According to demographers, a generation is an age-cohort of people born, living, and dying within a few years of each other. Human generations are roughly defined categories, and the demarcations are not as distinct as they are in many other species . As the Scottish philosopher David Hume noted in the eighteenth century, generations of human beings are not like generations of butterflies, who come into existence, lay their eggs, and die at about the same time, with the next generation hatching thereafter. But distinctions can still be made, and future generations are all age-cohorts of human beings who have not yet been born.
The concept of future generations is central to environmental ethics and environmental policy , because the health and well-being—indeed the very existence—of human beings depends on how people living today care for the natural environment .
Proper stewardship of the environment affects not only the health and well-being of people in the future but their character and identity. In The Economy of the Earth, Mark Sagoff compares environmental damage to the loss of our rich cultural heritage. The loss of all our art and literature would deprive future generations of the benefits we have enjoyed and render them nearly illiterate. By the same token, if we destroyed all our wildernesses and dammed all our rivers, allowing environmental degradation to proceed at the same pace, we would do more than deprive people of the pleasures we have known. We would make them into what Sagoff calls "environmental illiterates," or "yahoos" who would neither know nor wish to experience the beauties and pleasures of the natural world. "A pack of yahoos," says Sagoff, "will like a junkyard environment" because they will have known nothing better.
The concept of future generations emphasizes both our ethical and aesthetic obligations to our environment. In relations between existing and future generations, however, the present generation holds all the power. While we can affect them, they can do nothing to affect us. Though, as some environmental philosophies have argued, our moral code is in large degree based on reciprocity, the relationship between generations cannot be reciprocal. Adages such as "like for like," and "an eye for an eye," can apply only among contemporaries. Since an adequate environmental ethic would require that moral consideration be extended to include future people, views of justice based on the norm of reciprocity may be inadequate.
A good deal of discussion has gone into what an alternative environmental ethic might look like and on what it might be based. But perhaps the important point to note is that the treatment of generations yet unborn has now become a lively topic of philosophical discussion and political debate.
[Terence Ball ]
Barry, B., and R. I. Sikora, eds. Obligations to Future Generations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.
Partridge, E., ed. Responsibilities to Future Generations. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981.