In facing up to the fact that we live in a world of finite resources and yet are driven by a seemingly infinite appetite for consumption, there has been a growing discourse in green political thought which regards a concern for future generations as the overriding moral and political grounds for caring for nature. With it increasingly recognised that, ‘human economic activity is exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the biosphere, leading to degradation in its many forms’.  The discourse otherwise termed sustainable development has dominated discussions of environmental politics. It has become, to quote Dryzek, ‘arguably the dominant global discourse of ecological concern’  over the last thirty years. However, while sustainable development with its emphasis on intergenerational justice has proven a popular justification for caring for nature, there have been some who dispute whether a concern for future generations is the strongest political and moral imperative. With radical critics taking offence at the prominence given to anthropocentric concerns coupled with the increasing popularisation of ecological modernisation, the supremacy of sustainable development and a concern for future generations is under threat. By looking at the paradigms of sustainable development and ecological modernization alongside a discussion of environmental ethics, this essay attempts to put forward the case that a concern for future generations is not the strongest political grounds for caring for nature. Despite seemingly satisfying the requirements for effective policy implementation it will be shown that it is not the most popular political validation for preserving nature and is in fact a rather narrow and one-sided moral justification.
In trying to elucidate that a concern for future generations is not the strongest political grounds for caring for nature, it makes sense to start by looking at the predominant political approaches advocating environmental preservation. Therefore we are led to a discussion of sustainable development and its chief interpretation, ecological modernization. As the well-known and oft-quoted definition from the Brundtland Report Our Common Future suggests, sustainable development is ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.  It is an ‘umbrella concept’  that attempts to tie together concern for the carrying capacity of natural systems with the social challenges facing humanity. By including an awareness of future generations or ‘futurity’  in its definition, it posits a technologically optimistic account that encourages both intra and inter-generational equity and regards a concern for future generations as the paramount and overriding motivation for caring for nature. However, despite explicitly emphasising a concern for future generations and for checking the environmental impact of current generations, it can be argued that the idea of sustainable development is misleading. This is because the definition is extremely broad and seems to presuppose ‘the answer to a range of questions which arise at the intersection of the natural world, human well-being, intragenerational and intergenerational considerations’.  The problem with sustainable development is that it emphasises a concern for future generations as a justification for political actions in the present but doesn’t explain how to weigh the importance of the different principles that constitute it. In other words, it highlights the overall goal which is sustainability but doesn’t explain how to get there leaving itself open to interpretation.
One particular interpretation that has become extremely popular is ecological modernization, and yet this brings about serious repercussions for the thought that the strongest political ground for caring for nature lies in a concern for future generations. Positing a scenario in which advanced societies can have their cake and eat it, ‘ecological modernization, it is claimed, offers a ‘win-win’ scenario whereby economic growth and environmental protection can be reconciled.’  It is an attempt by optimistic political theorists to show that, ‘economic development and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive’  and therefore that economic growth can be environmentally efficient. Nevertheless if this is the case, then it seems that the idea diverges from sustainable development. It challenges, ‘the fundamental assumption of the conventional wisdom, namely that there was a zero-sum trade off between economic prosperity and environmental concern’.  By decoupling the link between technocratic economic development and environmental degradation, it legitimises a continuation of the existing institutional order. Therefore it in effect, suggests that the strongest political grounds for caring for nature lie, not in a concern for future generations or a concern for the non-human world, but in the increased efficiency and profit that can be garnered from behaving environmentally.
While sustainable development in general attempts to incorporate the demands of intra-generational equity and intergenerational equity into a development framework, ecological modernisation does not and this is problematic. Considered to be the dominant interpretation of sustainable development and yet also an interpretation which overtly fails to place an obligation to future generations at the epicentre of its political thought. Ecological modernization appears to focus on intragenerational concerns at the expense of intergenerational concerns. It ‘ignores the core story-line of sustainable development, global ecological interdependence and ecological limits and neglects the linkages between global environmental problems and social justice.’  Indeed rather than accept that we must emphasise the obligations of the future and are therefore obliged to change our patterns of behaviour to compensate. Ecological modernization stresses the importance, first and foremost, of our responsibility to the present and maintaining existing patterns of production. While an obligation to future generations is considered, it is not the primary political justification for caring for nature and correspondingly seems to echo a particularly contentious point from classical political theory which is that humans are naturally self-interested.  By placing the emphasis on pre-existing behaviour patterns, sustainable development and an obligation to future generations becomes analogous to an afterthought. Sustainability becomes the desirable but not imperative offshoot of a self interested political grounding. Therefore the popularisation of ecological modernization dictates that a concern for future generations is not the strongest political grounds for preserving nature. As Weiss poignantly articulates, ‘if rights cannot be attributed to an unborn child’, which conceivably they can’t because the child is non-existent, ‘can they [really] be attributed to unborn generations?’  If we follow the thoughts of ecological modernization and consider it to be the dominant environmental political discourse, it seems not.
In considering the challenge set out by ecological modernization, it is clear that justifying a reorientation with nature on the grounds of ‘ecoefficiency’  is contentious. By adopting principally anthropocentric or even technocentric concerns, ecological modernization suggests that technical and managerial approaches can solve the environmental crisis.  It proposes that there is no need to radically change the present patterns of development and for that reason, the theory is perfectly suited to the ‘limited opportunities available, desired or permitted by political leaders and the business community’.  With the realities of the environmental crisis becoming increasingly stark, ecological modernization has proven popular because it provides the perfect platform for politicians and companies to be seen to be doing something. As such, it has been lambasted as a strategy of political accommodation and ‘a rhetorical ploy that tries to reconcile the irreconcilable (environment and development) only to take the wind out of the sails of ‘real’ environmentalists’.  Whilst a concern for future generations may be morally superior and have more political integrity as a ground for caring for nature, the fact of the matter is that it unavoidably takes a backseat in the face of more immediate political and business interests. Although ecological modernization can include a concern for future generations in its justification for preserving nature, it is primarily interested in the present and so is utilised to erect a political smokescreen that legitimises the implementation of the bare minimum. It can perhaps best be described as a pseudo ‘environmental’ discourse which justifies maintaining the status quo.
After showing that the strongest political grounds for caring for nature are inevitably bound up in the present and as such do not lie in a concern for future generations. It comes the time to move furtively into a discussion of environmental ethics, in order to see whether a concern for future generations is a particularly cogent moral argument. In enunciating the political reasons for caring for nature, Connolly and Smith suggest that, ‘the obligation to present and future generations is complemented by a third obligation: to non-human nature’.  Their distinction highlights a most important division in environmental ethics, namely the juxtaposition of anthropocentric concerns and eco-centric concerns. Whereas, ‘anthropocentrism is based exclusively on human-related values, and considers the welfare of mankind [to be] the ultimate drive for deﬁning policies related to the environment.’  Eco-centrism argues that there is an equality of intrinsic value across human and non-human nature and therefore that the ‘failure to extend moral considerability to nonhuman species is symptomatic of speciesism or human chauvinism – an unwarranted prejudice against nonhuman others just because they are not human’.  This debate termed environmental ethics, is the cornerstone of green poltical philosophy and has clear implications with regards to the claim that the strongest moral and political ground for preserving for nature lies in our concern for future generations.
In articulating the difference between political and moral grounds, Jacobs asserts that within sustainable development, there tends to be four separate types of value motivating a concern for environmental degradation:
‘Two are varieties of justice: intergenerational (concern for the impact on future generations), and intragenerational (concern for the impact that current patterns of economic activity, particularly consumption in industrialized countries, is already having on poor people, particularly in the South).The other two might loosely be described as ‘environmental ethics’ [and those who are appalled at environmental degradation]… For some, this is because the environment has ‘intrinsic’ value: it is wrong to destroy it. For others the value is more ‘cultural’: they believe that society and human nature are impoverished and diminished by the destruction of the non-human world.’ 
While a concern for future generations is essentially intergenerational and therefore fits with Jacobs’ political categories denoting varieties of justice, it can be stated that from an ethical standpoint it seems much harder to categorise. This is because, by claiming that a concern for future generations is the preeminent moral motivation for caring for nature, it acclaims the primacy of humans and consequently adopts a thoroughly one-sided ethical justification. It leans toward an anthropocentric viewpoint which regards humans as intrinsically valuable and nature as instrumental to achieving the aim of sustaining humanity. However by focusing on the value of humans, ecologists and radicals have critiqued what they see as the unwarranted ascendency of humanity over nature. As Barry emotes, ‘it is inappropriate – cosmically unfitting, in some sense – to regard nature as nothing more than something to be exploited for the benefit of human beings’.  If a concern for future generations is seen as the strongest moral ground for caring for nature, then nature becomes instrumental to the needs of humans. It treats nature as a means to an end and in turn relegates nature to the role of a tool, something which seems inherently unethical and wrong.
In conclusion, despite being prioritised within sustainable development discourse, a concern for future generations is not the strongest moral and political grounds for caring for nature for three reasons. Firstly from a political perspective, the rise and popularisation of ecological modernization, a particularly ‘weak expression of sustainable development’,  suggests that a concern for future generations development lacks cogency in that it is clear what the outcome is but is not at all clear how to get there. It is liable to be misinterpreted. Secondly, a concern for future generations manifested in sustainable development has been relatively ineffectual when compared to the success and implementation of the win-win scenario proffered by ecological modernization. The more immediately pressing political motives in the present influenced by self interest have unavoidably usurped the long term concerns of the future. Thirdly and finally from an ethical perspective, a concern for future generations is a distinctly anthropocentric concern and can consequently be considered to be a narrow and one-sided justification which falls someway short of being a particularly persuasive moral argument.
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