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Rights of future generations: The emptiness and the plenitude

Published on 30 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

While there were certainly many precursors, the “rights of future generations” theme entered the international political mainstream with the Brundtland Commission Report.[1] The report spoke of “sustainable development”[2] a complex and ambitious if ambiguous concept. The discussion, however, soon “hardened:” “Most agree that the central idea of the Brundtland Commission’s definition of ‘sustainable development’ is that of intergenerational equity.” I shall, therefore, address both the (hard) theoretical and the soft or pragmatic approach to “intergenerational rights.”

The emptiness of the rights approach

An economist (and I may add, a philosopher)

is someone who sees something that works in practice

and wonders if it would work in theory.

Ronald Reagan

The tendency to frame the political discussion in terms of “rights” probably goes back to Thomas HOBBES. The Anglo-Saxon world has viewed political discourse through the contractual lens.[3] Many scholarly articles have appeared on intergenerational “justice.” Issues about the concept remain unresolved when speaking of intergenerational equity. Here are some:

  • Intergenerational justice ought to reflect an “inheritance” rather than “conflict” approach (the rhetoric speaks of “common heritage”, but the “rights” discourse points to conflict). It ought to encompass the whole interface of the transition from the present to the future.[4] After all, the retiring generation leaves everything – good and bad, to the next. As an example: true, the current generation depletes the environment; how much should one value the technological advances and transformations which allow so many people to live in dignity today and tomorrow? Even as we foreclose options, we open up new or different options whose value may even be invisible at the moment for, in a dynamic setting, we produce enablers, not outcomes.[5]
  • Intergenerational justice must arbitrate between generations including the current one – for it too has rights. The present generation is then both party and judge to the proceedings (since we are talking of non-overlapping generations). We are logically in a situation of anomie, where any decision is arbitrary. Moral sentiment (soft law) is no guide to a possible compromise either.
  • One generation against many future ones – any adjudication of rights inevitably favors the latter. From the point of view of the present, this seems particularly unfair, for in the past 200 years later generations, building on the sacrifices (investments) of the previous one, has consistently ended up being richer. Why sacrifice for those who are expected to be richer anyway?
  • Intergenerational justice implies persistence of wants and tastes – and context. In fact, it relies on a projection of the current social and material reality unto the future. In its presumption to know the condition and demands of future generations such justice acts at best paternalistically.
  • A rights approach need consider distributive justice. Distributive justice is most difficult to achieve, even today. Planning for future distributive justice is downright impossible.
  • Who is called to secure intergenerational rights? Today’s worldview is that society should provide equal opportunities, not outcomes. Even should equal opportunities prevail, household outcomes will differ markedly. The next generation will take these contingent outcomes as their individual point of departure. Should then children be allowed to sue the parents for failing to give them proper opportunities?[6] Resetting the “equal opportunity” clock at each generation would seem a tall order (and incompatible with our idea of personal inheritance).
  • Until adjudication, time and action come to a standstill. Arguably, we have lost a generation in trying to adjudicate obligations to mitigate climate change, when coalitions might have at least made a contribution to addressing the problem. To make matters worse, once adjudicated, the right becomes an entitlement, unchallenged despite changing circumstances.
  • The issue of intergenerational justice has spawned a whole subordinate literature on animal rights. In a holistic of “Gaia” framework one cannot bound rights to the “living” – an ambiguous concept in any case. The matter becomes utterly intractable at this point (should the smallpox virus have rights?).

Atoning for past sins, bring about equal opportunities for today as well as future in a dynamic of ever expanding choice seems beyond the capacity of any society. The points listed above also indicate that a “theoretical” solution is not going to be forthcoming any moment now. It smacks of logic- rather than reality-based reasoning. By coaching the real issue in terms of “conflicting rights” rather than fair inheritance it is divisive as much as unsolvable – at least in principle. To me, it seems a concept populated with empty words, a “feel good” sentiment, more a ghost that a reality.

The plenitude of practical action

Eschewing the principle discussion, some countries have taken up the matter of “the rights of future generations” in a practical manner – at least as it concerns the environment.

New Zealand has created a “Commissioner for the Environment in 1986.[7] Reflecting its intended supra-parties character, the Commissioner is directly accountable to Parliament and issues reports or makes suggestions independently of the executive. The Commissioner is more “Ombudsman” that justice. The typical duties of an Ombudsman are to investigate complaints and attempt to resolve them, usually through recommendations (binding or not) or mediation. Rather than narrowing down the issue to a narrow legal point, the Ombudsman is free to fashion a broader solution that may encompass complementary (or even separate) issues. Workable compromise and inclusiveness, not adjudication of rights, is the intended outcome.

While living in New Zealand, I have come to appreciate the long-term outlook of this office, and the soundness of its research and the recommendations it has issued. Of course, no one is perfect. I remember having startled Dr. Williams, the then Commissioner, by pointing out that one of the greatest rural pollutants in New Zealand was noise. To him, noise was mainly an urban problem. The pristine character of New Zealand’s scenery much depends on the silence one appreciates. Sound waves travel long distances and even around obstacles, easily destroying pristine silence. The rumble of just one car on the tarmac reverberates throughout the valley – I reminded Dr. Williams. Admittedly, our brain is very adept to shutting out the awareness of noise though not enough to exclude the concomitant stress.

Hungary has introduced a somewhat a similar system[8] and other countries are following suit. The “philosophical” underpinning of such institutions is deliberately left vague. It goes back straight to the original “sustainable development” vision, and favors the doable action over its theoretical justification. It is more construction that delimitation.

What we have here are inclusive institutions which will help manage, rather than adjudicate conflicts and find points of convergence and commonality, while preserving much-needed flexibility. Such institutions will catalyze the cooperation of the willing, and foster empowerment. They are based on the recognition that “good enough” is better than stasis – even if it falls short of an ideal. Finally, such “light” institutions are also a welcome insurance against the unexpected, which prevails in matters as momentous as the environment – be it natural, or social.


[1] https://bit.ly/1HdaFLL

[2] “The term sustainable development was coined in the paper Our Common Future, released by the Brundtland Commission. Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The two key concepts of sustainable development are: the concept of “needs” in particular the essential needs of the world’s poorest people, to which they should be given overriding priority; and the idea of limitations which is imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet both present and future needs. (…) The particular ambiguity and openness-to-interpretation of this definition has allowed for widespread support from diverse efforts, groups and organizations. It lays out a core set of guiding principles that can be enriched by an evolving global discourse.

[3] The alternative, say “continental” view of historically grown rights differs from the contract-based as to the emergence of the rights. They both share, however, the unchanging or entitlement character, which gives precedent and consistency an overarching role.

[4] A contrary view is held, albeit not justified, in much of the theoretical literature. “Depending on the understanding of the relevant principles of distributive justice to be applied, if there is an intergenerational conflict of interests, present generations may be obligated by considerations of justice not to pursue policies that create benefits for themselves but impose costs on those who will live in the future.” (emphasis mine) https://stanford.io/1IHt98n

[5] See e.g. Amarty SEN (199: Development as freedom. Anchor Books, New York.

[6] The extreme position would entail the position that children have the right “not to be born.”

[7] https://bit.ly/19fI6Su [8] https://bit.ly/1ClTAOy

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