We owe the future.
People who will be alive in the future can make ethical claims on us. We have duties to them. They have rights.
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 sets a bomb to go off in a public square a year 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. What about ten years? What about 100? When does our obligation to avoid serious, predictable harm to others end?
Now, here’s the tricky part: climate emissions (and huge array of other unsustainable practices) are the bomb, and your grandkids and great-grandkids are the victims.
By transgressing planetary boundaries, we are seriously (and in human timescales, permanently) undermining the ability of the planet to provide the kind of climate stability, natural bounty and renewable resources that future generations will need to maintain their own societies. If we continue business as usual, we are in fact dooming millions of them to extreme suffering and early death. Life on a hotter, dangerous and destabilized planet is not something we would wish to have inflicted on ourselves.
We don’t really have the ethical 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 current generations trump the human rights of the next 100 generations to come.
Put it another way: ethically, with riches come responsibilities. Much of the wealth around us was handed down as a legacy by our ancestors, and we hold the planet itself in trust, as stewards.
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 disasters that will greatly diminish their possibilities. Unfortunately, nearly everyone living a middle class or wealthier lifestyle 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 for a couple decades we had a legitimate argument that we needed a reasonable amount of time to change our ecological impact. It’s become clear that many of our leaders’ definition of a reasonable amount of time, though, is for things to change sometime after they’re dead.
This is what I mean when I say that we have a politics of “predatory delay.” Many wealthy people understand that their profits are extracted through destructively unsustainable practices, and they’ve known it for decades. By and large, they no longer deny the need for change, they simply argue for delay, on the basis that to change too quickly would be unfair to them.
This allows them to been seen as responsible and caring. They want change, they claim; they just think we need prudent, appropriately paced change, mindful of economic trade-offs and judiciously studied — by which they mean cosmetic change for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, they fight like hell to delay change of any real magnitude, attacking not only the prospects of our kids and kin in the future, but increasingly of our society in the present. Their delay has real, serious human consequences, across generations. They’re taking, not creating; the harm they cause is measurable.
Tim O’Reilly, in 2012, turned this nice phrase: “Policy should protect the future from the past, not the past from the future.” Yet in every country on Earth, policies made at the top are still overwhelmingly designed not to meet our planetary crisis at the scale and speed it demands, but to protect the institutions, companies and systems causing that crisis from disruptive change. This is true at every scale, from large incumbent industries unfairly undermining newer, more sustainable competitors to wealthy NIMBY property owners blocking new housing in cities around the world so that they can benefit from the housing crisis by pushing real estate prices as high as possible before they sell.
The next time you hear a powerful person arguing against needed action in the name of prudence or process or tradition, ask yourself, “Am I hearing the voice of predatory delay?”
We owe it to the future to call it what it is.