Sunday, July 19, 2009

The big question: What do generations owe to each other?

In 1883 renown Yale professor William Graham Sumner examined the question of what the social classes owe to each other. Sumner was a classical liberal--what we might call a conservative today if only we could find a real one--and his answer to this question can be summarized in one word: Nothing.

In 2009 in the grip of advancing climate change and rapidly depleting resources we are confronted with a more radical question: What do the generations owe to each other? The easy answer is to copy Sumner's. And, some people have. (Scroll down to Sam Vaknin and expand his essay.) But given that most people have offspring, we can expect that their sympathies might extend to their children and grandchildren, but not much beyond. It is a natural impulse to want to sacrifice for one's children or grandchildren. But is it natural or even practical to make sacrifices for people who will live a hundred or perhaps even a thousand years after us?

Let me illustrate the pitfalls of sacrificing for future generations. Let's say we decide to go on a severe fossil fuel diet starting today and remain on that diet indefinitely in order to lessen the ravages of peak fossil fuels and climate change. Many decades later our descendents wake up to a world with a steady, livable climate and with a relative abundance of fossil fuels that are now used almost exclusively as chemical feedstocks except in a few small instances. These descendents decide that their lives could be improved somewhat quite cheaply by burning a little more fossil fuel. After all, the danger of catastrophic climate change has passed, and greenhouse gas levels have actually come down. Why not ease restrictions on burning fossil fuels?

Of course, this modest lifting of restraints probably won't last long as the flush of enhanced living standards encourages a call for burning additional fossil fuels to increase living standards a bit more. And, of course, this unfortunate path could lead my hypothetical future society right back onto the road to collapse and destruction.

It should be clear then that the efficacy of our decisions to create a sustainable world will depend heavily on the self-restraint of future generations. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. But it points to the necessity not just of a revolution in behavior--which can be accomplished using the right incentives--but to a revolution in values.

Values are never permanent, but they have more lasting power than mere behaviors which may persist only so long as an incentive or restriction is in pace. The current talk among policy thinkers concerned about sustainability leans heavily toward incentives and restrictions to achieve sustainability goals. This is the kind of structure we provide to children as we are trying to train them to be adults, and it has its place. But it is the fond hope of every good parent that their children will internalize the discipline which must be initially applied externally during a child's formative years.

This internalization is akin to a revolution in values, and it is not so easily achieved. Values develop over time in response to actual physical and social conditions. They persist over time based on their perceived efficacy in ordering society and the life of the individual and in ensuring the survival of society.

We are now in the situation of the proverbial man who has jumped off the roof of a 100-story building. When you stick your head out at the 50th floor and ask him how he's doing, he says, "Fine." It is the speed with which we appear to be approaching our doom that gives values--which take time to test and validate--so little opportunity to change. They will undoubtedly change for our proverbial man in free-fall once he hits the ground. But only if he survives, and then we can expect him to be severely disabled.

Every human prefers the present over the future. And, that's as it should be. One can't live for the future if one fails to protect oneself from destruction or ruin today. This balancing act is one that every person concerned with sustainability is called upon to endure. It is easy to criticize others for failing to do all that is necessary to improve the chances of future generations for a good life. It is more challenging to support them in their attempt to bring off this ever more difficult balancing act.

5 comments:

mattbg said...

An interesting post. It's been confusing to me for awhile that so many people are raising their children as if the future can only be more materially prosperous. It's almost as if anything less is emblematic of defeat.

Henry Warwick said...

This is an interesting problem.

There are a number of "what ifs" involved, and they point to something I've been barking about for a while.

Picture this scenario: Tomorrow, we all wake up and decide we need to abandon the industrial project and go neolithic. At the same time, we can't do it next week, so we will work at making it happen ASAP. This would leave billions of barrels of oil in the ground. billions of tons of metals in the ground. billions of tons of coal in the ground.

Obviously, it isn't likely to happen, but that's not my point. The fundamental point is that oil consumption is cultural. change the culture and oil goes away.

I would recommend listening to "Nothing but flowers" by the Talking Heads. Relevant Lyrics follow:

We caught a rattlesnake
Now we got something for dinner
we got it, we got it
There was a shopping mall
Now it's all covered with flowers
you've got it, you've got it
If this is paradise
I wish I had a lawnmower
you've got it, you've got it

...

The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture
I thought that we'd start over
But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it's a peaceful oasis
you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it's all covered with daisies
you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
you got it, you got it

I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
you got it, you got it

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
you got it, you got it

This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
you got it, you got it

Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle!

============================

that sums it up pretty well...

Things will fall apart, but will anyone notice? And if they don't, did a collapse actually happen?

I wrote about this a few year sago - how the Romans didnt' have a notion of "Collapse" - for them, the golden age was always in the past, and the present was just a brutal nasty struggle for survival.

You can postulate "a collapse of civilisation" but if civilisation doesn't see it as a collapse, then It's NOT a Collapse.

As resources deplete, and oil disappears, the resulting shifts will not be seen as results of 2nd law thermodynamics in action, but more as "political misappropriation of resources" or "an unfortunate disease outbreak we couldn't do anything about" or "the corruption of the military industrial complex" or anything BUT: the fact that we are entropy machines sitting on top of a massive energy source that is being squandered and wasted and burned up as quickly as possible will NEVER get broadcast or achieve dominance in the present configuration of media ideology.

It could change radically and EXTEMELY quickly. But there are a number of forces who would find suchlike threatening....

Iconoclast421 said...

"Is it natural or even practical to make sacrifices for people who will live a hundred or perhaps even a thousand years after us?"

Nope. Except in the name of liberty. But not for "the environment". And it would be foolhardy to attempt to do so. we'll never get everyone to agree not to burn fossil fuels. Pollution or no, they just make life easier. That's why it is foolish to attempt to restrict the "wasting" of resources.

Go down that road, and you end up with the same philosophy as the eugenicists and the transhumanists. Then before you know it you are manifesting utter contempt for the species, despite any noble intentions. It's better just to let humanity be what it is. With adversity comes diversity. You dont get much of either when you've got people trying to be overlords of every aspect of human civilization.

I for one would rather live on a planet polluted with the evil scourge of carbon dioxide (!)than deal with these lying cheating doubletalking euthanizing rationalizing scumbags who claim they are trying to help the world when in reality they are just on a pathetic power trip.

Notice how this filthy degenerate scum isnt talking about Hg, Pb, As, DU, GMO, and the rest of the long list of toxic elements and chemicals and hazards. No, we have to have a tax on breathing, and it has to be so obvious and so in-your-face how transparent their scheme is, yet somehow people still fall for it.

Paul Robins said...

It's certainly interesting how we can try to arbitrarily define a limit before we stop caring about our decendants, however I disagree with the idea that fossil fuels will be desirable in the future.

We don't fully know the effects of climate change and how long they'll last, so we might not have a point where atmospheric co2 concentration drops below a certain limit and it's declared safe to burn fossils fuels again.

But more relevant I feel, is that we're using the cheap, easy to find stuff already and in a journal article in Energy Policy on technology s-curves, it was suggested that renewables are likely to be several times more productive per dollar than fossil fuels.

So in a future where our energy comes from renewables (and overall consumption is likely to be greater than now) I'm not sure that a relatively moderate supply of relatively expensive fossil fuels will be that great a worry.

GermanDom said...

I don't think it's a problem of whether we're concerned about more than just our children and grandchildren or not. Rather, how in the world do you think it would possible to plan for in 100 years.

Imagine it is 1909. On that date, could you hope to plan for 50 years in the future? Try buying a stock now, that your great, great grandchildren will make rich. Will the company even exist in 50 years??

Climate change might well be an issue for our great grandchildren. But our time horizons are much shorter than that, so that we cannot in the slightest hope to plan for how to cope with it in 2-3 generations. Even if we thought that we could change the situation for our gggrandchildren, we would not. For we know that the future will be what we expect. And further into the future will be even less than what we expect...
Cheers, Dom