Some writers have suggested that the way we use the environment could change if we balanced our consumer interests with those of future generations. Some of these writers have worked hard to define a "social rate of discount"22 to determine how we should take the interests of future consumers into account.
The rate at which we discount future preferences may make little difference, however, in the way natural resources are used. We can build resorts, highways, shopping centers, tract housing, and power lines to satisfy future as well as present demand. There are few decisions favorable to our wishes that cannot be justified by a likely story about future preferences. Even a nasty strip mine or a hazardous-waste dump may produce wealth that strengthens the industrial base left to future generations.
What are future generations likely to want? Will vacationers a hundred years from now want to backpack into Sequoia National Park, or will they prefer to drive their recreational vehicles in? I think the interests of future generations will depend largely on two things. The first is education, or advertising. I suspect that the Disney resort would always be jammed with visitors because Disney knows how to run an effective advertising campaign. Through the use of advertising, corporations typically ensure demand for the goods and services they create so that the product and the market for it are developed at the same time. Since what corporations want to sell is usually a good indicator of what consumers will be trained to buy, perhaps we should let the marketing departments of the top 500 businesses tell us how to prepare the Earth for future generations. The best way to create the bars and pizza palaces and motels and strips tomorrow's consumers will want may be to bring in the bulldozers today.
Second, the tastes of future individuals will depend not only on what is advertised but on what is available. People may come to think that a gondola cruise along an artificial river is a wilderness experience if there is simply nothing to compare it with. When I moved from a rural area to an urban one, I was appalled at the changes: noise, pollution, ugliness, congestion. People said I would get used to it - that I would come to like the convenience stores and the fast-food stands. They were right. This is what happens. Preference adapts. If individuals in the future have no exposure to anything that we would consider natural or unspoiled, they will not acquire a taste for such things. What they will want will be determined more or less by what we leave to them, however dreary it may be.
Derek Parfit has constructed an argument that supports the point I wish to make. He argues that any policy we adopt today will make people born in the future better off than they would have been had we made some other decision. The reason is that these people would not even exist, and therefore could not be better off, had we made the other choice.
To show this, Parfit describes two policies, which he calls "High Consumption" and "Low Consumption." He then writes:
If we choose High rather than Low Consumption, the standard of living will be higher over the next century Given the effects of... such policies on the details of our lives, different marriages would increasingly be made. More simply, even in the same marriages, the children would increasingly be conceived at different times this would in fact be enough to make them different children.
Return next to the moral question. If we choose High Consumption, the quality of life will be lower more than a century from now. But the particular people who will then live would never have existed if instead we had chosen Low Consumption. Is our choice of High Consumption worse for these people? Only if it is against their interests to have been born We can suppose that it would not go as far as this. We can conclude that, if we choose High Consumption, our choice will be worse for no one.23
The idea is that whichever policy we choose, future generations will have nothing to complain about because but for that choice, different marriages would have been made and different children conceived. Whatever policy decision we make, therefore, determines who shall exist, and thus the policy we choose is better for those who will be born than any other policy would have been. Because these people will be all who exist, our choice will make no one worse off. Most people would agree that a policy that is the very best for all those it affects, and that makes no one worse off, is satisfactory from the point of view of distributive justice and efficiency. Thus, whichever policy we choose will be just and efficient with respect to the generations that come after us.
Parfit's argument does not clear us of moral responsibility with respect to future generations; rather, it helps us to understand what our responsibility is. It is not - if I may put it this way - a responsibility to the future as much as it is a responsibility for the future. If Parfit is correct, the major decisions we make determine the identity of the people who follow us; this, however, is not the only, or the most morally significant, consequence. Our decisions concerning the environment will also determine, to a large extent, what future people are like and what their preferences and tastes will be.
If we leave them an environment that is fit for pigs, they will be like pigs; their tastes will adapt to their conditions as ours might when we move from the country into town. Suppose we destroyed our literary, artistic, and musical heritage; suppose we left to future generations only potboiler romances, fluorescent velvet paintings, and disco songs. We would then ensure a race of uncultured near illiterates. Now, suppose we leave an environment dominated by dumps, strip mines, and highways. Again, we will ensure that future individuals will be illiterate, although in another way. Surely, we should strive to make the human race better, not even worse than it already is. Surely, it is morally bad for us to deteriorate into a pack of yahoos who have lost both knowledge of and taste for the things that give value and meaning to life.
Future generations might not complain: a pack of yahoos will like a junkyard environment. This is the problem. That kind of future is efficient. It may well be equitable. But it is tragic all the same.
Our obligation to provide future individuals with an environment consistent with ideals we know to be good is an obligation not necessarily to those individuals but to the ideals themselves.24 It is an obligation to civilization to continue civilization: to pass on to future generations a heritage, natural and cultural, that can be valued and enjoyed without absurdity. These ideals are aesthetic; they have to do not with the utility but with the meaning of things, not with the preferences they satisfy but the qualities they express. The programs that preserve them, however, are morally good. The moral good involved is not distributional; for it is not the good of individuals we are speaking of, but good individuals who appreciate things that are good in themselves. The allocation of resources in environmental law need not always - it sometimes should not - be based on norms of distribution. The way we use resources may also be justified in the context of a reverence we owe to what is wonderful in nature; for in this kind of appreciation, aesthetic and moral theory find a common root.25
That political authority should avoid acts of paternalism has been a traditional theme of liberalism. Liberals since John Stuart Mill have argued that the state should restrict the freedom of one individual only to protect the welfare of another - not to prevent the individual from harming himself. Although this reluctance to interfere with a person "for his own good" is not absolute in liberalism (or even in Mill himself),26 it is a consequence of the principle that the state should leave it to individuals to answer the moral questions and thus should not make their mistakes for them.
To protect a wilderness, however, we may have to prohibit a resort; to provide a resort we may have to destroy a wilderness. So we must make decisions that affect the preferences or values future generations will have, not just the degree to which they can act on their own values or satisfy their preferences. To what extent should the possibility of one lifestyle be restricted to protect the possibility of another? What moral opportunities are worth providing? As we debate public policy for the environment, we must answer questions such as these. We cannot avoid paternalism with respect to future generations.27
Yet this paternalism, if that is what it is, is of a peculiar kind. It is not paternalism about the welfare of future generations; for whatever policy we choose is likely to be optimal for the individuals and interests it helps to create. Rather, it is paternalism about the character of future individuals, their environment, and their values. It is a concern about the character of the future itself. We want individuals to be happier, but we also want them to have surroundings to be happier about. We want them to have what is worthy of happiness. We want to be able to respect them and to merit their good opinion. How may we do this except by identifying what is best in our world and trying to preserve it? How may we do this except by determining, as well as we can, what is worth saving, and then by assuming that this is what they will want?
What is worth saving is not merely what can be consumed later; it is what we can take pride in and, indeed, love. To protect wilderness and to restore the environment to meet shared ideals are not merely to show respect and concern for future generations but to show respect for ourselves as well. To think about our moral responsibilities to future generations is to consider how resources should be used and not merely to consider who should use them. Ethics in allocation, in other words, is not a consequence of ethics in distribution. An environmental ethic cannot be derived entirely from a theory of justice.
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