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Intergenerational Justice

Louise Augustine-Aina
26 October 2020
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3 mins read

A few months ago, I was reading Avner De-Shalit’s Why Posterity Matters: Environmental Policies and Future Generations. As the title suggests, it’s about intergenerational justice – the moral obligations we have, as people living today, to future generations. The specific question he tackles is: do we have a moral obligation to preserve the environment for future people? De-Shalit believes that we do and I’m sure most of us would agree. He justifies this position by arguing that individuals have interests that stretch beyond their lifetimes. In other words, as philosopher Janna Thompson puts it, people ‘immortalise themselves through [their] creative activity’.

According to De-Shalit, when present and future generations critically engage with the work, thoughts and ideas of their predecessors, they create a sense of community that spans across time – which he refers to as a ‘transgenerational community’. Culture best exemplifies this concept. We can all think of traditions that have been preserved for thousands of years, that are still practiced today. Some traditions stay the same while others evolve over time. Nonetheless, the transformation or preservation of certain practices suggests that the idea of a transgenerational community isn’t too far-fetched.

I was intrigued by De-Shalit’s theory but as I read the final few pages of the book, his conclusion felt self-defeating. De-Shalit acknowledges that many affluent countries have pursued more environmentally-friendly policies domestically, ‘at the cost of polluting and depleting the resources of poorer countries’. He continues:

“According to the Pearce report, 80 percent of the world market in tropical hardwood is supplied by five countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, the Ivory Coast, and Gabon. The five exporting countries need the money to improve the welfare of their citizens. Thus, they do not invest the money they get from export in reforestation (which would benefit future generations)…this raises questions of international intergenerational justice (obligations of a person in one community to a future person in another community). I am aware of these questions, but cannot consider them here.”

De-Shalit essentially defines communities as countries. I wondered why you would write a book about posterity and environmental policy without considering the obligations we have to future people living in other countries. Environmental sustainability, that is, ‘one generation meeting its needs, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, requires global collective action. Therefore, we have to think about community beyond the confines of man-made, arbitrary state borders.

De-Shalit referring to ‘international intergenerational justice’ as a question beyond his remit is indicative of a wider problem: a lack of interdisciplinarity, to say the least, when tackling environmental issues. As it stands, the world is characterised by extreme inequality and in many cases, overconsumption in developed countries is compromising the ability of people in developing countries to meet their needs. This is the legacy of extractive colonialism, which future generations will inherit, if we don’t act now. On this point, I’d recommend the short documentary Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering The Truth, as a pertinent example.

Political Theorist Charles Beitz notes that philosophers could learn a lot from development economists and economic historians about the ‘relationship between participation in the international economy, on the one hand, and domestic poverty and income inequality, on the other’. Many people and countries are unable to prioritise environmental sustainability, as a matter of survival. Ultimately, poor black and brown people in Africa, Latin America, Asia and small island states are disproportionately affected by climate change and the degradation of natural resources and biodiversity. To quote Nylah Burton in a recent Vogue article, ‘the exploitation of our planet’s natural resources has always been closely linked to the exploitation of people of colour’. As such, how do we ensure that the conversation around environmental sustainability centres their perspectives?

At the root of the climate crisis and global inequality is exploitation and a history of racial injustice. If we are to consider people of the future, we must first acknowledge the real-world problems that exist today. The obligations of both economic and environmental justice that those of us in developed countries have to people in developing countries should never be an afterthought.

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