We Borrow the Earth from Future Generations
One of the pertinent questions that drive the debate on sustainability is whether today’s generation owes future generations any duty of securing their future. This question has elicited many debates, and philosophers cannot seem to quantify the nature of the obligations, if any, of one generation to future ones (Buchanan 26). What is apparent is that today’s generation is aware that there will be future generations so long as humanoids do not destroy themselves. More clear is the fact that the actions of the present generation have an impact on the ecology, and will have a consequence on life in the future. Does the knowledge of these consequences affect the decisions that the generation of today make? Do we even owe any duty to future generations? These are some of the questions that this paper seeks to answer.
Impact of today’s generation on the environment
It is unquestionable that today’s generation is impacting negatively on the environment. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment on sustainability found that human activity today has put such a strain on the ecology that the earth’s ability to sustain future generations is a cause for alarm (Luke 140). The 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report concluded that global warming is accelerating at a rate not projected before. The report was based on scientific data from over 3800 scientists in 150 nations (Parry, Canziani and Palutikof 34). The economic activities of today’s modern society were found to be the major contributing factor. These activities generate toxic and radioactive substances and other waste products whose damage already are on a path to a ruinous future. While most of these wastes have few immediate effects, cumulative emissions will threaten the stability of the global climatic system in the long run (Howarth 210). These emissions thus have potentially far-reaching implications for future generations.
Besides global warming, another issue that will present a problem for future generations is overfishing. Humans today are using destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling that destroys the sea floor habitat as well as scooping up unwanted fish. This has led to the destruction of some species as well as other marine animals that are dependent on these fish for survival. Some marine predators such as sharks are also being hunted for fins. These predators take a long time to reproduce, so overfishing takes a heavy toll on their numbers. These predators are responsible for regulating the numbers of other fish as well as oceanic balance. Overfishing now will thus impact heavily on future generations.
Marine waste is another way we are dumping our problems on future generations. Oceanic waste has led to ocean acidification levels not witnessed in the last 35 million years. The acidification will lead to the destruction of marine habitats and ultimately the destruction of marine life. Tied to acidification is the increase in dead zones that are caused by global warming (Lubchenco 496). These zones lack oxygen and thus cannot support life. Currently, there are over 400 known dead zones in existence, and the numbers are expected to upsurge.
Marine waste is only a small fraction of waste that is causing environmental harm. The waste that is being dumped in landfills leaches toxic substances into the soil and presents environmental problems for future generations. Electronic waste contains hazardous wastes such as PVC, mercury, acids, lead, and arsenic. Organic wastes also break down to release methane gas that is 21 times more potent than CO2. The presence of these wastes presents a problem for future generations in two ways. Firstly, they show how humans today are exploiting raw materials at an alarming rate, thus reducing raw materials for future generations (Sandler and Cafaro 150). Secondly, the capacity of the earth to absorb and process these wastes is under stress, and thus the food security of future generations is being threatened.
Deforestation is also on the rise. Presently, only 30% of the land mass is under forest cover, and this number is expected to dwindle owing to the increasing shelter, clothing, and food demands of an ever-growing population. These forests help in regulating temperature and rainfall, and with their destruction, an imbalance is expected to occur. Presently, the effects of deforestation are being felt with the increased flooding and hurricanes felt in many parts of the earth. The effect is expected to be more severe in future.
Lastly, overpopulation has brought tremendous difficulties due to the strain of humans on water, fuel, and food. Population explosion leads to destructive mechanisms such as intense agriculture that use pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides to produce food. Another product of overpopulation is genetic engineering that has the consequence of increasing toxins and diseases (Loreau, Naeem and Inchausti 803). These engineered genes are toxic to wildlife and cause some organisms to become resistant to antibiotics. Future generations will thus be consuming contaminated organisms and be presented with health challenges for which there is no cure owing to an upsurge in antibiotic-resistant organisms.
Failures in current strategies
Many organizations have taken remedial action to mitigate the environmental degradation, but it can be argued that most of these actions are not from them caring about future generations. Many firms that adopt environmental citizenship measures, for example, are driven by a need to comply with corporate environmental reporting or be seen to be involved in CSR (DesJardins 830). These companies implement environmental awareness programs for companies either as part of an internal environmental management system or to conform to ISO 140001. Due to this, these programs teach environment to be environmental citizens in a work environment and do not guide their actions outside of work. Companies thus do not play a role in fostering environmental awareness about the political and economic dynamics of environmental issues and solutions, or in influencing the employees to care for future generations (DesJardins 832).
Governments have also instituted policies that ensure that current generations take care of future generations, but these policies are evaluated using cost-benefit analysis. The National Environmental Policy Act recognizes the responsibilities that current generations have as environmental trustees for future generations. The policy’s motif is, however, undermined by Executive Order 12281 that requires all federal regulations to be evaluated using a cost-benefit analysis (Howarth 45). The issue with the cost-benefit approach is that it is blind to the distribution of social impacts across generations and thus offers no way forward on the nature and quantity of obligations to proffer to future generations. Furthermore, the approach has techniques that are ill-suited to analyze the problems presented in a cloud of uncertainty. The policies formulated using the cost-benefit approach thus fails to offer adequate direction on the responsibilities for each generation.
Should we care?
The world we are living in is corporate-driven. First, a significant percentage of people live below the minimal subsistence level. 25% of the world’s population consumes 80% of the world’s resources. The apparent inequality presented by this statistic needs elimination and to do that the level of economic activity and energy use has to be increased fivefold over the next 50 years (DesJardins 836). The world’s population is also expected to increase over the next 50 years, and this will also require additional energy use and increased economic activity. An upsurge in the level of economic activity will necessitate the utilization of more of the earth’s natural resources. The argument herein is that it would be unfair to today’s generation not to increase the level of economic activity required to improve their standards of living to secure resources for future generations.
Today’s generation is inherently greedy, arrogant, and apathetic, hence our poor environmental behaviors (Cafaro 88). These behaviors are partly guided by the political, technological, and economic systems. Our leadership funds highways instead of bike paths and mass transit. Corporate advertising stimulates environmentally costly desires and drives the consumerist culture to which we have become accustomed. We are never contented with what we have. In the present generation, 25% of the population has more than they need while the other 75% live in abject poverty. If we cannot take care of those we see in day-to-day life, how are we expected to care for future generations of people. In the intergenerational context, the issue of distance becomes more extreme. Caring requires thinking about the interests of people who will live hundreds of generations from now. Cognizing that a future person is a great-grandchild leads to a different decision than if the future person was one’s child. Since the consequences of one’s actions become less certain the more one looks into the future; it becomes easier to justify short-term gains and long-term losses. Current generations will thus buy fuel guzzling SUVs and plant bluegrass lawns that they pour poisonous chemicals on to ward off dandelions (Buchanan 43).
Public opinion polls show that many people identify themselves as environmentalists and support policies aimed at protecting the environment (Cafaro 92). It is true that most people do care about the wellbeing of others and do not want them to suffer. If someone, for example, came up to them and asked them to eject someone off a piece of land in India for them to mine bauxite from that land, they would refuse and state that it is contrary to their beliefs and value system (Fabor and Deborah McCarthy 54). While some philosophers like Schwartz argue that the present generation is under no obligation to provide resources for future generations, one may argue from a familial viewpoint that there are strong obligations to care (Buchanan). Kids are born helpless, and require the benevolence of their parents and other society members to survive. From a parent’s perspective, a kid is not contingency, but rather a fact of everyday existence. It is agreeable that parents have strong obligations to provide opportunities and resources at least better than their own. It would be unjust and for a parent to pursue their selfish interests at the expense of that of their kid just because they happen to be in a position to decide and have been empowered by the familial authority to do so (Buchanan 60). The same applies to future generations, just that they are further into the future than one’s offspring.
The precautionary principle is another concept that can be used to show why people are obligated to provide resources for future generations. It derives from the concept of sustainable development and holds that people should strive to reduce any threats to the welfare of future generations so long as the costs of doing so do not significantly reduce the wellness of the present and future generations. A sustainable society is one in which the needs of the present generation are satisfied without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations. The economic development of the present generation should be such that the utilization of the environment and natural resources have no adverse impacts on the capability of future generations to enjoy a favorable living standard (Howarth 92).
In economic terms, there is no agreed upon moral calculus determine the material obligations that the present generation should pass on to future ones. There is thus little qualitative guidance on whether, or how much to pass on to future generations. Comparing costs and benefits becomes more difficult in the unquantifiable area of economic harm, especially climate change (Barry 25). Climate change takes place over several decades and even centuries; thus, the weighing of costs and benefits involves the current generation, past generations, and future ones. If one can conclude that humans have shown that indeed current generations do owe future generations, the question is how much?
Do we owe an obligation to future generations to leave them an environment that can sustain their needs? The discourse points to the fact that the present generation has a moral obligation to leave a globe that can sustain the needs of future generations. The present generation is, however, intrinsically selfish, and is doing a lot in damaging the environment without caring about consequences for future generations. Even with the articulation of the consequences of some current practices, such as overfishing, overpopulation, and genetic engineering, the current generation does nothing in curbing these destructive practices. Global warming has been elucidated as one of the leading environmental challenges, but even after policies to curb the vice have been crafted, implementation is still difficult. Other factors that pose a challenge for future generations include marine and land pollution as well as deforestation. The consequences of these vices are well known to humans, but it is clear that the current generation either does not care about the welfare of future generations or does not want to accept the role it has in saving the earth for future generations. As such, the notion that the current generation is dumping its difficulties and costs on future generations is true
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