"If you were guaranteed that our current levels of energy consumption and resource development could happily coexist with environmental, climate and wilderness values for another 1,000 years, but after that things would completely fall apart, would you really care? How about 500 years? 250? Where would you draw the line?"
On two hiking and rafting trips in Alaska's arctic last summer, I posed these questions to my traveling companions as dinner-time conversation starters. The questions were hypothetical in nature, but also, I hoped, provocative. I was not disappointed in the vitality of the discussions that ensued.
It is often said that we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors but rather borrow it from our children. That may be -- but which children? When I say that I hope to conserve some remnant of wilderness to be experienced by my children, and theirs, who do I really have in mind? My genetic descendants? Or future generations of the human species?
Even taking the narrowest view of biological lineage, how many generations do I really care about in a subjective and deeply emotional manner? It seems a tad callous, but I don’t have an easy or palatable answer.
At least on most days, I would willingly make great sacrifices for the wellbeing of my children, who are now young adults and embarking on families of their own. I am confident that I would gladly do much the same for any as-yet-unborn grandchildren. But how much would I put on the line for the benefit of their progeny? Or for their children (my great-great-grandchildren) a further generation down the line, who I will never meet in person?
I can comfortably get to about 100 years or so, maybe 150, as what might be considered a moral time horizon for personal caring and sacrifice. But beyond that, I’m not so sure. I surely wish future descendants well, at both a family and species level, yet I don't feel the attachment in my bones.
But my fear is this: unless we start doing things differently, we probably don’t have even 100 or 150 years before the wilderness is gone, before fossil fuels are insufficient to power our energy needs, before climate extremes threaten at least our social stability and possibly our existence, and before other scarce resources are no more.
The risk discussed in last week's post, Small Bites -- Limits, is that many of our current decisions and patterns of behavior will have unsustainable consequences for our Holocene environment and for the esthetic and cultural values that we hold dear, including the value of wilderness. In other words, we may already be within the boundary of my limited moral time horizon. Are we willing to mortgage our children's' future to the magical hope that we are not?
I am curious what readers may think about the questions I posed above: how many generations do we really, subjectively, care about? I recognize, for example, that some cultures have elaborate philosophies and rituals to inculcate a much longer view of ethical obligations in their members. Am I too callous, perhaps too selfish, to be thinking in terms only of a few generations?
Lest you believe I am irremediably beyond hope, let me suggest that the fundamental problem with the question as presented, and my response to it, is not so much the limited timeframe but rather the anthropocentrism. Aldo Leopold's philosophy of the land ethic, articulated in his mid-20th century signature work, A Sand County Almanac, may provide an escape from this rather bleak ethical box.
The fundamental characteristic of the land ethic is humility. It is an ecocentric moral stance that places humanity in the context of a broader natural community. It is a Copernican shift of perspective, expanding the circle of beings that are entitled to moral consideration from humans alone to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
It is hard to care subjectively about our progeny many generations hence, but perhaps the land ethic can show us how to take seriously our current responsibilities to the land itself, broadly defined. Wouldn't that get us to much the same place?
Post-script: Aldo Leopold's philosophy of the land ethic is the subject of a page at the Northern Passages website and also of a series of blog posts last year under the caption, Whose Land? See, for example, Part 5 of that series, discussing Moral Standing.
This week's post is the second in my Small Bites series exploring principles that are foundational to my analysis of public policy issues. See last week's Limits.