Intergenerational Justice
Oct 19, 2010

Intergenerational Justice

Intergenerational justice is a social issue which is rarely talked about and as a movement isn't even in it's fledgling stage yet it is important enough to warrant attention. The concept is a social justice movement for harm done by one generation on future generations. Three major categories of such harm are resource depletion (such as oil), environmental degradation and global warming, and financial obligations. The challenges to an intergenerational justice movement and some possible solutions are discussed.

Financial obligations such as leaving a subsequent generation with a crippling debt load is perhaps the easiest to deal with because we can imagine it at the level of individuals. One family member leaving a large debt to a later family member is clearly causing harm. Now extrapolate this to the level of societies and, say, government debt where one generation leaving a debt load to a subsequent generation to pay off can be seen as harm from one generation on another and may require intergenerational justice to resolve. This can also come out in ways such as an unsustainable welfare system means one generation pays for high standard of living for the previous generation but will not be able to receive a high standard from the subsequent generation. Note, this is not an argument against welfare systems, their scope or their funding, merely their need for sustainability.


Environmental degradation is another clear example. One generation suffers clear harm if a previous generation has damaged their environment. Especially since environmental degradation is often something that builds up over time and doesn't offer a direct and short duration harm on and from specific individuals, it is in the context of intergenerational justice that such problems must be considered. For example, while a toxic spill may be able to be dealt with via direct harm from the polluting individuals to whomever directly receives the pollution, something like a gradual, regional increase in soil salinity due to overly aggressive farming practices that renders a region infertile can only really be addressed as harmful in the context of intergenerational justice.

Global warming is among the most significant environmental legacy issues. The consequences are temporally removed from the sources, are very diverse in their sources and very indirect. Yet clearly should the scientists predictions come to pass, very legitimate harm will occur on future generations (and indeed ourselves). At present, both governments and markets do not address the externalization of this cost or harm from global warming in any meaningful way. As James Hanson (NASA, Goddard) frames it, intergenerational justice is the only remotely possible mechanism by which we can move to address these issues.

Closely related to environmental degradation is resource consumption. I say related because one can conceptualize environmental degradation of all types as the consumption of limited resources. So poisoning a river means a fresh water supply is being consumed, and so forth.  Oil is by far the biggest and most important resource we consume. The reality is that future generations are not going to have the kind of cheap carbon fuel availability currently enjoyed. The time frame is actually likely much quicker than "future generations". When the consumption of such finite resources is so concentrated with an enormous glut on a couple generations and then almost none thereafter, there are serious moral questions to be asked here. Many resources outside of oil suffer similar issues from aquifer depletion, top soil depletion, irrevocable fishery stock removals, loss in biodiversity and the like.

These examples show that there is a pretty strong case for establishing that intergenerational harm exists and that a justice movement to rectify it may be desirable. However, there are significant challenges to an intergenerational justice movement that probably explain why no strong movement exists in this sense. There is hope however, and possible solutions. The major challenges are that it is indirect both in recipients and causers of damage, difficult to prove with certainty or even estimate the scale of damages and practically challenging to resolve through punitive, disincentive or other measures. Take global warming. Even proving that this exists and will harm future generations significantly is somehow still contentious. Who precisely the victims are is unclear, nor is who are the culprits (all of us? big oil? China?). Making a, say, present value monetary claim as to the future harm is effectively impossible. Given these challenges, how then do we put in place the idea that intergenerational justice might be morally imperative?

There is no easy solution, but there are some ideas. Firstly, the measures should focus on proactive prevention not retroactive punitive measures. Our elderly should not, for instance, be punished because my generation may get less welfare benefits than they did. Instead, we could institute reforms that aim to reduce government indebtedness and fiscal irresponsibility that punt present costs to future generations. We could act to limit the sources of CO2 now or put in place regulation that prevents environmental degradation. Secondly, as a practical manner I think any international justice movement is going to have successes in the legal system, not the legislative. We have seen this with many other social justice movements where it is Roe vs Wade or Brown vs Board of Education that really define the key advances in these movements. So to I suspect that the entrenched interest of the current generations will prevent a movement to start making progress in an elected body. We can thus move towards having the judiciary enforce the necessity of proactive prevention regulation and the like.Through the judiciary the moral foundation for intergenerational justice based on justice for harm and equality of all people can get off it's feet. Finally, I think simply having this issue as a moral issue in our public consciousness can make huge bounds into making it a reality and introducing the proactive prevention measures that will ensure a sustainable future.

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