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Listening to the Voices of Young and Future Generations

Antoine Ebel and Tatiana Rinke

When conquering the North American continent in the seventeenth century, few European colonizers recognized that the native populations they encountered were organized in state-like groups, ruled by ethical and moral values. One of these ethical principles remains visionary even today: the Seventh Generation principle of the Iroquois peoples, which states that any action or decision should take into account its consequences for up to seven generations to come. Colonizers likely did not understand this then, and, it seems, we do not understand it now. Judging by our current course of development, we are, as a species, incapable of preserving the ecological wellbeing of one or two generations down the road, let alone seven.

Fortunately, issues of intergenerational equity and governance have gained significant traction at the global level and have a growing presence in national and international texts and preambles. Several organizations, such as the World Future Council, have made it their mission to make intergenerational equity a reality. Related declarations, commissions, and policy recommendations are multiplying. But have they helped to improve the future prospects of the young and unborn?

Future Rights: From the Page to the Court Room

At the national level, several countries have embedded future generations and intergenerational governance into their constitutions, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Germany, Kenya, Norway, and South Africa. The Norwegian constitution, for example, states in its article 110(b) that “natural resources should be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term consideration whereby this right will be safeguarded for future generations as well.” This language is in line with the spirit of the 1987 Brundtland Commission report Our Common Future, which popularized the concept of sustainable development. The report eloquently summarized the moral bias at the heart of intergenerational injustice in terms that still ring true today: “[W]e 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.”

Carving intergenerational governance and solidarity into law can appear as a relatively easy fix to this bias—but time is a thorny subject for legal deliberation. International law traditionally has been spatially oriented: many court rulings relate to the spaces we occupy and the borders we define, but few legal decisions focus on past generations, and almost none on upcoming ones. Even though the first reference made to “future generations” in a lawsuit dates to 1893, the practical applications of this concept are an exception, not the rule. In one noteworthy case in 1993, Minors Oposa v. Secretary of State for the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, the Supreme Court of the Philippines examined the complaint of a group of children opposing deforestation. In response to the plaintiffs' claim that ongoing logging of their country affected not only living generations, but also future generations, the court ruled that the children were indeed allowed to “represent their yet unborn posterity.”

In another relevant case heard by the International Court of Justice in 2010, Argentina v. Uruguay, Argentina was concerned about pollution from a pulp mill that Uruguay had built on the river separating the two countries. The court ruled in favor of Uruguay, but a judge, Cançado Trindade, wrote a dissent noting that “the acknowledgment of inter-generational equity forms part of conventional wisdom in International Environmental Law” and that “inter-generational equity has significantly been kept in mind by both contending parties.”

This case reflects the current state of intergenerational equity: the concept is influential enough to be mentioned in one of the world's most important courts, but too weak to be the prevalent basis of significant rulings. For all of the current efforts to make intergenerational equity more than words on a page, there is still no legal instrument designed to bind states legally to the principle of protecting the environment for future generations. Moreover, counting on unelected officials to steer our societies toward more temporal justice cannot suffice; instruments and actors that bring future interests to the heart of democratic debates have an important role to play as well.

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