Future generations

How much should we care about future generations?

We take many actions which will dramatically affect future generations. For example, we are in the process of burning most of the oil on the planet. We are changing the atmosphere and the weather. We are in the process of massive deforestation. Et cetera.

Some people argue against these things out of a pure love for the natural environment. However, I suspect that most people who argue against them do so out of a concern for future generations: we must preserve the earth for our children.

On the other hand, some people who don’t care about these things do so because they explicitly do not care about future generations. For example, James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan, reportedly said, in 1981, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” If you believe the world will end reasonably soon, then future generations are not a concern. I don’t happen to believe that, of course, but it is a difficult point to argue against.

Many people have children, and are likely to plan on leaving the world a good place for them. We can also consider grandchildren. What about great-great grandchildren? Very very few of us will ever meet them. How much should we consider their needs and desires? The Iroquois famously said “In every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” That is a difficult standard: seven generations is nearly 200 years. The world of 200 years ago–before the industrial revolution–was very different from the world today. However, this saying does have the advantage of making matters concrete: perhaps it is sufficient to care only about the next seven generations, and not necessary to consider generations beyond that point.

In finance, when considering the future, we normally apply a discount rate. In this view, the money I have today is worth more than the money I will have ten years from now. Can we reasonably apply that to the environment? Is the oil we have today worth more than the oil we have ten years from now? (Mind you, it’s probably not financially worth more, even after applying a discount rate–in fact, hoarding oil is likely to be a good medium term investment, if you have a cheap place to store it.) Somehow it seems wrong to say that our needs today are more important than the needs of our great grandchildren. On the other hand, we can hope that our great grandchildren have access to technology which we do not have. Is a discount rate the right balance?

I don’t have good answers to the problem of future generations, and it troubles me. Derek Parfit tackled the issue in his book Reasons and Persons, and was not able to solve it. Seven generations seems like a reasonable goal to aspire to, and is probably more than I achieve in practice. But what is right? How much should we care about future generations? Is there any way to really know?

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