Rights of Future Generations and Resource Depletion

Richard De George defends the position that future people cannot be said to have rights due to the various issues that would arise if we treated them as if they did. He defends this position in “The Environment, Rights, and Future Generations” which was reprinted in Responsibilities to Future Generations, a volume edited by Ernest Partridge. De George’s focus is on resource depletion and whether future generations can properly be said to have rights to resources which are in limited supply. Before getting into the details of his arguments against the position that future people cannot have rights, I want to quickly go over what he thinks are the limits of his argument.

The first point to note about his position is that he sees the rights of future generations as a topic which has risen out of the increasingly complex world in which we live, at least in part because of technology. Although he does not put it like this, our increasing power to impact future generations of people, even in the distant future, requires us to re-evaluate our intuitions. We hold the power to destroy our way of life in a way which past generations could not. In light of these changes, people have conflicting intuitions about how we should deal with generations of the distant future, and it is here where he seemingly wants to focus (I say ‘seemingly’ for the reason that his claim about the novelty of the debate only makes sense when considering distant generations since, presumably, past generations have had the ability to influence near generations since the beginnings of human society and hence would not count as a novel debate).

The second point to note is that De George only takes his argument to show that rights claims cannot work in the narrow circumstance he is here describing. He says at both the beginning and end of his paper that a more comprehensive argument is needed in order to fully determine what, if any, rights are held by future people. We should not, therefore, take his argument as a definitive attack on rights qua rights for future generations.

The third point to note is that he makes what has become the definitive argument for the claim that future people cannot have rights. The argument says that future people cannot be said to have anything since the present tense verb ‘to have’ does not make sense within the context of future people. Although I do not want to get into the debate here, it should be noted that De George makes a much subtler point than the debate would have us think. What he says is that future people cannot have rights in the same sense as presently existing people have rights (159). This leaves open the possibility that future people can have rights in a different sense, whatever that sense may be, but as he argues at both the beginning and the end of his paper, determining the nature of these rights must be done at length somewhere else.

The position he attempts to defend in this paper is that future generations of people do not have a right to limited resources such as oil. If we use all of the available oil in the next twenty years, so long as we don’t waste it, then future generations will have no right to the use of oil. For this claim he gives three arguments.

First, people can only have a right to something which exists. As an example, if two parents conceive a child who happens, through bad lack, to inherit sickle cell anemia, then that child simply cannot have a right to have been born without the disease. Since the child’s identity is determined by her genetics, and since sickle cell anemia is in inherited trait, she would not exist and could not exist without the disease. She, therefore, cannot have a right to have been born without the disease. Similarly, at least according to De George, if oil is consumed prior to the birth of some future person, that person cannot have a right to use oil.

An argument given by another author, which I find easier to work with, is that current people cannot have a right to see a live Dodo bird since the Dodo is currently extinct and we cannot have a right to see something which does not exist. The problem with arguments of this kind is that they have the consequence that present people can do anything with a resource (or with the Dodo) so long as they are careful to us all of the resource (or hunt the Dodo well). Let’s say that we want to determine whether future people have a right to see a Black Rhino in the wild, of which there are only about 4000 left. If the above argument is correct that future people only have a right to something which actually exists, then we can fulfill our duty by either conserving the Black Rhino or by hunting it to extinction. In the first case we will discharge our duty by ensuring that future people have the opportunity to see something which they have a right to, and in the second we ‘discharge’ our duty by ensuring that future generations do not have a right to see the Black Rhino.

While De George, and others who have made this argument, might be correct in saying that future people will have no right to see a Black Rhino if they no longer exist at some point in the future, their argument contributes nothing to the real issue. The real issue being whether we have duties to future generations. If we still have a duty to preserve the Black Rhino, or oil for future people, then it is useless to ask whether future people have a right to the Rhino or the oil, our actions are already constrained.

The second argument he makes is that if we assume that all future generations have a right to oil, but we also know that the supply of oil is finite, then there must be some generation in the future which uses the last of the oil and therefore violates the rights of the next generation (161). We would have to perpetually save oil, which would undermine the point of the right of future generations to have oil. Before addressing this point I would like to outline De George’s third argument which makes a similar point.

The third argument he makes is that we (present generations) would face impossible demands. We would have to determine how much oil each person has a right to which would give us each very little oil to use, perhaps a thimble full. Given the problems with ascribing rights to future generations for oil, he thinks that it is best to leave them out of consideration altogether. Future people do not have a right to use oil. (161)

The reason why I treated the first argument separately from the second and third is because I agree with De George that future people do not have a right to oil. And I think that the two reasons above give us good reasons not to treat oil as something which future people can have a right to. My point of departure is that I think no generation has a right to use oil to any extent they desire. Resources aren’t the kind of thing which people have a right to. While it makes sense to say that we have a right to clean air or to a stable environment because those things aren’t limited, any limited resource cannot be the kind of thing we have a right in. It is useful to help us fulfill our needs, but it is not the only means to our ends. Without oil to burn I can still heat my house with wind power or solar power. I can power my car with electricity, and with some adaptation, I can do practically anything I can currently do without oil.

There is nothing necessary about oil which gives future people a right in it unlike something like clean air. While I think it is plausible to deny that future people have a right to oil, it is a lot less plausible to claim that they do not have a right to clean air. If in the next hundred years we do something to the atmosphere to make the air unbreathable, or at least damaging to one’s health, it would be hard to defend a position which claims that at the time when the damage was done to the atmosphere, future people had no rights to a clean atmosphere. Or to use a more realistic example, if in the 80s and 90s when science started to show that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer people decided to continue using CFCs knowing that their actions would harm future people, it would be hard to say that the people of that era did not violate the rights of future people.

What my criticism of this paper comes down to, or more correctly, my criticism of the way in which De George’s argument has been interpreted, is that while De George may have present some good reasons for us to assume that future people do not have a right to finite resources, that group of rights was dubious to begin with. The focus on his semantic argument about how we use the verb ‘to have’ has taken on a stronger usage than De George intended, and still needs to be defended with greater rigour if people want to use it to defend the much stronger claim that future people cannot have rights.

De George, Richard T.. “The Environment, Rights, and Future Generations.” In Responsibilities to Future Generations: Environmental Ethics, edited by Ernest Partridge, 157-165. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1981.