A common piece of framing used when talking about the environment is the idea of “intergenerational equity”. It appears in newspaper rhetoric and formally in environmental law. The intention behind this seems reasonable; it expresses a desire to safeguard future generations, and contrasts with the selfish attitude of the ruling class and the fossil fuels industry which prioritises immediate profit. However, I argue that this is an imperfect framing, and one which can be built upon to be more meaningful.
Intergenerational equity does not make sense where it claims that distributive justice between generations is possible and desirable. It implies that environmental assets today should be maintained for the future, however this wrongfully places moral value in static conditions. The world will necessarily change in a multiplicity of ways, and it is very difficult to create some objective measure for deciding the needs and conditions of future generations. This means that equity is impossible to accurately conceptualise or predict.
More importantly, a conception of equal conditions between this era and future generations is limiting. This perspective neglects the importance of pursuing better lives for future generations. By focusing solely on mitigation and preservation to soften the blows of environmental destruction, though important, we miss the opportunity to build more robust and meaningful institutions which lay the groundwork for a better world.
Instead, we should embrace the more holistic aspirations of the environmental justice movement. We should hold that there are certain outcomes that communities fundamentally deserve, now and in the future. These include participation and respect for intersectionality within environmental decision-making, integration of environmental outcomes with related goals such as education, healthcare and social wellbeing; incorporating solidarity with others and the establishment of accountable institutions.
We owe future generations something more creative and valuable than a preservation of current conditions. We owe them an environmental movement which pursues equity in all facets of life, and a world where the cruel and exclusive excesses of our current economic system and governance are solved.
It also solves the question of how much we should sacrifice to protect future generations. Emphasising the trade-off between present and future generations is an ineffective and unnecessary rhetorical move: it is immensely speculative and tends to turn people off. The environmental justice movement illustrates how we can have our cake and eat it too: by safeguarding the planet and vulnerable people in the present, we improve the environmental outcomes in the long run.
Finally, the benefit of this conception is that it can be powerfully used in response to rising ecofascism. Where ecofascism manipulates the need to protect nature to justify cruelty to humans and consolidation of unjust state power, we can reply: is this solution worth it? If we believe we owe future generations something more than conservation, that we owe them democracy and community and the ability to enjoy and treasure the environment, the answer is no. If we truly care about future generations, then we should create for them something better.