Despite widely held beliefs that current generations bear heavy obligations to look out for the welfare of future generations, the philosophical case in support of such intergenerational obligations is surprisingly tentative. Moreover, quantifying any such obligations is subject to even greater uncertainty. Even so, current generations bring future generations into existence in the knowledge that doing so will put a claim on resources that could have been used to reduce suffering among people who are already alive. The choice to allow living people to suffer and die, and instead to bring forth more people in the future, thus implies a moral imperative to provide a life for future generations that is worth living. Many policies—such as so-called green technologies—that could improve the lives of future generations could bring about greater prosperity for current generations as well. The potentially difficult policy choices are those that represent a clear trade-off: decreasing future generations’ living standards as a means of providing current and future generations with a better environment. Because future material living standards are projected—even under the most pessimistic scenarios—to be much higher than living standards today, it is possible to give future generations both a better environment and a much higher material standard of living than people enjoy today. Claiming that proenvironmental policies will harm future generations, therefore, amounts to observing that it would be possible to give future generations even higher incomes—along with a dirty planet. We should, therefore, not be hesitant to transform some future material prosperity into an inheritance that will truly benefit future generations: a livable world.
GW Paper Series
George Washington University Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2012-55, George Washington University GW Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-55
15 Lewis & Clark L Rev. 339 (2011)