Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue 2, Volume i, Volume II, published 2nd March, 2009

Intergenerational justice

For three decades moral philsophers have debated the concept of intergenerational justice. A concept in which the rights of people from the future (and past) are treated as morally (read, legally, for an approximation of what is really meant) equal to those of today. This concept is debated within discussions of sustainable development and is more than the argument that the welfare of future generations be taken into account when we assess today what is an appropriate technological choice. Considering the consequences of our actions on those of the future is one I doubt anyone would want to argue against. If that were the sum total of this moral argument of intergenerational justice who could object? But treating those unborn now, and who will be born into circumstance we can have no conception of, and doing so based on current knowledge, as equals in law today in the sense that is meant is, frankly, terrifying. If it is a concept used to make technological decisions now it might well cause the very problems, or worse, that it is seeking to avert.

Develop the argument, because if intergenerational justice is to be supported by the law then all are equal before the law, and the concept becomes a two way street in time. And so it could cast now a legal burden of culpability and guilt on an innocent future citizen for the death of someone today who could have been given life today by using non-replenishable brackish water or nuclear power, but whose life was taken today by a passive non-Acting State or World set of organisational structures seeking not to kill in the unknown future. Taken in reverse it is easier to see what the moral philosophy is that is at stake. By action now, which includes not acting, we place someone in the future in the dock before they are even born. Do we pluck the person at random and say they will come from such and such a genetic lineage? I fail to see how there can be any argument for passing legal judgement on anyone alive in future because of events today, nor of trying someone today for what might never happen. Both are nonsensical. Of such thoughts are Herods born. How dare philsophy not trounce with intellectual vigour all such thinking?

Living wholly within the present is intellectually challenging enough, as Johan Galtung demonstrates convincingly in his essay in this issue about the social theory of structural violence. And the book in which I read first of the concept of intergenerational justice gives plenty of examples of the difficulty of applying ethics today to technological choices for the current generation acting and being wholly responsible within its present and without second guessing as a legal necessity the rights of those who are the grandchildren of today's grandchildren. See The Ethics of Technological Risk, edited by Lotte Asveld, senior researcher at the Rathenau Institute, The Hague and Sabine Roeser, from the Philosophy Department at Delft University of Technology, published 2009 by Earthscan, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing.

The big question addressed in this book is: what are the appropriate issues to take into account when evaluating the ethics of a particular technological solution to a current problem, such as climate change, or overcrowding, or agricultural poverty. The subject is addressed philosophically, and intergenerational justice is only one part of what it explores.

Let me reify in argument the idea.

Consider two examples. One, the use now of non-replenishable brackish water in the Middle East or parts of Africa, and, secondly, the use of nuclear power to improve energy security and development.

Take brackish water to sustain a large population -- and such usage would kick in the need for lots of other technologies. Consider Gaza and current efforts to create a peace. I have read many times it is a crowded strip of land. I have heard it said it is one of the most crowded places on Earth. Not until I saw satellite photographs of the border-to-sea-shore conurbation that is Gaza did I realise just what those words meant.

If those now brokering peace in Sharm-El-Sheik in the Sinai succeed in winning a cease fire, and if, further, cross-border crossings with a view to a Federated State of Palestine and Israel, with Jerusalem as joint capital, were to find favour - not yet a solution on the table - then would it be an ethical application of technology to build a City in The Negev Desert, mine its water and people it jointly with Palestinians and Israelis?

Applying the moral/legal rights of today to people who might live in such a future city could prevent such a city from being built. Fear and faulty projections might stop such a bold move.

And what of miniature nuclear power plants? Of 165 MWh output? In an as yet unpublished article Ian Fells, emeritus professor of energy conversion at Newcastle University in the UK and principal consultant at Fells Associates, argues that these would integrate well with the power grids of some developing African countries. In passing he says, yes, nuclear waste is radioactive and, yes, Uranium is used to make bombs. And I ask, ought that to stop us using nuclear power now to save lives today? I think not.

But if the argument goes against me then ought we instead to mine non-replenishable brackish water now in those places where it exists? What are the other options that make agricultural sense or enable support of a growing and healthy populations? For one news story on the topic see here (link to Inter Press News Agency disabled).

The downside to nuclear is that a decision today, if irresponsibly applied, could poison future water sources with radioactive waste, possibly even the non-replenishable brackish water we might have chosen not to use now. What if we use the brackish water in some African States now with the thought in mind that nuclear power could be a later solution when there is a vibrant healthy population? Will it then still be an option, and what is the carbon footprint or agricultural cost of different approaches to different forms of mining?

Geographers of diversity are clearly needed, as are diplomats able to work across today's geographic boundaries in today's world and with a knowledge of the past. Such borders do not respect national borders.

In this debate the moral equivalence in law of future generations forces the debate today to places where the sustainable development lobby might not want to go. And it is a tough place that only argument in the present can resolve. Those arguments need to be informed, which is why I would urge full JSTOR access to all via all public libraries. And JSTOR has an opt-in free, Africa initiative. I have thought since I first learned of the existence of this resource that open access to JSTOR would be a good idea. But the thought of intergenerational justice as a guiding principle to world leaders concentrates the mind. If anyone wants to argue for the the need for scholarship, discipline and/or for access to knowledge irrespective of a University education then debate about the concept of intergenerational (sometimes called distributive) justice is the moral philosophical issue around which they could rally.
Helen Gavaghan, 2nd March, 2009


GavaghanCommunications Science, People & Politics©. All rights reserved.