What is intergenerational environmental equity? Some scholars like Stazyk et al. (2014) describe this sustainability as “trade-offs between short-term profitability in business (e.g., today’s bottom line) and government (e.g., profitability understood as political advantage or reelection) and long-range survival”. Other scholars like Treves et. al (2018) cast equity in terms of a future generations’ environmental rights (whether inherent or guaranteed by a constitution). Across the board scholars agree that intergenerational environmental equity is a normative, or moral, question. Because environmental sustainability is critical to life itself, it matters who defines what future generations needs are (any reflection on intergenerational equity, including this one, requires reflectivity on who is arguing for what and why). Thus, this author proposes that intergenerational equity can’t just be forward looking but must also respect inherited traditions. Some thinkers, like Thomas Berry, have argued that we must invent a new ‘story’, or cosmology of meaning, from thin air in order to deal with a changing world. However, such a radical break from tradition is in essence hubris, privileging our generation over hundreds of generations before and after.
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, proclaimed in 1987 the necessity of future generations to be able to meet their own needs. Globally several national constitutions, the highest laws of the lands, contain express provisions for a healthy environment. Some constitutions, like that of Nepal’s, go so far as to appeal to an intergenerational judicious use of resources. France’s Constitution of 1958 (revised in 2008) holds that, “the needs of the present generation should not jeopardize the ability of future generations and other peoples to meet their needs”. While this seems admirable on first read, one may ask… who are “other peoples”? In a world of migration, “aliens “and social alienation by class, France’s efforts at inter-generational (among different generations) equity is conceivably already cast with intra-generational (among the same generation) inequity and othering. It’s as if “others”, however legally or socially defined, are cast out from the umbrella term of future generations, and by extension, the category of human.
In some ways, the concept of intergenerational equity raises serious questions for the nation state. In a world with polluted rivers, massive migrations, epidemics, and climate change, what level of force will be required to “protect” the next generations resources? What happens if present generations’ needs are not met? In some ways, the language of intergenerational equity is both a call for responsibility, but could equally be coopted by strong authoritarian governments to justify deprivations and violence.
On the bright side, a sustainable environment provides transnational corporations (TNCs) with intergenerational business opportunities. A healthy world provides non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with intergenerational advocacy opportunities. A world with clean water, clean air, and sufficient food, provides individuals and communities with the chance to realize an intergenerational purpose, grounded in relationships and learning, whether secular or religious. 2,500 years ago, in Athens, Greece, “people” took the following vow: “we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us” (Stazyk, 3). A closer read begs the question, which people took this noble vow? Just the elite? If environmental stewardship is relegated only to the most powerful class, then it may not actually be inter-generational… as the generation as a whole is not involved. To avoid an “inter-aristocracy”, or the rule of the few, we must ask once again who is determining the future, and whether they are speaking from a personal position, a novel cosmology, or a robust tradition inherited from generations before. In this manner, scholars and society can engage in a reflective conversation, welcoming the “other” from France’s Constitution under the umbrella of humanity, as equal inheritor and steward of ideas, arts, politics—the very resources that make earth home.