Another major tenet of "sustainability" is intergenerational equity. Just as on the techie side of things we always go back to “heat goes from hot to cold in the most direct path possible,” we once again return to the roots of sustainability as defined by the Brundtland Commission report. As you will recall, it says “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” While the report itself may not actually have used the words “intergenerational equity” it is inherent in that definition and deserves further discussion. There appears to be an almost universal wish to make your childrens’ world and condition just a little bit better than your own and sustainability requires a profound responsibility to do that in some small part on a global basis.
So how do we implement something like intergenerational equity? Maybe one starting point goes back to the Native Americans of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy who believed that in decision-making we had the responsibility to look at the effects unto the seventh generation going forward. This early and wise warning recognized that the smallest as well as the largest of our acts may have unintended but profound consequences that go beyond the present day. How many times have we seen the results of decisions that were not so carefully considered? On everything from opening up the prairies of Oklahoma for farming to the dust bowl it initiated several decades later to our current use and abuse of resources, we have left ensuing generations with far less than what we have had. This is particularly true of fossil fuel resources as well as water both of which will become increasingly of lower quality and quantity in the years ahead. But it is also true of soil quality, fish stocks and innumerable other natural resources which we too often take for granted. It also includes certain social trends that impact the quality of life of future generations like warfare, vehicle use and population. One of the best places to look at these trends is the yearly compilation of indicators in the “Vital Signs” report put out each year by the World Watch Institute for a more detailed look. Looking at a number of the individual indicators as well as the entire picture they paint when taken in toto should be enough to make us take pause if you feel any responsibility at all for coming generations.
This, then, brings us back to one of the root causes that may make intergenerational equity more difficult to obtain in the future and one that is conveniently swept under the rug in most polite conversation. That is overpopulation and maybe the best gift we can give our children is to have less of them. The Brundtland Commission report speaks directly to this and it says, “In many parts of the world, the population is growing at rates that cannot be sustained by available environmental resources, at rates that are outstripping any reasonable expectations of improvements in housing, healthcare, food security, or energy supplies. The issue is not just numbers of people but how those numbers relate to available resources.” They go on to say, “But this is not just a demographic issue; providing people with facilities in education that allow them to choose the size of their families is a way of assuring — especially for women — the basic human right of self-determination.”
All this has some pretty deep implications for those of us who are not in a developing country where we see that it may be customary for them to have a large number of children and to understand some of the reasons why. In some instances having large families takes the place of Social Security that we have in our country and in their case the children are there to see after the welfare of their parents later in their life. The other aspect is that it helps to provide the family a source of labor for vital needs such as to sometimes carry water or firewood from extremely long distances.
So we need to ask ourselves here in this country some pretty hard questions if we’re really interested in global sustainability. Is it better for us to make an investment to buy solar panels for ourselves or maybe buy a system half that size and donate the rest of the money for solar ovens, solar water purification devices and solar lighting in developing countries? Each of those might in some way help reduce their need to maybe have families that large. The lighting would also provide an opportunity for some women to educate themselves which, as noted by the Brundtland Commission, has been tied statistically to lowering the birth rate.
But then the responsibility goes a lot further than placing any onus on developing nations for population growth as our own society, on a per capita basis, uses many, MANY times their resources. While countries like China and India have growing rates of resource use, we have had over a 200 year jumpstart on them in everything from food production to climate change gasses and they cannot be blamed for wanting to attain a higher standard of living for their children as well.