A Value Clash? Freedom versus Intergenerational Equity
Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All is the subtitle of the 2011 United Nations Development Report. The full report is here (pdf), Sustainability and equity are themes in each year’s United Nations Development Report. In the 2014 Report, Sustaining Human Progress: Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience (pdf), equity is discussed across 15 pages.
Intergenerational equity is mentioned less often (just twice in the 2014 report). Here is one mention:
While human development requires the expansion of choices currently available to people, it is also important to consider the impact on the choices of future generations—for intergenerational equity. Human development should not come at the cost of future generations. To secure and sustain human development and avert dramatic local and global repercussions, bold and urgent action on environmental sustainability is crucial. (Sustaining Human Progress, p. 45)
The world’s ecological footprint of consumption is currently larger than its total biocapacity, that is, the biosphere’s ability to meet human demand for material consumption and waste disposal (figure 2.8). The very high human development group, in particular, has a very large ecological deficit—as its ecological footprint is significantly larger than available biocapacity.
Since students researching the NCFCA LD topic will likely run across these sustainability and intergenerational equity claims and studies, it is worth examining them. Though these claims are generally ignored outside of environmental circles, they influence economic policy by asserting additional limits on economic freedom are needed so people today won’t consume scarce resources at the expense of future generations.
Figure 2.8 in the UN 2014 report claims the world’s “ecological footprint” is larger than “total biocapacity.” More than just a claim, the figure seems to draw from scientific sources. Students can follow the source to the Global Footprint Network, a nearly $3 million dollar a year environmental group (2012 Annual Report).
I’ve been reading and writing about these issues for many years. Nearly twenty-five years ago, with PERC and FEE, we prepared a Resources and Recycling study guide (pdf). Here is an excerpt discussing a 1990 encyclopedia claim of mankind running out of resources:
Will mankind crash into a natural resource wall in the not too distant future? An entry in the Random House Encyclopedia on “Earth’s dwindling resources” pictures a dump truck and charts the dates that reserves of key resources used to construct it “may be exhausted” (Third Edition, 1990, p. 290). Platinum and lead may be gone in 2000, mercury and zinc in 2010, silver and tin in 2015, copper in 2030. Reserves for thirteen metals are shown running out before 2050, with the implication that this dump truck and the rest of modern society may collide with natural resource limits in our lifetime.
In the 1980s and 1990s environmentalists argued that “runaway” capitalist economies were rapidly depleting Earth’s natural resources, and in the U.S. we were running out of space to bury garbage. These claims were used by politicians to justify new regulations to mandate recycling, reduce energy use, mandate increased car mileage, subsidize solar and wind energy to reduce fossil fuel consumption and many other environmental regulations. Yet since then, entrepreneurship, innovation, and astonishing new technologies have pushed energy and natural resources limits off into the distant future.
Next came concerns about global warming to justify these same regulations restricting natural resource and fossil fuel use.
How can this claim be evaluated? Should people be worried that agricultural production and productivity is about to drive off a cliff? At right is a USDA graph of rising agricultural production.
A 2013 Washington Times article explains why “World agricultural output continues to rise, despite predictions of decline.”
How could “biocapacity” be even close to capacity when most of China, India, Latin America, Ukraine, Russia, and Eastern Europe have vast agricultural lands taking advantage of limited modern agricultural equipment, fertilizers, and transportation networks to move crops to cities?
Students can research and debate agricultural productivity risks and potentials, natural resource supplies, pollution levels, and the overall future of food. And students can decide for themselves whether freedom today should be further limited in the interests of equity for future generations.
And students can read much, much more about these issues in Indur Goklany’s 2007 book The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.