Future Generations must be heard

 

The politics of sustainable development links present and future generations. The 1987 report of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland report) emphasised that development is sustainable if the choices we make today do not restrict tomorrow’s generations from making their own independent choices.

Future generations, to date, have no political or financial power and cannot challenge decisions taken by present generations. They have no voice. They are not represented at the negotiating table where present-day decisions are made.

Politics is dominated by the requirement to satisfy today’s wants, irrespective of the costs, as witnessed by spiralling financial, environmental and social deficits.

During the preparatory meetings for the Rio 1992 earth summit, delegations discussed the impacts of development on various vulnerable groups.

In a four-page document (A/CONF.151/PC/WG./L.8/Rev.1/Add.2), dated February 21, 1992, Malta submitted a proposal to the working group of the preparatory committee of the UN Rio conference, which met in New York in early March 1992.

After underlining the international community’s recognition of the rights of future generations as another vulnerable group, the Maltese government rightly emphasised that it is not sufficient to simply recognise the principle of future generation rights.

Words must be transformed into action. In paragraph 17 of its document, Malta proposed to go beyond rhetoric through the inclusion in the 1992 Rio declaration on the environment of the following: “We declare that each generation has, in particular, the responsibility to ensure that in any national or international forum where it is likely that a decision is taken affecting the interests of future generations access be given to an authorised person appointed as ‘Guardian’ of future generations to appear and make submissions on their behalf, so that account be taken of the responsibilities stated in this declaration and the obligations created thereby.”

Malta’s proposal was presented by the Foreign Ministry led by Guido de Marco.

The proposal had been developed by the International Environment Institute of the University of Malta within the framework of its Future Generations Programme led by Fr Emanuel Agius. Malta’s proposal was not taken up in the Rio declaration on the environment.

Do we need a guardian of future generations in Malta? I believe that we do and I think that the issue should be addressed when Parliament discusses legislation on sustainable development shortly.

The reasons justifying the domestic implementation of Malta’s 1992 proposal to the UN Rio preparatory committee are crystallised in paragraph 7 of Malta’s proposal that focuses on responsibility and foresight. Malta emphasised that present generations are in duty bound to foresee possible risks and uncertainties that present economic, political and technological policies have on future generations.

Responsibility, stated Malta in 1992, demands foresight. Hence, one should anticipate effective measures to, at least, prevent foreseeable risks and uncertainties.

The guardian of future generations would be the voice of those still unborn to defend their right to make their own choices, independently of the choices of present and past generations.

S/he would be the conscience of present generations nudging them towards behaviour and decisions that are compatible with their responsibilities.

In particular, s/he would be in a position to speak up on behalf of future generations when current or contemplated policies give rise to long-term risks that are not adequately addressed. S/he would emphasise that it is unethical for present generations to reap benefits and then shift the consequence of their actions on future generations.

Future generations need a voice to be able to communicate their concerns.

The appointment of a guardian to protect their interests would be such a voice. Such an appointment would also be implementing the President’s declaration during the inaugural session of the present Parliament on May 10, 2008 when he emphasised that the government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development. He had further stated that “when making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow”.

Hungary has already given the lead. In 2007, the Hungarian Parliament appointed Sándor Fülöp as Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations. Among other things, he is entrusted to act as a policy advocate for sustainability issues across all relevant fields of legislation and public policy.

International NGOs, such as the World Future Council, have actively brought up the issue of future generations requiring a present-day voice during the second preparatory committee of the UN Rio+20 sustainability conference held in March this year in New York.

The Maltese Greens consider that it is time for the government to accept that the principled action it took on an international level in 1992 is equally applicable on a national level.

Malta too has the responsibility of foresight. It has the responsibility to ensure that the future can speak up such that we can listen and consider the impacts of our actions.

The time is ripe to act. We owe an ear to future generations. They deserve it.

 

published in The Times – Saturday August 27, 2011

 

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Pope Benedict XVI : Laying the Groundwork for a Sustainable Civilization ?

by Gary Gardner

Published by Worldwatch Institute on April 15, 2008

Rumour has it that Pope Benedict may address climate change during his visit to the United Nations this week. Whether he does or not, his young papacy can claim to be the “greenest” ever. Benedict has identified extensive common ground between sustainability concerns and a Catholic worldview – adding weight to the argument that the world’s religions could be instrumental in nudging policymakers and the public to embrace sustainability. Now, the Pope has the opportunity to further develop the links between sustainability and religious values, markedly advancing thinking in both arenas.

Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, made important environmental statements during his long papacy, but Benedict is the first “green pope.” Last year, the Vatican installed solar panels on its 10,000-seat main auditorium building, and it arranged to reforest land in Hungary to offset Vatican City’s carbon emissions, making it the world’s first carbon-neutral state. And Benedict has repeatedly urged protection of the environment and action against poverty in a number of major addresses. His next encyclical (major papal teaching), due out this summer, is expected to further wrestle with environmental, social, and other themes of interest to the sustainability community.

As he embraces these themes, Benedict and the larger Catholic community could play an especially valuable role in helping to address two major influences on the environment that get too little attention today: consumption and population. (A third, technology, already receives high levels of policy focus.)

The consumption question should be comfortable ground for a modern Catholic pope, given the longstanding social and spiritual critique of consumerism in Catholic thought. For example, Pope Paul VI, in his 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, linked heavy consumption to injustice, declaring that, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life…. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”

John Paul II added a spiritual dimension in Centesimus Annus in 1991, critiquing “a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,'” and urging people to “create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.” The Church’s spiritual and social teachings are rich complements to modern environmental arguments against consumerism.

Benedict’s challenge is to move longstanding Church teaching into concrete action. Despite the extensive archive of papal statements on the subject, there is no evidence that Catholics consume less or differently than anyone else. Yet given that 40 percent of the human family lives on less than $2 a day while the prosperous among us consume casually and wastefully, Catholic leadership in redefining “the good life” away from accumulation and toward greater human wellbeing and solidarity with the poor cannot come soon enough.

Benedict will need to be creative in persuading the comfortable in his Church to take consumption teachings seriously. The dramatic equivalent of solar panels on a Vatican rooftop may be needed to move prosperous Catholics to critically assess their own consumption-and to find joy in consuming less.

The other issue, population, is more difficult for a Catholic leader to tackle, especially one with Benedict’s reputation for doctrinal strictness. For Benedict and most Catholics, human reproduction is a domain infused with questions of deep personal morality. But a pontiff who appreciates the epochal nature of the sustainability crisis must surely also recognize the moral challenges raised when human numbers grow exponentially in a finite world.

How much of modern hunger, disease, poverty, and environmental degradation can be blamed on population sizes that have exceeded the carrying capacity of local, regional, and global environments? The share is unknowable, but surely not small. The challenge for Benedict will be to apply his formidable intellect to harmonize the personal and social ethics of population issues.

Benedict’s interest in sustainability issues comes not a moment too soon. The sustainability crisis is civilizational in scope and depth-and therefore a natural concern for a global institution like the Catholic Church. Should Benedict raise the twin issues of consumption and population to the level of theological and spiritual attention they deserve, he would not only advance thinking on religious ethics-but also on how to create just and environmentally sustainable societies.

Gary Gardner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the book Inspiring Progress: Religions’ Contributions to Sustainable Development.