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.