Future generations

Kirsty Schneeberger | 10 years ago

“We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying … We act as we
do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

Brundtland Report Our Common Future 1987

This was the starting point for a paper I recently wrote for Environmental Law and Management earlier this year which focussed on implementing the Principle of intergenerational equity into mainstream decision-making.  At the heart of my work and activities lies an ambition to effectively bring the voice of young and future generations to mainstream decision making, and through projects like think2050 and the DECC Youth Advisory Panel, I hope that I am heading in the right direction.

Every time I read the above quote from the Brundtland report I am compelled to ask myself how we might demonstrate to present day decision makers that they must cease borrowing capital from future generations through either providing a mechanism for young and future generations to have political or Judicial power and to establish a process through which actions and decisions of those in power might be challenged by representatives of posterity.

In the paper on intergenerational equity I have drawn together examples from around the world where intergenerational equity can be seen in practice, ranging from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations in Hungary, who hears complaints from the public relating to the impacts that e.g. planning proposals might have on future generations, to the Confederation of the Six Nations of the Iroquois in North America who

“Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.”

I have also considered the role of the Judiciary in allowing intergenerational equity to be argued in the courts and there are many pertinent examples in international case law where the rights of future generations have been duly considered, or indeed those unborn have been granted standing through claimants representing their interests.  In addition there have been compelling statements made by both Weeramantry J and  Cançado Trindade J suggesting that the ICJ is the perfect forum for cases relating to intergenerational equity to be heard and the former stating in the Pulp Mills case that:

“….it can hardly be doubted that the acknowledgment of inter-generational equity forms part of conventional wisdom in International Environmental Law.”

The scope for developing intergenerational equity arguments is widening and just this week a series of class action law suits in the US have been launched by young claimants suing the US Government for not protecting their atmosphere.  The cases are seeking to result in the atmosphere being declared as a “public trust”, invoking the well understood public trusts doctrine, a concept dating back to at least the 1890s and the Behring Sea Fur Seals Arbitration in which the following argument was run:

“…no possessor of property has an absolute title to it – his title is coupled with a trust for the benefit of mankind. . . . [T]hings themselves are not given him, but only the usufruct or increase – he holds the thing in trust for the present and future generations of man.”

It remains to be seen how the US courts will respond to this bold move to bring intergenerational equity into the realm of the judiciary, but the very fact that young people are organising themselves to push the matter up the agenda of decision-makers is an indication that they are ready, willing and able to do what it takes to bring their voices to the heart of government.

About the author

Kirsty Schneeberger

Kirsty is an environmental advocate and campaigner. She is Climate Change Manager at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation. Her interest includes climate change and the environmental inheritance we leave to future generations.