Present and Future Humankind

Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future.

This was how William Catton opened his seminal book, Overshoot, in 1980.1

Consistent with this theme, Catton ended his book with the warning that humankind must quickly end its excessive ecological impact, because:

…the longer we delay beginning, the more numerous and colossal we become — thereby trapping ourselves all the more irredeemably in the fatal practice of stealing from our future.2

As Catton emphasized, the relationship between present and future humankind is fundamental to our ecological awareness, and it is therefore imperative that this relationship be clearly defined.

The key questions have been posed, albeit rhetorically, by liberal economist Robert Heilbroner:

Suppose we knew with a high degree of certainty that humankind could not survive a thousand years unless we gave up our wasteful diets of meat, abandoned all pleasure driving, cut back on every use of energy that was not essential to the maintenance of a bare minimum. Would we care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival? I doubt it… Why should I lift a finger to affect events that will have no more meaning for me 75 years after my death than those that happened 75 years before I was born? There is no rational answer to that terrible question.3

However, as Heilbroner well understood, the relationship between present and future humankind is not subject to purely logical considerations, but is instead a matter of ethics.4

Based on ENL's ethical principle, the framework asserts that, while the present must utilize nature so as to maximize its own health, it must also protect nature so that future humankind can maximize its health in turn. This commitment to intergenerational equity is the basis for ENL's treatment of ecological constraints.

To use Heilbroner's formulation, ENL assumes that those who apply the framework care enough for posterity to pay the price of its survival.

To state the obvious, present humankind refers to people who are now alive, and future humankind refers to people who will be alive in the future. There is a wrinkle, however. The future refers not only to the long term, but to the short term as well.

Future humankind thus includes present human beings to the extent that they will be alive in the near-term future.

The real significance of the distinction is that present humankind makes economic decisions, whereas future humankind will experience the ecological and other consequences of those decisions. With the choices we make today we can enhance or degrade our own lives as well as those of our children, our grandchildren, and our more distant descendants.

The extent to which the present and future are linked can easily be underestimated. Present health benefits not only those now living, but future lives as well. Future generations are not spawned from thin air, but issue from the bodies of those who are now breathing. If the current generation does not adequately meet its own needs, it will impair both its own health and the health of future generations.

This physiological link has recently been established in a most disturbing way:

Sperm defects caused by exposure to environmental toxins can be passed down the generations, research suggests. Scientists say fathers who smoke and drink should be aware they are potentially not just damaging themselves, but also their heirs. Tests on rats showed sperm damage caused by exposure to garden chemicals remained up to four generations later.5

What this implies is that the maximization of health is not just a right the present can claim for its own sake, it is also an obligation it must fulfill for the sake of those yet unborn.

The Heilbroner quote above reflects a negative view on the future, but positive views also abound. It is highly encouraging that these can be found across the political spectrum. In fact, one of the most eloquent expressions of the social bond between generations comes not from a present-day environmentalist, but from the conservative Edmund Burke, writing over 200 years ago:

Society is indeed a contract… It is a partnership in science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.6

This sense of partnership across the generations — we benefit from the past just as the future will benefit from us — is the essence of ecological responsibility and deeply informs ENL's environmental approach.

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