month and next year. We know the future generations whom we are affecting –those children and young people we see everyday. Thus, this theoretical conundrum does not apply to our case. But it should tell us something about the pervasiveness of complacency that seems to infect all levels of society: as we see here, it even manifests itself among philosophers and academics. This dangerous attitude requires change in the way we think and act. This necessitates the involvement not only of an organization such as the World Future Council, but also of youth thinkers, activists and leaders.
Kant's answer to this question, moreover, does not hold true any more in our century. The world we live in does not any more resemble Kant's “building” that would become only more and more complete and therefore ever more pleasant for future generations that dwell in it. It is true that for the past eras the respective generations have kept improving the house and Kant's argument could be understood as a permission for current generations not to do this improvement, to just pass on to the next generation the building in the same state as they got from their parents’ generation. But what about any repair that might be needed, or the renovation of the building? Today’s generation has received a villa, i.e. a beautiful planet, and has improved it much but purchased most of these improvements with an 'inter-generational debit card'. We powered the house using fossil fuels to such an extent that it caused climate change to flood the basement when our children live in it, causing everyone to migrate to the upper storeys. It is true that we painted the veranda in gold but that is not edible. If one applied Kant's Categorical Imperative to inter-generational justice one might argue that it is OK to leave the house in a better or neutral state compared to the one in which the respective generation received it because one could make a general rule of that, for all generations. But one can hardly make a general rule that it is OK to ransack the house, as a continuum of generations acting in this way would destroy the building.
The UN's definition of sustainable development very much resembles the idea of just leaving the house in the state that we got it; it does not put any inter-generational responsibility for improvement. The Brundlandt Commission however requires present generations “to ensure that development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This rule is a categorical imperative for all generations and this calls us to indeed care for the future
(Even though for Common Future the Brundtland definition of sustainability however does not go far enough in the sense as that we would not accept it as socially sustainable if the current level of injustice in the world continues when our generation hands over “the house” to the next generation.)
Moreover, Herzen's argument needs to be turned on its head. Future generations will be in the situation that many of the changes made by current generations are irreversible. Clearly the thousands of species that are dying out every year (Estimates vary, but scientists agree the current rate of extinction is between 1,000 and 10,000 times the background rate of extinction) cannot be brought back. The creation of non-renewable resources (such as oil) takes place over geological time spans – our generation is likely to use it up completely. Herzen is right that there is a chronological unfairness: Our generation is able to influence what decisions future generations will be able to take. Future generations are not able to influence us; they depend on us and on what choices we make in our lives now. Generations down the time line will be “locked in a reality” that is created by their predecessors. Thus the chronological order by which we were born can be both to the advantage as well as to a life-endangering disadvantage of future generations. While Herzen, like Kant, is probably right in describing a chronological unfairness for the relationship of the current generations to previous generations – we are much better off than in the past – the chronological unfairness of current generations to future generations seems to be just the other way around.
In addition to pragmatic considerations in favour of caring for future generations, ethicists like Partridge claim rational reasons. Partridge develops the notion of “self transcendence”, which describes a drive in human beings to identify not only with their own life, but the situation of their entire community, institutions or ideas. Thus, the activity of a “self transcendant” individual transcends the horizon of its own lifespan. According to Partridge, the human self by its very nature transcends the physical body, and is intrinsically linked to (healthy) mental development. It is a result of the individual acknowledging its own mortality, who thus takes provisions for a posthumous future.
Secondly, Partridge claims that “we perceive ourselves in the stream of history not only as recipients of a culture and a tradition, but also as builders of the future, as determiners of the condition of future lives” (Partridge, 1981). Destruction of the future would fatally alter the significance of present events and lead to moral impoverishment. Thus, without being bound by a contract of law, we nevertheless enjoy the favors given to us by previous generations, and owe to ourselves the duty of posterity.
Recently, some philosophers, who defend a general approach to ethics called Discourse Ethics (Ott & Thapa, 2003) have tackled the problem of duty toward future generations. There are two crucial consequences of the Paradox above: first, because we cannot identify future victims, our choices cannot be morally wrong toward future individuals; and, secondly, since our actions are necessary for the very existence of a future individual, he or she has no rational reason to compain about us, as long as he or she prefers to exist. Ott defuses the Paradox by attacking these two consequences. He asks of the second consequence: “Is it true that we cannot complain about circumstances that were necessary for us to exist? If I was conceived in a rape, must I hold that rape is morally good?” (Ott 2003, 44). Of course not – we should able to distinguish the concept of the moral person able to judge from the moral point of view from the particular individuals whose existence is contingent. In other words, “our moral judgment should be independent from our actual circumstances... future individuals may [therefore] consistently disapprove of our actions” (ibid).
The first consequence, in addition, contains a crucial ambiguity. In stating that we have no obligations toward the future because we cannot identify future individuals (‘persons’, in Parfit’s terminology), the Paradox elides over the distinction between what Ott calls singularity and individuality (ibid). Most duty-based approaches to ethics hold that duties are owed to single members and not toward abstract qualities of a moral community. But, Ott argues, single members will share certain features that make them persons in addition to those characteristics which make them individuals (ibid). It is with these shared features – among them general interests – that ethics about the future should concern itself. We should therefore care about the conditions that we bequeath to whomever may live in the future (ibid, 45).
This is not, however, the end of the story. Having defused the Paradox, we may still ask ourselves which ethical theory can ground such a view of future ethics. As we have seen above, classical contractarianism, communitarianism and utilitarianism cannot deal with the Paradox. They therefore do not appears to be good candidates for such a grounding theory (Ott, 2003: pp. 45-48). Ott argues that, through discourse ethics, we can find a combination of consequentialism and Rawlsianism that can ground future ethics: “From the core of discourse ethics, we can derive only the modest obligation to secure the conditions that enable future persons to engage in debate. Still, this provides an egalitarian minimum standard. Arguments from specific obligations regarding the fair intergenerational bequest package may recur on welfare, Rawlsian justice, self-esteem, or other principles” (ibid, 48). Future ethics can then rely on consequentialism – itself a sophisticated form of utilitarianism – to provide duty-based (deontological) principles such as freedom, justice, equal opportunities, dignity and human rights on which to base evaluations of actions’ consequences, and on a modified Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ (Rawls, 1971: section 11) to buttress the claim that persons under such a veil of ignorance would adopt an egalitarian standard and the concept of strong sustainability (ibid, 49) (see also Ott & Thapa, 2003).
A Christian and Jewish Perspective
For both Jews and Christians there exists a clear duty for humans to care for the environment. In Genesis, which both religions believe in it says "Then the Lord God placed the man in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and guard it" (Genesis 2:51). Creation is there for humanity as humanity is there for creation.
We say “humanity” because “the man” in the above quote surely means both women and men in general. This is an important finding, however, and not only political correctness, because “the man” here is a representative term not only for both genders but also for time: The garden of Eden was not given to Adam as an individual but it was given to him on behalf of the human race, including all the generations that were to come. This is how very early in the Bible / the Thora the idea of trans-generational opportunity and responsibility is explained. Genesis makes clear that generations have to care for the generations that follow. Adam did not know any of us but still he was bound to “cultivate and guard”. It follows from this understanding that as much as we are now benefiting from the efforts of past generations it is our responsibility towards the future to fulfill our duty for stewardship as well.
Let us illustrate this relationship of Christians of Jews to the creation in an example. For Jews and Christians a tree is created by god, but God says “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth” (Genesis 1:26) and Jesus clarifies that this does not only mean a difference in power but also in value when he says “You are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31, Luke 12:7). One can abstract from sparrows to trees and hence be quite relaxed about chopping the tree down for the sake of building a house. But as a Christian/Jew it is also clear that, in our duty towards next generations of humans, we will at least need to plant one tree in replacement.
Keeping this in mind, any Christian will agree to the UN's sustainability definition, which allows “development that meets the needs of the present” (the cultivation of creation) but “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (the guarding of creation).
In the context of creation being given to humanity as a race one can also argue that “Thou shall not steal” might also be applied to the creation. Humanity has the right to cultivate the earth but “God owns the earth” (Psalm 24:1), not man. We are tenants on earth and are allowed to do much with it but the generation of the day does not have the right – religiously – to steal from future generations the ability to enjoy the creation as God's work in all its greatness.
Facing current environmental crisis, we often complain that conservation would require a lot from us, things we should consume less, other things that we have to recycle awkwardly. But when Noah faced the Flood, he also sacrificed his own personal wishes for fun and self-actualization and build the Ark for all of creation. As Jews and Christians we need to re-capture that attitude and start to act! (In more drastic terms Galater 6:8 also warns our generation of the consequences of not acting for the future but instead only caring about our current life.)
What we need to achieve is a certain state of peace with the world, a “Greenpeace” if you want. The section that tells about Jesus’ going into the desert states: “and he lived with the wild animals.” Jesus lived and the central message from this is that he is in peace with creation. The peace that we need to achieve is, however, not only one with the planet. It is also amongst ourselves; it is an “eco-social peace.” There will be no peace of humanity with the planet if there is no peace among humanity. And peace is not only the absence of violence; environmental peace is not only the absence of resource wars. It also and very much means social justice. The linkage of social and environmental justice for a sustainable development, however, is not only an aim of this think tank. John said “The man who has two shirts must share one with him who has none and anyone who has food must do the same" (Luke 3:11). The current levels of social inequality are not in any way acceptable by Christian standards and demand for theories and action that help for a change towards a better world as soon as possible. For future generations and also for those on this planet who have less than we do. “God commands us to do good to all men” (Galater 6:10) on all continents and at all times for all times.
From a Perspective of Islam
(For this section, we relied heavily on Denny, F.M. ‘Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust Inviting Balanced Stewardship’, http://environment.harvard.edu/religion/religion/islam/index.html.)
The Qur’an tells of an offer of global trusteeship that was presented by God to the Heavens, the Earth, and the Mountains (Sura 33:72), but they refused to shoulder the responsibility out of fear. Humankind seized the opportunity and bore the “trust,” but they were “unjust and very ignorant.” But the Muslim holy book makes it clear that God is the ultimate holder of dominion over the creation (e.g., Sura 2:107, 5:120), and that all things return to Him (Sura 24:42) and are thus all accountable.
Humankind’s stewardship of the earth entails a profound responsibility. Other living species are also considered to be “peoples or communities” (ummas; Sura 6:38). Moreover, humans and animals share the same origin in substance, water (Sura 24:45). These two beliefs entail that, although humans possess the vice-regency of creation, their standing with respect to other living species is not that of absolute superiority. And, so, humans have an obligation not to exploit them disproportionately or irresponsibly. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad said that: “The earth has been created for me as a mosque and as a means of purification.” The earth thus takes on a sacred character, as a place where humans can serve God.
On the issue of caring for the future, Muslims believe that all generations will be gathered together at the Last Judgment and that in heaven the saved will enjoy the company of all generations of faithful Muslims (see ibid). If in the afterlife all generations will be brought together and will comprise a single community for all eternity, it makes sense that each generation should feel a duty to both past and future: to the former, every generation should feel a responsibility to maintain and improve the situation it received and, to the latter, to bequeath it a thriving and sustainable world. On this score, there is also a saying concerning God’s reason for creating the universe: “I was a Hidden Treasure and I wanted to be known, so I created creatures in order to be known by them.” As Denny points out, this means that, according to Islamic belief, community between God and His creatures does not end with death: it truly begins with the afterlife.
In conclusion, Islamic belief coincides with Judaeo-Christian doctrine in that we, as humans and caretakers of creations, have a duty to all living beings and future generations. This duty entails that we should treat the environment responsibly. We can, of course, exploit it to our benefit. But we ought not do so irresponsibly, neglecting the consequences (both to ourselves and all other living beings) of such exploitation or passing on the bill for what we have caused to those who will live its effects.
A Perspective of Hinduism and Jainism
Hinduism and Jainism comprise the oldest continually observed religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent (Chapple, 1998). As we shall see in this section, both of these religions support the conclusion that the environment must be treated with respect. Hinduism does so because it suggests that the earth can be seen as the manifestation of the divine, which must be treated with respect. Moreover, its recommendation of simple living can be compared to a model for developing sustainable economies. Jainism, for its part, stresses the interrelation between all life forms and therefore can be seen to embrace a sort of earth ethics.
Hinduism has long revered the tree. Early seals from the Indus Valley cities (ca. 3000 BCE) depict the tree as a powerful symbol of abundance. In a similar vein, rivers have been considered pure. More than fifty Vedic hymns praise the Sarasvati, a river (now dry) associated with the goddess of learning and culture. The Ganges River likewise is referred to as a goddess originating from the top of Siva’s head in the Himalaya Mountains (ibid). We therefore see that Hinduism places the natural world on a high pedestal, worthy of utmost respect. It also recognizes humanity’s dependence on it for sustenance. These two attitudes create a sense that the earth, as a manifestation of the divine in the world, should be treated accordingly.
The cosmological views offered by Hinduism situate humans in the natural world in two broad ways. On the one hand, the agrarian images of India found in the Vedas, Upanisads, and epic texts present a style of life seemingly in tune with the elements (ibid). On the other hand, the Advaita Vedanta tradition asserts that the highest truth involves a vision of oneness that transcends nature and, in a sense, dismisses the significance of the material world by referring to it as illusion (ibid). Even within the paths that relegate worldly concerns to a status of secondary importance, the doctrine of Dharma emphasizes a need to act “for the sake of the good of the world.” The upshot of combining the search for transcendence of the material with a respect for the world is that our treatment of the natural world with reverence must be done without regard to our place in space or time. In other words, we must act for the good of the world, regardless of who receives the benefits or when they are received – the present or future inhabitants of the world, whether human or non-human.
The Jaina tradition has existed in tandem with Hinduism in India since at least 800 BCE (ibid). Jainas ascribe to the belief in many life forms populating the universe with hell being at the base, humans and animals in the middle region, with gods and goddesses in the upper or heavenly domains. The goal within Jainism is to ascend to the Siddha Loka, a world beyond heaven and earth, where all the liberated souls dwell eternally in a state of energy, consciousness, and bliss. Although this goal utterly removes one from all worldly entanglements, the path to reach this highest attainment entails great care in regard to how one lives in relationship to all the other living beings that surround one in the earthly realm (see Chapple, 2001).
In this regard, the Jaina belief in karma becomes of paramount importance. Among non-living beings, we find properties such as the flow of time and space and the binding of matter known as karma. This latter’s nature determines the course of one’s embodiment and experience. Negative karma causes a downward movement, both in this present cycle of birth and death and in future births. Positive karma releases the negative, binding qualities of karma and allows for an ascent to higher realms, either as a more morally pure human being or as a god or goddess. It is in this Jaina doctrine that we find the foundations for caring for the world and future generations. As one scholar has put it:
In this cosmological system, […t]he world of nature cannot be separated from the moral order; even a clod of earth exists as earth because it has earned its particular niche in the wider system of life processes. A human’s experience includes prior births as various animals, microorganisms, elemental entities, and perhaps as a god or goddess (ibid). To see, recognize, and understand the world is to acknowledge one’s past and potential future. Though the Jaina insistence on the uniqueness of each individual soul does not lend itself to an ultimate vision of interconnected monism, it nonetheless lays the foundation for seeing all beings other than oneself with an empathic eye. In past or future births, one could have been or could become a life form similar to any of those that surround one in the vast cosmos. (Chapple 2001)
Jainism, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, explicitly requires us to act with a view to all of nature and all generations. In the Jaina worldview, this requirement stems from the fact that we all have and will have lives as animals, microorganisms, elemental beings or even gods. Given these potentialities and the interrelatedness of the entire cosmos, we cannot fail to act responsibly and morally toward everything and everyone, past, present and future.
A Scientific Perspective
If we do care about future generations, science offers strong evidence that we should, moreover, take action now. Our collective actions are impacting the biosphere through biodiversity loss, climate change, toxic accumulation, and other problems, the repercussions of which we do not fully understand. Moreover, the case for using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for inaction is no longer regarded as credible, at least as regards climate change. European regulations emphasize the Precautionary Principle, which puts the burden of proof on industry to prove that their actions will not cause harm rather than on regulators to prove that they will; this principle has not yet taken hold in the United States.
Many scientists have focused on climate change as the most urgent ecological threat. Some climatologists have warned us of possible “tipping points” in the climate system, which may be crossed if we exceed a further 1C increase in temperature. If we are not to exceed this threshold, action should be taken within the next ten years to prevent the construction of fossil fuel-based infrastructure that would take us past this threshold (Hansen, 2006).
To make matters worse, climate change also has negative effects on human health. In its "World Health Report 2002", the World Health Organisation estimated that in 2000 climate change was responsible for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, and 6% of malaria in some middle-income countries (WHO, 2002).
The fact that climate change affects disease occurrence is well established. Environmental changes have an effect on the emergence and proliferation of parasitic diseases such as malaria (Patz, 2000: pp. 1395-405). Additionally, climate change increases the chances of inter-species infections. When they adapt to changed conditions, microorganisms develop in unpredictable ways, and they can shift from a primary zoophilic to a primarily anthrophilic orientation. This means that, due to climate change, infectious agents that used to target animals might start targeting humans, whose immune system is not ready to fight them. The ultimate consequences of such a shift in target could be disastrous for global health. The alarm has been raised several times in the last few years, with SARS being the most salient case.
Sadly, even if climate change is a global problem, its consequences, especially the health-related ones, are not. As WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan warned on the occasion of 2008’s World Health Day, “climate change can affect problems that are already huge, largely concentrated in the developing world, and difficult to control.” This problem therefore transcends science, relating also to the larger problem of global socioeconomic inequality. Another example that further supports this is the first world’s difficulty in disseminating well-established vaccines, and the current lack of research projects focusing on the development of new remedies for diseases that affect mainly developing countries. A recent article from the British Medical Journal asserts that “inadequate access to vaccines in low and middle income countries results in more than two million deaths each year”, mentioning also a delay in the introduction of vaccines in developing countries of at least two decades with respect to first world countries. These pieces of evidence show little effort in trying to make the fundamental human right to health a reality.
More broadly, most of our ecological problems can be seen as stemming from an inability to integrate the current economic framework (with its emphasis on growth) with the reality of finite resources on a finite planet. Dealing with this problem will require both technical and economic paradigm shifts.
From a technical perspective, it is clear that continuous conversion of resources into waste cannot last forever when the resources are finite. Already we see this problem coming to a head with the debate over “Peak Oil”, but other resources are in short supply as well. And our waste products are clogging rivers and warming our climate. Thus, we need to radically re-structure our means of production, transitioning from a “cradle-to-grave” to “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing cycle. This represents a paradigm shift for industry and consumption.
Furthermore, there is a clash between economic and scientific worldviews, insofar as economics tends to view the world and its resources as existing within the economy, whereas science tends to view the economy as a human construct existing within the world. Initial attempts to integrate economics with ecology have largely focused on valuing ecosystem services as a way to quantify the benefits to humanity lost through depletion and degradation of our natural resources. This attempt shows the dominance of the current economic paradigm, as it is an attempt to represent the world as existing within an economic framework.
In short, from the scientific perspective, we are performing an experiment with our planet that appears to be having increasingly severe consequences. Reconciling the finite resources of our planet with our consumption habits would require re-thinking both the current technical and economic paradigms. Whether we wish to act on our increasing knowledge of the harm that we are doing to our planet and to future generations is a values question, not a scientific question. However, assuming that we do care about future generations, it is likely that we would want to take strong action now, rather than risk the consequences of doing nothing.
The question of whether we should care about the future and future generations of people is of more than academic interest. Its answer reflects the mentality that is prevalent in current academic, social, economic and political discourse, which, of course, in the end forms part of the paradigm we alluded to in the first part of this paper. We have seen that the prevalent answer seems to be that the future and its inhabitants should, strictly speaking, be of little or no concern to us. To counter such a negligent and apparently cynical answer, we have taken recourse to a variety of philosophical, theological and scientific viewpoints.
From the philosophical perspective, we argued that the Non-Identity Paradox is no real paradox and cannot legitimately be used in favour of neglecting future generations, both for pragmatic and philosophical reasons. The Judaeo-Christian and Islamic religious traditions teach us that we have a responsibility to future generations as stewards of God’s creation. Despite and because of our superior position in Creation, we have a duty to take care of that which God has bestowed upon us. The Hindu and Jainist traditions similarly teach us that we must live in harmony with the cosmos, and this requires treating all living and non-living entities with an equal measure of respect, for we do not know when we shall exist as they do now. The scientific perspective has, in addition, highlighted and emphasized the urgency of acting as soon as possible. There is strong evidence to conclude that some of the consequences of our current exploitation of natural resources is on the brink of becoming irreversible. If we do not do something about it, our negligence would be tantamount to having experimented with our own homes and present and future livelihoods.
The upshot of all of this is at least two-fold. On the one hand, we have strong, varied and decisive reasons to care about the future and to take actions to reverse current trends. We should therefore strive to act now and involve all the key players, including, as we have emphasized throughout, the youth of this world. On the other hand, the arguments presented in this second part illustrate the power of the paradigm-shift model we presented in the first part. Evidently diverse perspectives such as philosophy, science and religion have been used in order to argue for the same, strong conclusion: we must act for the sake of future generations and we must do it now.