Future Generations Research Paper

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While the concept of future generations and the related belief that current generations should seek to benefit their successors are ancient ones, the conviction that present people can mold the future is relatively recent. Future generations need to be understood globally, and there is a need to include every generation that can foreseeably be affected by current action. The case for current ethical responsibilities in their regard rests not on rights but on the difference that can be made to the quality of life of whoever there will be in future times. Future interests are often foreseeable, and discounting them for uncertainty can be questioned accordingly. Apparent conflicts between present and future interests can sometimes be solved by introducing sustainable practices and systems, including policies to stabilize the human population. Some nations have introduced constitutions that recognize environmental rights and institutions such as Ombudspersons to protect future interests; international counterparts of these should be considered. The Sustainable Development Goals, expected to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015, can make a major difference to the needs of future people, as long as the MDG to reduce poverty is retained and not discarded.


After a short background history of the concept of future generations, its global character and its related temporal application are discussed. Ethical themes include international declarations, issues concerning future rights and interests as grounds for current responsibilities, the debate over discounting, the apparent conflict between present and future interests, how sustainable solutions may resolve this apparent conflict, and how, through demographic transitions and integrated population policies, the global population can be stabilized. Related political issues are then discussed, concerning sustainable institutions and in particular proposals for Ombudspersons (national or international) to protect future interests.

History And Development

Future generations have been an object of reflection since the biblical Ten Commandments, which relate that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation .. .” (Exodus 20:5). This claim was later abrogated when Ezekiel wrote that “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). Individual responsibility was thus affirmed in place of inherited responsibility. But awareness of the long-term consequences of significant actions (such as the faithfulness of Abraham) on succeeding generations remained.

Similarly, ancient Greek thinkers, both in the Archaic period (Hesiod, Solon, Theognis) and sometimes even in the Classical period (Aeschylus and Herodotus), accepted that guilt can be inherited from father to son and grandson. But Aeschylus (in Eumenides) also made provision for this “unfairness to be mitigated” and for “the inherited curse to be broken” (Dodds 1951, p. 33). Later, the Roman philosopher Seneca held that with the growth of knowledge, posterity would be amazed at the ignorance of the present generation.

Neither was posterity forgotten in the Middle Ages. Thus, Dante wrote: “All men on whom the Higher Nature has stamped the love of truth should especially concern themselves in labouring for posterity, in order that future generations may be enriched by their efforts, as they themselves were made rich by the efforts of generations past” (Becker 1932, p. 130).

During the Enlightenment, posterity was rediscovered, together with the realization that the current generation can change the course of history enough for our successors, as potential beneficiaries, to judge current actions. Diderot declared that posterity has the role for the philosopher that the other world has for religious people. Belief in progress and in a better future gave rise in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to belief in laws of history from thinkers as diverse as Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, Marx, and Spencer. Later, Popper replied (in the twentieth century) that there are no laws of history, since human beings are capable of falsifying any and every prediction made about them (Popper 1957, pp. 120–130).

Conceptual Clarification

Successive generations are usually regarded as related to one another in the manner of grandparents, parents, and children. Our children form one generation and our children’s children another. Yet in an encyclopedia with a global scope, these age groups should be understood as planet-wide generations. For present purposes, human (rather than nonhuman) generations are the ones intended, and this means that the current generation extends to some seven billion people. Certainly these people differ profoundly within their generation in their power, opportunities, and related responsibilities. But all members of any generation are beneficiaries of and vulnerable to the legacy of the past, and consideration of them all is in place when our legacy to the future is in question.

Since this entry is also concerned with the ethics of concern for future generations, it would be inappropriate to restrict future generations to those of the current century. The World Future Council encourages us to think of future generations as the children of 2,050, and this allows future generations to be imagined and visualized. Yet future generations extend much further than this to all the people that there will be and in particular to all who can foreseeably be affected by present actions and policies. But these two classes are coextensive, in view of our current technological abilities to pollute the planet and deprive the people of quite distant generations of access to a healthy environment. Thus, “future generations” should be understood as referring not only to the people of the second half of the twenty-first century but (at least) to all the future people of the current millennium and of the next.

It has sometimes been suggested that each generation needs to think no further ahead than one or two generations, because if every generation were to do this, then every generation would be taken into account. This reasoning, however, disregards those long-term impacts, of which (as just mentioned) technology makes us capable. Some of these impacts could have delayed effects, like time bombs that fail to detonate for many decades and then suddenly explode. Wherever current agents can affect future people (however distantly in time), they have obligations to take them into account in decision-making. So for purposes of ethical reflection, consideration is needed of many more generations than those which will immediately succeed us, and “future generations” must be understood accordingly.

Ethical And Political Issues

International Recognition Of Responsibilities

The Preamble of the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005) accepts “the responsibility of the present generations towards future generations” and proceeds to spell out the substance of this responsibility in various spheres. Earlier, UNESCO adopted in 1997 its Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations, Article 1 of which states that “The present generations have the responsibility of ensuring that the needs and interests of present and future generations are fully safeguarded.”

These commitments, however, raise questions that stand in need of clarification. Is it possible for future needs and interests to be “fully safeguarded”? Do future generations have rights, even before they exist, and even when the individuals concerned are unidentifiable? Is not the nature of future needs and interests uncertain in the present, and does this have a bearing on present responsibilities? And how should present agents respond when the needs and interests of present and future generations conflict? These questions are not completely independent of one another; for example, if future interests can be known sometimes to conflict with present interests, then the former cannot be entirely uncertain. However, these questions will be considered in turn.

Safeguarding Future Needs And Interests

No one seriously imagines that present agents can safeguard future needs and interests in the sense of guaranteeing their universal satisfaction and fulfillment. But it is widely recognized that present agents have the ability to undermine foreseeable needs and interests, for example, by rendering the environment in which future lives will be lived toxic, or bereft of clean air or fresh water, or overcrowded. Present agents can also affect the prospects of future generations satisfying their needs, for example, by discovering cures for widespread diseases; by establishing institutions capable of transmitting to them technology, art, music, and culture and of supplying them with medical care; and by preserving the current pool of viable ecosystems and of biodiversity.

Accordingly, the impossibility of delivering Article 1 of the declaration, if construed in an inflationary and overambitious sense, does not preclude compliance with that article in a sense compatible with the actual powers of present agents to facilitate or frustrate the quality of life of countless future people.

Future Rights And Identities And Current Responsibilities

No one disputes that future generations in the form of younger human beings already born or conceived have rights in the present. But there is a debate among philosophers about the rights of those future people who will live in due course but have not yet been conceived. When they live, they will have rights against their contemporaries, just as we of the present do against people of our own time, but do they have rights in the present against their predecessors, before they live their lives and thus at times when their identity is unknown (Partridge 1981)? And can such future people be harmed?

In the views of those who develop the work of Derek Parfit, such future people cannot be harmed if they exist in only one possible world or scenario. To be harmed is only possible if alternative treatment (i.e., being treated differently) is possible, whereas those who exist in only one possible world could not receive different treatment, as that would only be possible if they existed in a second possible world. For similar reasons many philosophers would doubt whether such people can have rights against their predecessors. For having rights involves the possibility of the rights being honored and also of these rights being infringed (in these cases by the predecessors of the future people in question). But the existence of these possible people in only one possible world means that this is impossible in their cases. Indeed if their predecessors behaved differently, they might well not exist at all, and others would exist instead.

On other views, none of this means that unconceived future people cannot have rights, for some future people would exist in more than one possible world. But it would still be unsatisfactory to ground present obligations in the rights of this subset of future people, given that there is no corresponding ground of obligation where future people who exist in one possible world alone are concerned. For if this were the only ground, then there would be no present obligations with regard to future people of this latter kind.

Others again, Parfit included, take the view that the ground of present obligations should not be seen as consisting in future rights and that obligations are not restricted to ones owed to identifiable individuals. What matters is that future people have moral standing (or that they count for purposes of ethical decision-making) and that present agents can make differences to the quality of life of whoever there will be (Parfit 1984; MacLean and Brown 1983). “Whoever there will be” refers to the different populations who will live in different possible future worlds or scenarios, and, rather than enhancing or harming the lives of unconceived future individuals, present agents can make the quality of life of these (different) populations better or worse. On this view, this is the ground of present obligations, whether some or all unconceived future people have rights, or even if none do. Obligations can exist with regard to “whoever there will be,” despite the unknown identity of the people of the future who are as yet unconceived.

Uncertainty And Responsibility

Many people, and particularly many economists, take the view that the uncertainty of future needs and interests reduces present responsibilities, some adding that responsibilities are reduced in proportion to the distance of those interests from the present. This is often treated in consequence as a ground for discounting future costs and benefits by an annual percentage, sometimes as high as 5 %. Other grounds include time preference, that is, people’s widespread preference for benefits that are close rather than distant in time.

Others, including many philosophers, reply to these claims in ways such as the following. Time preference is not an acceptable reason for reduced responsibilities, since the good and bad impacts of current action will be just as good or as bad when they happen as present ones of the same sort, and so present responsibilities in their regard are undiminished (and besides, interests need not be understood as a function of present preferences , or of preferences at all). Discounting future costs and benefits (at compound rates) means that costs and benefits of (say) 30 years hence count for very little and that those of a hundred years hence effectively cease to count at all; yet injury, mutilation, and death will be just as serious then as they would be now (and these delayed impacts can all be generated in the present, e.g., by time bombs and by unexploded weaponry with comparable tendencies). Besides, uncertainty does not increase in proportion to temporal distance from the present; some future impacts of present action are readily foreseeable, while present impacts and impacts close to the present are often uncertain. It may be rational to discount impacts for uncertainty, but that is not a ground for discounting future costs and benefits in general, let alone in proportion to temporal distance from the present.

When these considerations are applied to actions relating to infrastructure and to species preservation, the implications become clearer. The tendency of the metal rods on which many suspension bridges depend to snap at a foreseeable rate makes it possible to calculate whether to plan to repair or reconstruct such bridges before too many rods snap across (say) five or more decades. The strength of the grounds for doing so may thus depend on whether a discount rate is adopted to appraise the future benefits and costs of doing so or not doing so. With regard to species preservation, the interests in question include the human and nonhuman interests of future members of vulnerable species. If a non-negligible discount rate is adopted, and the interests of a century hence thus become insignificant, then the case for species preservation is significantly reduced. Those who recognize responsibilities with regard to our successors of a century hence (whoever they will be) thus have reason to reject these forms of discounting and of treating the future as nothing but an intensifying fog of uncertainty.

Conflicts Between Present And Future Interests

While some of the future impacts of present action are foreseeable, there is often a case for deploying resources on present needs and interests nonetheless. Thus, present needs and the individuals who carry them, if it is widely held, should not be sacrificed for the interests of an imagined future, and the present is often the last opportunity to attend to these needs and often a necessary condition of the individuals (or the institutions) in question having a future at all. Responsibilities associated with existing relationships are also often adduced in favor of giving priority to present people and their interests.

Yet, if the consequences of current actions and policies are a legacy to our successors of poverty, gross inequality, overcrowding, and the squalor that often accompanies it, increasingly widespread illness, untreatable disease, and insoluble political disputes, and if different actions and policies could have mitigated some of these consequences, then our children and grandchildren will have good grounds to condemn our focusing on the current interests of our choice. For example, if the present generation continues to fail to mitigate its contribution to climate change, through giving a higher priority to present travel and current convenience, it may rightly be berated by our successors for missing a once-open window of opportunity to protect their world and to save generations from coastal flooding, severe weather events, the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, the loss of numerous species, and the displacement of millions of environmental refugees.

Responsibilities, then, can conflict. But the perspective that perceives present and future oriented responsibilities as fundamentally or perennially in conflict may well be a mistaken one. For example, the surest way to combat the poverty of the future is to struggle against the poverty of the present, and the same goes for intergenerational equality. Similarly, the way to prevent diseases like yellow fever in the future has been found to be their elimination in the present. In general, there is no ineradicable conflict between intergenerational justice and intergenerational justice, for the latter is frequently the foundation of the former. Thus, the ethics of climate change should not ultimately be regarded as rooted in a conflict between future interests (including those listed in the previous paragraph) and present ones. For climate change is already causing the flooding of coasts and islands, the spread of diseases, habitat loss, and the displacement of numerous environmental refugees in the present, and the responsibility to tackle it is as much an obligation with regard to our contemporaries as to our successors. The earlier a global agreement on mitigation is reached, the greater the difference likely to be made both to the current victims of climate change and to coming generations.

Another way of expressing the continuity between measures to meet interests both of the present and of the future invokes the concept of sustainable policies and systems. While appeal to sustainability may seem abstract and removed from most of the actions of most individuals, sustainability in fact embodies a range of solutions across many of the problems facing humanity facilitating ways of addressing both current problems (including current poverty and underdevelopment) and future ones, including those of intragenerational justice in coming generations.

Sustainability And Sustainable Development

The Rio Summit on Environment and Development in 1992 agreed on the need for sustainable development to address the problems facing humanity. While the Rio Declaration focused on human interests, the Brundtland Report (the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, published in 1987) included nonhuman interests and the intrinsic value of nature among the grounds for such policies. While its definition of sustainable development involved nothing more than the current generation meeting its own needs without preventing future generations meeting their needs, its underlying message was stronger than this and involved the devising and introduction of systems capable of lasting across the generations and of facilitating the needs of every generation being satisfied in its turn. In subsequent chapters this approach was applied to a range of sectors such as energy, food, industry, and population.

This is not the place to discuss these sectoral forms of sustainability in their entirety. The current relevance of sustainability is rather the possibilities that it offers for intergenerational solutions being instituted and implemented in the present and being maintained (or sustained) so as to satisfy the needs and interests of the future across the generations (Attfield 2012, pp. 145–147). These possibilities can best be explained through examples of relevant policies, including policies of forestry and fishing.

Consider a forest or a fish stock. If the rate at which human beings harvest it is limited so as not to exceed its natural rate of regeneration, and no external disaster befalls the system, then similar harvesting will be possible in every year and thus in every generation. Hence policies of restricting the “take” of renewable resources of these kinds make it possible to satisfy both present needs and future ones.

Certainly there can be ethical problems with such policies. There are risks of miscalculation, which can potentially ruin the policy. There are risks of severe climate events, which (because of climate change) are widespread and increasing, and where they occur, harvesting policies need to be revised rather than continued. There are also risks that sustainable harvesting will in itself undermine, e.g., the habitats of the creatures of the forest, and should for this reason be limited in its extent and scope, so that some of the forest is left unharvested.

Sustainable husbandry is thus far from being simple and straightforward. Yet the examples of forests and fish stocks still show that, with sensitivity, it is possible to inaugurate policies that can serve both the present and the future and that there is no necessary conflict between them (Attfield 1999, 2014).

Different forms of sustainable policies are relevant in the social, economic, and educational spheres. For example, educational institutions are likely to need policies of sustainable budgeting and of succession planning, as well as of innovatory methods of teaching and learning, if they are to be sustainable. But with ingenuity and forethought, a wide range of institutions and practices can be made sustainable, an achievement that already means that, short of disasters, future generations are likely to derive similar benefits from them as the people of the present.

Inaugurating sustainable institutions and practices is harder where beneficial institutions and practices do not yet exist and where poverty and underdevelopment prevail. The Millennium Development Goals (internationally agreed in 2000, with a target delivery date of 2015) were introduced to address such problems, but their actual delivery has been fragmentary. If they are replaced from 2015 by Sustainable Development Goals, it is going to be important for the international community, while attempting to introduce systems of sustainability, not to abandon its efforts to reduce poverty, for sustainable practices premised on the persistence of poverty would fail to serve the needs and the interests of the poor both in the present and in the future.

A final example of planning for sustainability and for the eradication of poverty may serve to show how policies from diverse fields need to be integrated if future needs and interests are best to be served. Well over a billion people currently alive suffer from energy poverty, for which part of the long-term solution is improved supplies of electricity, whether locally or centrally generated. Otherwise, large numbers of future people are liable to suffer energy poverty comparable to that of the present. However, to supply this additional electricity from carbon sources (such as coal, fuel wood, gas, and oil) would exacerbate the problem of climate change, with its foreseeable multiple costs (see above). Accordingly, countries need to plan to generate this additional electricity sustainably from renewable sources, even though this is often more expensive than generation from carbon sources. For this to be achieved, the international community will need both to subsidize renewable energy generation and to transfer appropriate technology so as to facilitate its sustainable delivery in developing countries. The poorer countries are already disproportionately the victims of climate change, and if developed countries abstain from such actions, the poverty of the poorer countries will persist across the generations. But with appropriate international agreement, funding, and policies, it would be possible both to abolish energy poverty, to inaugurate sustainable energy generation in all countries, and thus to enhance both intragenerational and intergenerational justice internationally. Indeed the securest route to justice in future times is the fuller introduction of intragenerational justice worldwide in the present and the near future.

Population And Future Generations

The global population of human beings currently stands at just over seven billion and is continuing to rise, as it has done since the industrial revolution. Many people regard this continuing increase as a ground for despair, holding that within a few decades the problems of, for example, food supply and water supply for the increased population will become insuperable. Frequently, graphs are presented of the global population undergoing geometrical growth (with a constantly steepening trajectory), together with the suggestion that for this reason the human future is a hopeless one, unless interplanetary travel and the terra-forming of other planets make it possible to plant sizeable human colonies elsewhere in the solar system.

However, it was already clear by the time of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) that, although population continues to increase, the overall rate of population increase is itself decreasing and that, rather than constantly steepening, the trajectory of graphs of world population is following the shape of an “S.” Because of the so-called demographic transition, population had in many developed countries already ceased to grow, and the tendency to have much smaller families now appears to have spread to most countries of Asia and of Latin America (Rosling 2013). The question posed in the chapter on population in the Brundtland Report was whether the transition to a sustainable population would take place sooner or later in the current century, and the associated social and ethical issue clearly emerged concerning which policies would lead to earlier stabilization and accordingly greatly reduced problems (in comparison with scenarios of later stabilization) of sustainable provision for the needs and interests of the resulting population.

Demographic transitions work most effectively where people’s sense of security is enhanced, together with the belief that their children will survive to adulthood. Accordingly, the kind of policies best suited to attaining an earlier rather than a later stabilization of population needs to include not only family planning but also security of land tenure and improved health-care and educational facilities. Female education has almost certainly played a large part in the demographic transitions that have already occurred, and its inclusion in these policies is crucial. Hence the kinds of policy combination best suited to promoting the early attainment of sustainable population levels are integrated ones, making provision for agricultural and economic security and improved education and health care alongside family planning.

Global population levels may continue to rise for some decades, as the greater number of children now alive raise families of their own. But with family sizes in many countries having reached replacement levels, the widespread fear that sustainable provision for the future world population will be impossible by the end of the present century is proving illusory. When family sizes in African countries come into line with those of Asian countries, the contours of a stable and sustainable global population will emerge. The adoption of integrated population-related policies is capable of facilitating this state of affairs in the course of the coming decades. International assistance, expertise, and funding would be capable of bringing this about all the sooner.

The sooner the global population stabilizes, the easier it will be for generations of that time and of succeeding decades to attain sustainable solutions to satisfy their needs and interests. The later it stabilizes, the greater will be the intensity of the crowding of human populations, and the more species are likely to become extinct, and the more habitats to be laid to waste as human efforts to feed, clothe, and warm their families erode areas not currently inhabited or cultivated by human beings. The efforts and policies of immediately coming decades (integrated population policies included) will be praised or condemned accordingly by the generations of a century hence, depending on the range of options by then becoming or remaining available to address the ongoing problems of humanity.

Sustainable Institutions

What kinds of legal framework, at national, regional, and international levels, are most likely to ensure consideration of future needs and interests in current decision-making and in that of the immediately forthcoming decades? Part of the answer lies in the continued existence of democratic institutions committed to upholding social justice, human rights, and a positive quality of life, environmental quality included, and to the avoidance of armed conflict. If they do not inherit such institutions, future generations will have to repeat (in less than ideal circumstances) the struggle of their predecessors to introduce and establish them. Yet such institutions, while importantly necessary if future needs and interests are to be satisfied, are far from sufficient.

The interests of future generations would be best served if there were institutions charged with the long-term planning of infrastructure and of supplies of energy and of fresh water. There is widespread resistance to centralized planning in many countries, because some regard it as concentrating power in central government rather than facilitating private enterprise. Yet private enterprise itself stands in need of long-term planning and will in any case falter or fail if the infrastructure of the countries where it operates ceases to function through lack of planning.

In addition to road and rail networks, including the civil engineering structures (such as bridges and tunnels) on which they depend, planning is needed for energy supplies, which, as mentioned above, will need to be based on renewable sources rather than coal, gas, or oil if the interests of future generations in a sustainable climate are to be satisfied. Countries undergoing actual or potential shortages of fresh water need also to plan future supplies, for example, investigating possibilities of desalination. The widespread global tendency to privatize the water industry may need to be reversed, at least where there are insufficient incentives to private companies to invest in future water supplies. Generally it is publicly owned companies that are most likely to be capable of supplying sustainably services of infrastructure provision and of the supply of energy and of water. Indeed such structures are unlikely to succeed in many cases unless joint multinational and/or international collaboration is also put in place.

However, the approach that attempts to provide for several coming decades rather than, as in much public planning, for just one or two may still be found defective when the interests of the further future (e.g., the needs and interests of the people of the twenty-second century) are taken into account. For this to be done in the light of all the available information is likely to require institutions dedicated to the study and delivery or these needs and interests and explicit representation of future generations in decision-making bodies, with spokespersons able to call on the best available research about such needs and interests. This is what has given rise to proposals for Ombudspersons to represent future generations at the national level and for provision for such representation to be embedded in national constitutions.

National And International Instruments

There has been considerable reflection about provision within national constitutions and within international law for future needs and interests. Despite philosophical problems concerning the concept of the rights of future generations (see above), “the rights of future generations” are central in the terminology customarily employed. Since this terminology can readily be translated into that of future needs and interests, there is no need to treat this usage as problematic for present purposes.

Typically the aims of concerns to satisfy such “rights” include (in the account of Edith Brown Weiss) conserving options for future generations, conserving the quality of the environment, and conserving access thereto, not least through making educational provision for encouraging experience of natural settings (Brown Weiss 1992). Promoting these goals and aims turns out widely to strengthen the case for action to uphold the environmental and other rights of present people.

On such basis, many recent constitutions underwrite or guarantee environmental protection. To draw examples from different continents, the Ecuadorean Constitution guarantees “a sustainable model of environmentally balanced development, … to conserve biodiversity and the natural regeneration capacity of ecosystems, and to ensure the satisfaction of the needs of present and future generations” (World Future Council 2009, pp. 5–6). Similarly, the South African Constitution affirms the right of everyone “to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations” (World Future Council 2009, p. 6).

Some countries have gone further and appointed an officer with wide powers both of environmental protection and more generally of protecting the interests of future generations.

A leading example is the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner, with the status of an Ombudsman, who is entrusted with monitoring legislation “to ensure the protection of the fundamental right to healthy environment,” with conducting “investigations into potential or alleged violations or threats to the environments and future generations,” and with reviewing the actions of municipal and local governments as well as the national government, and has the power to halt or modify governmental actions accordingly (World Future Council 2009, pp. 13–14, 27–30).

Another possibility at the level of national decision-making would be the appointment of proxies for the needs and interests of future generations, either as members of legislative assemblies or as members of cabinets, charged with representing future interests. The justification of the presence of such proxies would include the impact of current decisions on future people who, through being as yet unborn, are currently voiceless, but whose interests should, arguably, be voiced in sufficient time to take them into account.

Meanwhile there is an increasing body of international law which either explicitly or implicitly seeks to uphold future interests. A leading example is the Precautionary Principle, unanimously accepted by the Rio Summit of 1992. This provides that where there is reason to regard an action or policy as environmentally harmful in a serious or irreversible manner, the absence of scientific consensus should not be treated as a reason against preventive action. This principle clearly appeals implicitly to the interests of future generations that would otherwise be at risk.

Among possibilities for further international legislation, one consists in the establishment of an Ombudsperson for international initiatives that could impact on the interests of future generations, on the model of the existing World Bank Inspection Panel, but with a wider remit, or of the Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Future Generations (Göpel 2011). Much would depend on the resources and the powers of such an office, and the degree to which the great powers would allow decisions to be modified or vetoed accordingly. Yet if the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations were to institute such a role and agree to reports on future impacts being made and considered before decisions were taken, much difference could be made and much more if the scope of the office were to include the decisions of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization as well. For example, international development projects and policies might in some cases be revised or reconfigured in ways beneficial to future generations, including changes of energy policies away from carbon sources to renewable ones.

Finally, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), internationally adopted in 2000 for delivery by 2015, are likely to be replaced in 2015 by a set of Sustainable Development Goals, likely to make sustainability not just a constraint on decisions and policies but actually a central aim (see above). Much depends on the content of these goals and on what it is decided to sustain. If the “development” aspect of “sustainable development” were to be sidelined, there is a danger of poverty being perpetuated into future generations and becoming a recurrent source of conflict.


As has been clear since at least the Enlightenment, the current generation can make large differences to the quality of life of future generations, not only in the sense of future members of one’s family but also in the sense of the future global community. Current agents should take into account the full range of foreseeable impacts of their actions, impacts which extend globally to all the generations of the future.

The ethical case for these current responsibilities rests not so much on future people’s rights as on the needs and interests of whoever there will be and the difference that can be made to their satisfaction through current actions and policies. This case has been recognized in international declarations.

While most economists favor discounting future interests by an annual discounting rate, not least because of their uncertainty, many philosophers oppose across-the-board discounting, since many future impacts are no less foreseeable than present ones and support selective discounting only.

Conflicts between present and future interests can arise, and the opportunity costs of foregoing current benefits sometimes support prioritizing the former, but long-lasting impacts should sometimes be preferred. The pursuit of sustainability sometimes makes it possible to avoid such conflicts and provide benefits for every generation (including the present generation). Further, sustainable development in the present is capable both of remedying current poverty and of preventing its perpetuation into the future. This makes it important for the Sustainable Development Goals (due to be introduced in 2015 to succeed the Millennium Development Goals) to include remedies for poverty (including energy poverty) as well as providing for environmental sustainability. Delivering such goals will involve increased energy generation from renewable sources, facilitated in part by countries with the necessary resources and technology making them available for this purpose. The expected stabilization of global population levels, albeit at a much increased level, could contribute to problems of sustainability becoming capable of solution.

Sustainable institutions will also be needed if future interests are to be satisfied. These include institutions providing for democratic government; for teaching, learning, and health care; for the preservation of biodiversity; and for the transmission of technology, art, and music. In addition, institutions and constitutions devised to protect future interests have been proposed and in places instituted, involving the recognition of environmental rights and the establishment of Ombudspersons as guardians of future interests. There is scope for provisions such as the latter at international as well as national levels.

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