III people might intuitively be the most obvious
III A human rights framework Even though present-day people might intuitively be the most obvious bearers of rights, several authors have argued that contemporaries have right-based obligations to future generations as well. In the article “Why and How Should We Represent Future Generations in Policy Making?” Beyleveld, Düwell and Spahn argue for using the framework of human rights to represent future generations. The starting point for their argument is the challenge of presentism. There is a structural bias in political decision-making towards the interests of the contemporary generation over the needs of future generations. Moreover, it is exactly this bias that the rivalry thesis seems to fuel if it is in fact necessary to choose between the objectives of intergenerational and intragenerational justice. Even though we can account for this bias by resorting to underlying psychological dispositions, the authors focus on the problem that the bias ultimately undermines the very ideal of a democracy. A democratic political system forces decision-makers to take into account the interests, rights and opinions of people that are affected by those political decisions. Since many decisions have far reaching consequences for both distant people and future generations, it is problematic that current western democratic countries fail to take these interests and needs into account. However, anyone who supports the idea of representing future generations must deal with the so-called “”non-identity problem” described by Derek Parfit. In short, what needs to be accounted for is how present actions can violate rights of future persons if these actions at the same time determine the existence of those future persons. According to Parfit, even minor differences in our present choices and action, will imply that entirely different future persons will come into existence. This means there are no specific, determinate claimants to whom we have obligations. In other words: “How can one be harmed by an action without which one would not have existed at all?”33 Instead of arguing that rights are properties, it could also be argued that rights refer to moral relationships; e.g. they bind people through moral and/or legal obligations. By arguing that the features that make people eligible for rights are general and do not refer to the specific identity of the rights bearer, it can be argued that contemporaries have obligations to anyone who might suffer the ill consequences of our present choices.34 Correspondingly, the argument by Beyleveld, Düwell and Spahn shows that based on the very idea of human rights, it can be argued that it is morally required to install institutions that enable us to meet our obligations towards future people’s basic needs. Denying that future generations have the same human rights as we do is to deny that there are human rights at all. To quote: “Just as the basic rights of current living generations underpin democratic majority vote and representation, so should the rights of future generations govern our political decisions and any procedural attempt to represent their rights and interests should start from this assumption.”35 The Principle of Generic Consistency is discussed as a philosophical foundation for human rights. It is argued that this foundation abstracts from all all person-specific, individualistic aspects that give rise to the non-identity problem, while nevertheless starting from an agential perspective. Ultimately, their paper shows that if there are human rights then we must accept far-reaching moral obligations towards future generations and drastic restrictions on what we consider to be morally legitimate actions.36 If the moral basis of democratic governance appeals to some ideas about the dignity and rights of all human beings, then we must recognise the obligations towards the basic living conditions of future persons. It will be only political institutions and their decisions that can install institutions that enables us to meet our obligations towards their rights, but such an installment is morally required by the very idea of human rights.37 In another article by Düwell and Boss it is argued that “Over the long run, it is quite likely that we can fulfil our duties towards future people and maintain the self-governance of current people at the same time only if we develop new forms of governance: stronger international and global institutions that can deal effectively with questions of sustainability but at the same time are accountable towards democratic polities. To take such a step on the supranational level may be a necessary consequence of our duties regarding future people.” Prioritising the needs of present people over the needs of distant people (in time and space) cannot be considered to be morally legitimate. Therefore, the way the rivalry hypothesis separates the objectives and might fuel biases to focus on the “here and how” is problematic. IV Ways out of the tension The challenge in sustainable development is to look for solutions that secure the needs of all; fulfill both the justified claims of present and future people. Sustainable development is not about achieving either intergenerational or intragenerational justice, it is about achieving both intergenerational and intragenerational justice. To put it in the language of logic: we are dealing with a conjunction (?) not a disjunction (V). To analyse the statement “intergenerational and intragenerational justice,” denoted “p ? q”, we first have to think of all the combinations of truth values for p and for q, and then decide how those combinations influence the “and” statement. For “p ? q” to be true (T), we would need both p and q to be true, whereas for “p V q” to be true, we would need only one (or both) to be true (see table 1). Truth table p q p V q p ? q F F F F T F T F F T T F T T T T By assuming the correctness of the rivalry hypothesis, I take for granted there is a fundamental tension between the objectives of intragenerational and intergenerational ecological justice. The discussion in section 1 and 2 seem to suggest there is an actual need to prioritise — choose between — the objectives. However, the previous section has shown that we in fact ought to take into account both the needs of present and future generations. Keeping in mind the ethical formula “ought implies can” it is important to investigate what ways (if any) are then still open for sustainable development. In other words, what is needed more to make sense of sustainable development? Because if (1) sustainable development contains both the objectives of inter- and intragenerational justice necessarily, and if (2) the objectives are necessarily in conflict with each other, then (3) there needs to be a weighting principle or method that can guide us in making trade-offs. The human rights framework deepened the problem as it provided a philosophical foundation for why it is important to integrate all interests – including those of future generations – into the structure of democratic decision making. However, it did not directly provide a solution; all rights need to safeguarded, but the rivalry hypothesis holds there are not enough resources to fulfil both the justified claims of present and future people. In this section I will therefore briefly discuss other perspectives and principles that might be more helpful in guiding decisions. The need to make a trade-off between intergenerational and intragenerational justice can introduce for instance principles such as “the future will provide the answer.” Adopting such principle would allow one to focus first of all on the present generation, take the risk and trust that future developments will solve the problems and enable sustainable development. It could be both a change in future people’s behaviour and life styles, or clever inventions and use of scientific knowledge that will ultimately help future people to deal with the environmental issues when they become worse. As mentioned before, advocates of the rivalry hypothesis do not believe in a decoupling of ecosystem pressure and economic growth. However, it is for instance envisioned by Elon Musk (founder of Space X), Bas Landsdorp (founder of Mars One) and Stephen Hawking (well-known physicist) that future generations will be able (or need) to spread into space. Instead of focusing on solving problems on Earth, future generations might go invest in new home planets or exploit the Moon or asteroids. The rivalry hypothesis that the total consumption might still rise and the pressure on ecosystems will increase could hold true still, but it won’t necessarily lead to the end of the human race and still allow future generations to flourish. On the contrary, the need for a weighting principle could also introduce some sort of precautionary principle that rules in favour of protecting future generations, by mere fact that there will be more than one generation and this weights heavier than the current one generation alive. This could then entail that options that endanger future generations are to be considered more problematic than options that do not contain that risk put more hardship on current generations. Another view could be that we indeed need to go down in welfare to establish a sustainable relation to our world, but that this weight can be put more on future generations. Taking into account the doubts of advocates of the rivalry hypothesis that it is possible to change political (power relations), it could for instance be suggested to not take away existing rights, but to let it slowly develop into a less welfare “state of the world” than we are in now. Ultimately, it still seems that adopting these principles goes hand in hand with a certain hope in either technological progress or global cooperation between nations and peoples to find a way out of the tension between inter- and intragenerational justice. Expecting we can exploit Mars or successfully substitute ecosystems services by human-made alternatives in the near future, might be considered just as idealistic/implausible as dreaming of increased support for a global redistribution of environmental property rights and institutional restriction of ecosystem use by advocates of the rivalry hypothesis. However, even if the rivalry hypothesis is the right one, these principles could at least provide a guiding understanding of sustainable development and guide action. Only in case it can be shown that intergenerational and intragenerational justice can be achieved independently, or that achieving one at the same time facilitates the other, the tension can really be solved. Such case would, strictly speaking, eliminate the problem as it proves the rivalry thesis wrong. Holding on to the rivalry hypothesis, another rather gloomy perspective needs consideration. It could be the case that the damage caused already will lead to imminent collapse. This means that we are simply too late already, and the problem cannot be ascribed to a failure to alter our institutions and political restrictions, or a lack of technological progress in the near future. In this case, we should consider “sustainable development” as an empty concept altogether. Conclusion The rivalry hypothesis might provide us with reasons to (and principles how to) prioritise the needs of present and future generations. However, neither the idea of “sustainable development” nor the ideal of democracy allows for such a separation of intragenerational and intergenerational ecological justice Separating the objectives and opening up the discussion about which should be prioritised, might help to achieve either intergenerational or intragenerational justice. I have argued that both objectives are worth pursuing in their own right and achievements on either side, by different environmentalist movements, can really make the world a better place. However, anything that contributes to either intergenerational or intragenerational justice – instead of both – cannot be labelled “sustainable development.” For sustainable development not to become an empty concept altogether, it is crucial to further explore weighting principles or methods that can guide us in making trade-offs.