Politicians’ short-term views
Politicians tend to think in terms of years, but not decades or centuries. They usually seek to address the current, pressing needs and interests of living citizens — their voters – and the interests of future generations rarely, if ever, concern them.
But policy decisions made today can reach very far into the future. Some radioactive isotopes in nuclear waste take tens of millions of years to degrade for example. Decision makers’ capacity for long-term planning has not kept up with our technological capability. Today’s decisions are often made without considering their long-term consequences. Decision-makers can and do leave their positions of power long before we can feel the consequences of their decisions, as with fossil fuel subsidises and damaging climate change decades later for example.
New future ethics
It is said that the freedom of the individual ends where the freedom of the next one begins, and so the freedom of every generation is limited by the freedom of future generations. Intergenerational justice is violated gravely and regularly because our society values short-term profits and immediate advantages. The costs of this system are transferred into the future.
Future generations face a series of grave threats which we in the present engender – antibiotic resistance and climate change are just two examples. Our comfort is bought at the expense of misery later. In the face of present and future problems, we can no longer afford this short-sighted policy. We need a new form of ethics that will preserve opportunities for future generations.
Theories of Generational Justice
It is only in the past few decades that we have begun to theorise about justice between present generations and those to come – the first recorded theories of justice between contemporaries are about 2600 years old. This time gap is down to our technological capability and the human race’s effect on the world. Climate change as we understand it was not a conceivable problem for the Ancient Greeks; the authors of the Bible didn’t think men were powerful enough to impact upon nature — that prerogative was reserved for God.
In the last few years the number of scientific magazines and articles referring to justice between generations and to the ethics of the future (in the broadest sense) has soared. The concept of ‘intergenerational justice’ may very well become an intellectual leitmotif of the new century. Not only does it deal with the future, it is also set to influence the future direction of philosophy and politics.
The FRFG writes about the theory too. The FRFG hopes to help define key terms and so enable a clear understanding of the topic area. What exactly do ‘justice’, ‘future generations’, ‘intergenerational equity’ and ‘intergenerational justice’ mean? How do we distinguish ‘intergenerational justice’ from ‘social justice’ or ‘gender justice’? Do we see a generation of people as something static? What do we mean when we talk about overlapping generations? Can we really draw a dividing line between different generations? Is ‘sustainability’ synonymous with ‘intergenerational justice’?
For further reading:
The FRFG has done a lot to clarify the term “intergenerational justice“ and to compare it with the concept of sustainability.
An important resource is the Handbook of Intergenerational Justice, issued by the FRFG. Several issues of our English/German Journal Intergenerational Justice Review are devoted to the theoretical foundations.