Generations and Justice

Among the most important qualities of a just society is that we are able to meet our needs without undermining the ability of others to meet their needs. Among the many needs we humans have is our need to be seen, heard and taken seriously. The only way we can have a just democracy is to truly see and hear each other, and to take each other seriously. Upon that foundation, we can together build our mutual pursuit of happiness. We who are privileged to be alive today need to include future generations in our conversations so they are seen and heard and their welfare and happiness are considered as we seek to pursue our own. This is part of justice.

Many of us actively seek to include marginalized voices in conversations about the condition and direction of our communities and societies. We believe in giving particular attention to the needs and interests of underprivileged groups who are neglected, short-changed or oppressed in – or by – the normal operations of society. These “normal operations” often actively exploit or drain resources from groups who have less power and privilege, while at the same time obscuring those dynamics to maintain the status quo and comfort of more privileged people.

In most countries the most widely recognized marginalized voices and interests are those of women, the poor and homeless, and traditionally oppressed “minorities” – people of a different race, the disabled, LGBT people, the very young and very old, and certain non-dominant religions (like Muslims and Sikhs in the U.S.). Less commonly highlighted examples include people who are notably different from the dominant culture in nationality, culture, appearance, language, education, family type, politics, lifestyle, addiction, legal status or even neighborhood. The prejudicial mix is different in different countries – often because groups that are minorities or oppressed in one country may be the majority or privileged in another, or because of the history of intergroup relations.

There is in the U.S. and most other countries one other increasingly significant marginalized population who I think are worthy of our attention. This group is widely recognized but seldom spoken of in terms of justice, exploitation, marginalization and privilege. That population is the unborn generations of our collective future. The ways we marginalize this population are becoming identified, named and recognized in a new field called “intergenerational justice” or “intergenerational equity”. In the process of considering fairness, power and obligation among past, present, and future generations, ethicists in this field have noted that the unsustainable use of resources leads to significant intergenerational inequity.

That standard of generational injustice can be expanded even further. We are well into an era of:

  • increasing toxicity, environmental degradation, and climate change with its violent weather extremes;
  • accelerating loss of fresh water, arable land, biodiversity, habitat, fish populations, and readily accessible mineral, forest, and fossil fuel resources;
  • increasing social inequality, unrest, surveillance, and human rights violations accompanied by degradation of traditional democratic processes; and
  • increasingly powerful technologies which, in addition to their blessings, bring increased destructive power and potential for disastrous accidents and social and psychological disruption.

More could be said about the complex challenges we face, but this list suffices to demonstrate that future generations will almost certainly face even greater challenges as a result of our collective actions today – thanks to us and the social, political, and economic systems within which we live and participate.

Those of us who are alive today – the vast majority of us and certainly the vast majority of those in developed countries – are the generationally privileged. We happen to live in the present era so we systematically colonize the world of future generations to support our own power, comfort, convenience and affluence. As with other privileged populations, we have things set up so that the voices of the marginalized – in this case future generations – are kept silent, their plight largely invisible in our daily lives, albeit covered in occasional news items and critical social commentaries.

Just as slavery was fundamental to the economy of the antebellum South and patriarchy has been fundamental to the economics and politics of most societies for thousands of years, our ability today to tap the resources and degrade the lives of future generations has become virtually essential for life as we know it. To change that significantly would require a transformation so thorough and soon that most of us have tremendous trouble comprehending it, to say nothing of taking it seriously in our lives and work.

We who are alert to the dynamics of oppression, exploitation and marginalization know how important it is – for both moral and social reasons – to face the difficult issues related to power and privilege, issues of voice and silence, of who benefits, who decides, and who is heard, of whose needs and dreams are given priority. I urge us to expand our sense of justice, marginalization and privilege to encompass the realm of the unborn generations whose welfare and very lives depend on how conscious and fair we decide to be in our lives, our work, and our citizenship – and, especially, in our efforts to catalyze the transformation necessary for their birth, survival and happiness.

I feel that we who are called to social justice and social change are also called to ask: How much do we bring the interests, needs and voices of future generations into conversations and interventions whose outcomes will – intentionally or not – impact those populations?

After all, most of us would intervene where the voices of people of color or the poor are being systematically – even if unconsciously – excluded. So I ask: What is the difference between those populations and the populations of the future? What is the difference between the privilege of those of us who exploit and ignore people separated from us by social and physical distance – and those of us who exploit and ignore people separated from us by decades and centuries?

This is not a question of guilt. Marginalized populations gain little from the guilt of the privileged. They – and all of us – gain by being seen, heard, and taken seriously, by having privilege and power consciously and fairly shared, by being joined in collective efforts to create better lives for all.

The lives of future generations are the lives of our grandchildren and their children. I am especially conscious of this today as I am about to have my first grandchild. How can we learn to be as alert to intergenerational injustice and privilege as we are to racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other isms that poison our hearts, our lives, our conversations, and our societies? How could we actually do this?

Are we ready to take this leap, to undertake this evolution of our consciousness, of our conversations, of how and why we do our work?

Consider the alternative.

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