What does it mean to act for the long term? It can be understood in terms of positive acts, and negative ones. The current generation may try to build things that will last, perhaps physical constructions, infrastructure, or possibly even social systems. Such action is often motivated, at least in part, by a desire to leave a certain legacy, to impose our stamp on time. Alternatively, the current generation may try to do no harm, or at least not too much. They may try to refrain from destroying the natural or social equilibrium or resources of the world, so that future generations are not faced with a damaged environment. This is most discussed in the context of climate change, biodiversity, and loss of wilderness, but can be understood broadly to encompass all the aspects of human existence where harm, once done, is difficult or impossible to reverse.
Such attempts to spare the future the price of current destructiveness are often motivated by a sense of obligation, a feeling of moral or aesthetic connection to generations that will come. A phrase commonly used is intergenerational equity, or justice: it is inequitable to exploit now, and leave the price for others to pay.
That sentiment is quite widely shared, and corresponds to an everyday morality that would be largely uncontroversial: clean up your own mess and don’t leave it for others. And yet, there is no doubt that we are, in fact, overexploiting the planet and changing its climate in ways that will almost certainly be very negative for humanity. Those alive today are failing the test of intergenerational justice.
The Equity of Inherited Wealth
The reason is that acting for the long term costs. There is a conflict of interests between the present and the future. Patterns of behaviour and consumption which may lead to optimum pleasure right now and even in the next few years or decades are not the same as those which lead to optimum pleasure in the longer term. If a decision is taken to protect the interests of the future then the present will have to give up some things – income, freedom, luxuries – at least for some time.
Present failures invite reflection on the selfishness, short termism, and destructiveness of humanity, and such reflection is widespread. However, it also invites reflection on the obligations of the future. If current generations were to live in a sustainable and constructive way, leaving a well managed and healthy planet and society behind, then those generations coming next would be lucky indeed. They would have the benefits of scientific progress, accumulated wealth, and still enjoy a beautiful and sustaining planet. They would be like the children of millionaires, inheriting vast wealth – in a broad sense – and privilege, just indeed as many other generations have already inherited the wealth of their predecessors.
Many societies try to give those born into privilege a sense of obligation. With luck, comes duty. One may hope that each generation looks back in gratitude at what history did for it. This can be expressed in the idea of intergenerational solidarity, a somewhat richer concept than intergenerational equity. It emphasises that if the present owes an obligation to the future, then surely the reverse is also true. Whatever theory is relied on to found a duty to the future, it should, logically, also be reciprocal. Obligations between human beings are usually only one-way if one of the parties is weak, or wronged. If current generations behave well, the future will be either. It will be strong, and rich, and may therefore shoulder its share of the burdens of humanity across time.
Intergenerational Solidarity: Distributing Costs and Benefits Over Time
I want therefore to focus on the question of what the future can do for us – a question less asked, and which may seem antithetical to the idea of responsible behaviour now, and yet which is simply a part of the idea of solidarity across time. Its practical importance is that it strengthens the relationship between the present and future and so gives a more persuasive and coherent basis for solidaristic behaviour now.
It is, however, a rather difficult concept. The one-way travel of time is not just an arbitrary way of thinking. It is a lived experience. Absent a Tardis, it is a challenge to see how we can get the future to help the present. On the other hand, to some extent that challenge can be met by reframing the question. Intergenerational solidarity allows the present to reasonably ask what costs it can defer and which problems it can refrain from solving. It should not leave too much mess for the future to clean up, but it can, reasonably, expect the future to do some housework.
A central idea here is non-preclusion. If the present acts in a way which precludes certain desirable outcomes in the long term, that is hard to square with solidarity. If climate is changed significantly, species and nature are lost, in ways that are as good as irreversible, so that the future is condemned to live under poorer conditions than the present, we may be said to have failed. Present generations have been poor parents. On the other hand, if the option of a life under good conditions is still available in the medium or long term, then the fact that it requires action or effort from those living in the future is acceptable. They may be expected to contribute to their benefits.
The policy question then becomes ‘how can we continue to avert catastrophes and sustain the possibility of long-term planetary or societal health while deferring some or all of the costs of the action that this requires?’ How can we get the future to pay for the costs we need to incur now on their behalf?
There may be a banal answer, to do with finance: intergenerational solidarity supports the idea of long-term borrowing. Leaving the bill for the future is not so bad if the future is also going to get the profit. However, there may be a limit as to how much behavioural change can be achieved through financial constructions, as well as a limit to how long a horizon lenders will accept.
A more intriguing answer addresses the kinds of solutions that we adopt to large-scale, long-term problems. Typically, those concerned with environmental issues will emphasise the need to do more than combat symptoms, and achieve structural, stable, long-term solutions. The aim is not just to protect the climate, forest, or species for the next few years, but to transition to a structurally sustainable way of life. Environmentalists are, often, longtermists in this sense.
Empowering the Future
On the contrary, intergenerational solidarity suggests that the short term treatment, the sticking plaster, may at times be more equitable than the more profound cure. That will be the case when temporary crisis management is enough to keep future options open, and prevent preclusion of a good life, while costing significantly less now. Then the allocation of costs and benefits is more equitable than if the present tries to implement major and costly changes all on its own.
An application of this idea might be climate change and geoengineering. Techniques have been suggested for managing global temperature by reflecting small amounts of sunlight. Even if these could be effectively implemented – which is uncertain, but not implausible – a major criticism of them is that they do not solve the underlying problem of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases. Such Solar Radiation Management would not solve the acidification of the seas, and there would be a limit as to how long or to what extent it could be deployed. It is not an alternative to greenhouse gas reduction, but at best a potential stopgap which might buy time. It is also suggested to be very cheap – the techniques proposed would have very low immediate costs compared with structural solutions to climate change.
An intergenerational solidarity approach would suggest that SMR could be more than just a last-resort emergency act, but could actually be an equitable response. It preserves the possibility of a stable and recogniseable climate, while imposing low immediate costs, and requiring future generations to make the more substantial and expensive adjustments to a sustainable way of life. As primary beneficiaries of those adjustments, and given that they are likely to have scientific and technological advantages over the present, that seems fair. It may even be a kindness. So called ‘curling parents’ try to smooth the path of their children’s lives, removing all obstacles. Yet overcoming obstacles is necessary to development. If the future inherits too much ease it may, paradoxically, suffer as a result. Each generation needs challenges and responsibilities that it is capable of meeting. We owe it to the future to leave them some work to do.