By Ken Cline
Language pertaining to the interests of future generations is found in dozens of international agreements and proclamations. From the original definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report to the treaties signed in Rio 20 years ago, safeguarding the interests of future generations has been a central tenet of international environmental law and sustainable development. Sometimes expressed as the concept of “intergenerational equity” – this sense of trusteeship is key to international environmental law. But how do you adequately represent the interests of people who, by definition, only exist in the future?
One of the big battles in the current negotiations in Rio is the idea of creating a High Commissioner for Future Generations within the UN system to act as an ombudsman for the interests of the unborn. I have thought about the challenge of representing future generations a lot over the years and although I think an ombudsman is great start, it is going to be difficult to obtain and will only partially solve the problem. However, we already have a good proxy for future generations – youth. More than anyone else alive today, they can best represent this particular stakeholder’s interests. Youth has a special stake in the future that most of the negotiating delegates simply do not have – they will be there to live it. This fact was well captured by the t-shirts at the Copenhagen climate negotiations that read “How old will you be in 2050?” Almost none of the negotiators will be around in 2050, but today’s youth will be and they will be living with the consequences of the negotiator’s inaction and that is something not to be overlooked.
That is why it is especially important to empower youth to participate in these international environmental meetings – their future is what is at stake and as a result they articulate concerns that aren’t necessarily understood or conveyed as powerfully by other groups (no matter how sincere their intent.) I believe that I am pretty empathetic, but no matter what I may intend, I simply will not be around in 50 years to bear the consequences of the decisions we make or fail to make today. My stake is an abstract one; theirs is real.
Are youth a perfect spokesperson for future generations? No. Their personal horizon is limited to the next 70 years (at most) and we need to be thinking about 700 or 7000 years from now. There are also questions of agency and legitimacy – why do these 15 COA students get to speak for the several billion youth in the world? They are not elected, nor are they representative of the diversity of youth views on the planet. They are well-informed, however, and they have the humility to recognize that they cannot speak for all youth, let alone all future generations. But they do represent some youth, and in their humility they engage and listen to other youth from around the world. The discourse is all the richer because of their contributions, questions, and concerns. It is also enriched by their boldness and urgency.
So Earth in Brackets is coming to Rio because the world needs us to put a face on the abstract concerns of future generations. Maybe their lobbying in Rio Centro will end up getting us a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations. In the meantime, the students are bringing the future to the table. Along with girl guides, SustainUS, Rio+Twenties, youth delegates, and other youth groups in the halls of Rio Centro, the students are here to make sure that their future is not compromised. As someone who thinks a lot about our obligation to future generations, I am glad that they are.