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Monday, September 19, 2011

Should Future Generations be represented today?

So, I had an idea for a new kind of special-interest group the other day:

Future Generations.

Sounds facetious? Maybe, maybe not. I'm not sure myself. After all, the wants and needs of future generations of humans are barely considered in our political or economic decisions today, and you have to admit that this is a bit of a shortcoming.

Plus, the flux capacitor technology required for time travel has been available since 1985, so that's not an issue.

Take politics. We have instituted electoral timelines that punish politicians for taking actions that impose short-term costs in order to yield long-term benefits. One of the most infamous examples of this comes from the United States, where all aspiring politicians live in mortal fear of being "the next Jimmy Carter" - of proposing honest and sensible and mildly inconvenient solutions to long-term problems and, as a result, being destroyed in the next election by a belligerent doofus. In U.S. political circles, this is known as the Carter/Reagan Transformation,

Jimmy Carter + fuel crisis + "Turn down the thermostat, put on a sweater" = Ronald Reagan

We may force our politicians to be shortsighted to survive, but the business cycle is even faster and more severe in its treatment of its players. The fortunes of businesses change so rapidly that the executive arriving at the high-rise office via chauffeured limousine at 10:00 am may well have crushed that same limousine with his penniless body by 4:00.

In short, our political and business systems are set up such that their focus is on maximizing the good times in the present and near future, with scant regard given to the implications of their actions over a long time frame. If you are slated to be born in 2025 or 2045 or 2100, you may not necessarily agree with decisions made under such a circumscribed sense of time.

Consider the current battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would send Alberta tar sands bitumen down to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Some of the major concerns swirling about the proposed pipeline include the potential for massive pollution of the largest aquifer in the United States, and the enabling effect that the pipeline would have on the development of emissions-heavy tar sands oil resources. Those folks who will be around when those issues become manifest, whether in 2050 or 2100, will probably wish they had the chance to chime in to our discussions on the pipeline today. After all, while the current generation stands to abscond with the profits if the Keystone XL pipeline does go through, it's the souls in the generational on-deck circle who will have to bear its substantial costs.

And that gets to the critical point: actions that are economically beneficial in the immediate future are not necessarily economically beneficial when viewed in the context of the next 10, 50, or 100 years. Over time, as the ecological (and economic) bills come due, the costs of something like Keystone XL will inexorably creep up, while the bulk of the economic benefit, whatever it may be, will have long since been dispersed into bank accounts, investments, yachts, and gin.

On the other hand, conservation actions that may have short-term economic impacts today may yield substantial and sustained economic benefits over the longer term. Take fisheries. To a person born in 2100, it may be very economically beneficial if those of us in 2011 develop, say, a sound network of Marine Protected Areas here in the Pacific. Some fishermen may grumble today, but the fishermen of tomorrow would likely cheer us on.

So, who knows? Maybe it is a good idea to have special interest groups that are devoted to representing (or doing their best to represent) the interests of Future Generations. After all, the good folks who are going to be drinking the water, breathing the air, or catching the fish of 2100 or 2200 are going to be affected by what we're doing today, so perhaps they deserve to have a say as we make those decisions.

Plus, it would just be cool to be in a meeting and to hear the chair say "The gentleman from the year 2150 has the floor".

- It should go without saying that this is not the official stance of Living Oceans Society on the question of whether or not the yet-to-be-conceived should be considered legitimate stakeholders. In fact, I don't think that this topic has ever arisen in our meetings. -

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