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Eccentric orbits

For future generations, it’s heads we win, tails they lose

Is the future black, red, or green? Bets please. Shutterstock

Can you remember the first time you said “That’s not fair”? Perhaps you wailed, aghast as your favourite toy was taken from you, or after a visit to the park was cut short. And can you remember the first time someone responded “Life’s not fair”? There are entire galaxies of outrage that young children endure. But the blunt trauma of discovering you are not the centre of the universe, that someone else may be indifferent to the injustice you have suffered does tends to stand out.

A central element of fairness is sharing. Taking what is yours and not more because to do so would mean someone would have less. Of course what is rightfully yours may not necessarily be the same amount as mine or anyone else’s. Slices of cake are one thing. As the accounting gets more complex, working out fair shares can get quite complicated, if not positively creative.

Nonetheless fairness is seen as a necessary element when it comes to individual or collective decisions. You may disagree to what extent rich people should be taxed more than poor people; such disagreement would often be around whether it’s fair or not.

So is it fair for us to adversely effect the biosphere, when the impact will fall disproportionally on future generations? Given the potentially hundreds of years carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere, along with the delays, sinks and feedback mechanisms that are part of Earth’s complex climate, it may take many decades or centuries for the consequences of our emissions to play out fully. If we are the captain setting sail on a course towards dangerous climate change, then the destination will only be reached some years after all currently aboard are dead.

Consider the ten billion people predicted to live on Earth in 2100. If they are to have lives worth living, then they would need to generate at least 50% more energy, grow 50% more food and gain access to 50% more water than we do now. If we continue on a “business as usual” scenario with our carbon emissions then they would need to do all that at the same time as rapidly adapting to the onset of dangerous climate change. Are we more important than these future people? Are our lives worth more? To what extent the welfare of these future people should be considered now, is a fascinating question that seems to cut deep into our notions of right and wrong and fairness.

People are held accountable for their actions irrespective of their intentions. Take the crime of manslaughter. If I fancied learning archery in my back garden, missed the target entirely and killed a neighbour by mistake, the fact I didn’t intend to wouldn’t mean I’m innocent, and wouldn’t change my prospects of spending time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Perhaps I could shoot arrows further into the next street. I would be just as responsible for any death or injury that resulted. Having the consequences of your actions separated in space, or time, doesn’t diminish your responsibility or culpability.

What complicates these discussions – what can, in fact, derail them entirely – is the assumption that consequences of our behaviour now are the unavoidable conditions that stem from greater development. We may not have a cure for cancer or personal jetpacks, but life for most in developed nations is significantly better now than it was 100 years ago. Surely one of the things that drives our emissions is the active participation in the process of development? People will have better lives in the future because we have built a better word for them.

Who can imagine what life will be like in 100 years? One thing we are increasingly sure about is that carbon emissions, together with habitat destruction, species extinctions and phosphorus over-use, are examples of pushing the planetary system beyond its safe operating limits for future generations. We seem to be in denial about the consequences of our actions, wishfully thinking that by the time the impact of our behaviour is felt, the world will be so changed that it will no longer by harmful.

We pull back, release, launch; we see our actions take flight with the empty promise that when they fall back to the ground they will have been transformed from mortal hazards into international, inter-generational largesse. And that is neither honest, nor fair.

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