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How Will We Be Remembered?

Let us begin with a story1:

Once upon a time, there was a generation that confronted great challenges and survived them. It struggled through a time of global financial collapse; defeated a frightening, destructive, and evil enemy; and ostensibly made the world safer for freedom and democracy for generations to come. This generation inherited a mess, but cleaned it up and passed on a better world to the future. It earned the moniker, “the most splendid generation.”

The most splendid generation was succeeded by another generation, “the bloopers.” This generation had a reputation in its youth for grand visions and moral seriousness (“peace, love, and understanding”); however, when it actually came to hold the reins of power, it became consumed by the pleasures of the moment, and self-aggrandizement (“sex, drugs, and reality TV”). It paid scant attention to the concerns of the future, and indulged in whatever activities it could that brought soft comforts and profit in the short term, regardless of the longterm consequences. The bloopers deregulated financial markets, leaving the world vulnerable to a Great Depression-like crash; they provoked an international arms race and allowed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, making future wars more likely and more destructive; they polluted the natural environment with wild abandon, undermining the future integrity of the world’s climate system and food supply; and so on. In short, the blooper generation lived fast and loose, caring little whether others suffered greatly and died young as a result.

As things turned out, succeeding generations really did suffer serious harms (global financial collapses, horrific wars, environmental catastrophes, widespread famine, etc). Like the most splendid generation, they were left to clean up a mess.

This story has ethical import. The bloopers are a profligate generation. They squander the hard work of their predecessors, and inflict serious harms on their successors. Moreover, they do this mostly for the sake of cheap pleasures, and the comforts of easy living. Such a generation would receive harsh criticism from both the future and the past, and this criticism would be well deserved. They fail to discharge their intergenerational responsibilities. Too much goes wrong on their watch, and much of it is self-inflicted.

Sadly, the story has contemporary relevance. Many of us alive now, and especially those in the richer nations, are at risk of being remembered as members of a profligate generation—one that was recklessly wasteful, distracted, and self-absorbed. Moreover, our failures seem likely to be regarded especially harshly by the future, as they threaten to occur on a grand scale. The most serious involve an explosion in environmental degradation, with profound implications for all: globally, intergenerationally, and across species. If we do not address this issue, we may end up being remembered not just as a profligate generation, but as “the scum of the Earth,” the generation that stood by as the world burned.2

It does not have to be this way. We are late, and dragging our feet. We have already taken greater risks than can plausibly be justified. However, there is still time, especially to head off the worst. If we can wake up to what we are doing and engage in meaningful action, we may still redeem ourselves. We can become the greenest generation yet. Given the scale of the challenge, that could make us the greatest generation of all.3


  • 1. I thank audiences at the American Philosophical Association (Pacific Division), University of Graz, University of Leeds, University of Oregon, University of Victoria, and University of Washington. For comments, I am grateful to Richard Arneson, Michael Blake, Nir Eyal, Augustin Fragniere, Ben Gardiner, Avrum Hiller, Alex Lenferna, Marion Hourdequin, Lukas Meyer, Jay Odenbaugh, David Schlosberg, Dustin Schmidt, Ted Toadvine, and Allen Thompson. I also thank Dustin Schmidt and Alex Lenferna for their excellent assistance with referencing and copyediting. I am especially indebted to Kit Wellman, for all he is, and for steering this project home.
  • 2. Stephen M. Gardiner, “Are We the Scum of the Earth?” in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change, eds. Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Boston: MIT Press, 2012), 241-260.
  • 3. This prologue draws on Stephen M. Gardiner. A Perfect Moral Storm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 4.
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