At Aeon magazine, in a piece titled Once and future sins, Stefan Klein and Stephen Cave ask, as the sub-head reads: “In 2115, when our descendants look back at our society, what will they condemn as our greatest moral failing?” In the course of identifying likely candidates they raise the issue of rights for future generations.
Currently, only people alive now can claim rights. But just as we have extended our circle of moral concern among the living, so it can be extended in time. The problem is clear: we often make decisions that will have impacts on people far into the future – such as producing nuclear waste that will remain toxic for millions of years – yet those future people are not here to stand up for themselves. Neither defining nor granting these rights will be easy. But there are precedents on which we can draw, such as the ways we protect the rights of small children or animals, who also cannot speak for themselves.
So our successors will have to be imaginative in creating a framework robust enough to defend the unborn in the face of the interests of those alive today, with which they often conflict. For we should be under no illusions: to take the rights of future generations seriously would involve massive restrictions on our freedom of action. Currently, we despoil the earth and seas with impunity to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle (by historical standards). In 100 years, this will be seen as wickedness comparable to colonial powers despoiling their colonies.
In 2005, the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics published a piece by Kristian Skagen Ekeli titled Giving a Voice to Posterity — Deliberative Democracy and Representation of Future Generations. He proposes providing future generations with representation in legislatures, with the candidates most likely drawn from environmental groups. Of course, some may argue that such concerns are implicit in the issues with which all politicians deal. Nevertheless, giving the future a voice in democracy would be ideal — if we were actually living in a democracy and not a political system as susceptible to capture by money as ours.
In any event, a group called the Women’s Congress for Future Generations created a Declaration of the Rights Held by Future Generations, which those as new to the subject as me might find valuable.