Intergenerational justice: what it is and how to achieve it

What is intergenerational justice (IJ)? It’s an intuitive thing, isn’t it? Something like: “Meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…”? That, of course, is Brundtland’s definition of sustainable development – so perhaps IJ is just a new way of perceiving an old challenge. But will it be any easier to achieve than sustainable development has been in the 20+ years since the Brundtland report was published? Maybe – because even the least environmentally concerned amongst us is concerned for the well-being of his or her grandchildren. Intergenerational justice is about being fair to future generations – leaving the world a better place than you found it. So it resides in the moral high ground that every leader should want to occupy.

We raise this issue now – with Peace Child International having just launched its “Road to Rio+20” – to prepare and mobilize young people around the world to make sure that the upcoming meeting of heads of state – the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in May 2012 – is NOT just another summit that achieves nothing.

We have hundreds of partners around the world (and TUNZA readers will be kept informed of developments via this website as the mobilization continues). The first meeting of our 14 key partners took place at the end of January: just before we met, Jonathon Porritt – probably Britain’s best known environmentalist – wrote to us with an idea that set our blood racing:

“Reading through your papers on Rio+20, I felt a weird combination of despair and rage. Twenty years on, and here we are going through the same motions all over again. Rage alone won’t do it. Rage has to provide just the spearhead of something much bigger, something that cannot simply be brushed aside. In your papers, I saw a reference to the University of Vermont’s coalition of legal academics exploring ‘legal sanctions that might be set in place to deter politicians from wrecking the chances of future generations to meet their own needs’. This is just one of a number of initiatives out there looking at some kind of legal redress to translate the concept of intergenerational justice into formal legal process. I suggest that you work with [your partners] to come up with a specific ‘actionable’ form of legal redress, on behalf of young people as the plaintive. Essentially, a global class action lawsuit against today’s rulers….”

There are indeed several fascinating initiatives. You can find the Vermont Climate Legacy Initiative at: http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Academics/Environmental_Law_Center/Institutes_and_Initiatives/Climate_Legacy_Initiative/CLI_Home/A_Legal_Legacy.htm. There is the campaign for the ICE (International Court for the Environment), see: http://www.environmentcourt.com/. And there is a coalition of groups led by the global conservation organization WWF, the World Future Council and the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, which has published a compendium of legal methods to achieve IJ (see: www.fdsd.org/reports/).

We took these ideas for discussion with a group of international students at Atlantic College as part of their Green Week activities. The climax of the day was a formal debate on: “This house supports those who seek ways to prosecute current governments and corporations for intergenerational murder”. It was proposed by students and opposed by older members of staff. The students spoke brilliantly, and won 17 to 12! Because, of course, it has to be in young people’s interests to seek ways to protect our future.

But – in the brainstorming that preceded the debate, the students came up with several other, possibly better ways, to achieve IJ. One girl proposed the idea of IJ-labelling, “because no one would want to buy a product that would harm their grandchildren…”. Another pointed out: “Consumers will always go for the cheapest product. You have to work towards a system where doing things in a sustainable way is cheaper…” – in UN-speak: pricing mechanisms. If you tax goods produced in unsustainable ways, and make those produced sustainably – using renewable energy, no-waste processes etc. – cheaper in comparison, you will create a green economy in which people will naturally bankrupt unsustainable corporations. Slapping on a tax is much quicker and easier than hauling a corporation or government through the courts. And, as Ken Corn said in his excellent speech opposing the motion: “Where is your court? What court in the world can possibly prosecute a government elected by its people? Get real: this notion is petulant, provocative and a dead end!”.

But there is a role for legal redress. The right kind of legal redress for tar sands oilmen and strip-mining merchants could be a requirement that they re-construct a thriving environment post-extraction. And slap enormous fines on them if they don’t. A simple before and after photograph could be all that a court might need to prosecute. Combined, green taxes and these kinds of legal measures could deliver the kind of intergenerational justice that we all dream about.

But will governments deliver these kinds of measures at the Rio+20 Summit? They will face colossal pressure not to. So young people around the world, and right-thinking elders, will have to get very, very active over the next 18 months to ensure that Rio+20 is not another disappointment, like Copenhagen, but a watershed moment. The moment when we move from the dark ages of fossil-fuelled industrialization to the clean green economy of the future.

David R. Woollcombe, President, Peace Child International
Coordinator, Road to Rio+20 Programme
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