The last refuge of prejudice

Discounting the interests of future people is the one remaining prejudice
Rupert Read
11 December 2009

It is no longer socially-acceptable to exhibit prejudice against ethnic minority people on grounds of their ethnicity, women on grounds of their gender, or working-class people on grounds of their class. The last bastions of discrimination are being overcome: such as prejudice against gay and lesbian people, and against disabled people.

But is there one crucial bastion of discrimination still strongly in place?

Take this kind of remark, which I sometimes hear on the doorstep while I’m out talking to my constituents: “I just don’t care about what happens after I’m dead and gone.” We might dismiss this as the attitude just of some old curmudgeon, and think that it is of no moral or political consequence. But: it directly implies not caring about future people, the next generation(s). How would we react if someone said to us, “I just don’t care about what happens to black people” or “I just don’t care about what happens to disabled people”? I take it that we would be singularly appalled.

Future people count, too. Their lives matter just as much.

Most readers probably wouldn’t dream of endorsing the extreme remark cited above. But what about this: “No-one is going to infringe on my rights! I can drive or fly as much as I like. That’s freedom!” This kind of sentiment, in one way or another, is widespread these days; you can find it all over the blogosphere at the drop of a hat. It is a product of the extreme individualism of our times. Now think what it implies: Because of an unwillingness to tolerate ‘infringements’ on one’s own ‘liberty’, one is willing to take many things that future people might need. We don’t any longer tolerate stamping on the life-chances of black people, working-class people, disabled people. Why then do we have any respect at all for the person who prizes their own ‘freedom’ above the right of future people to have a decent life, or indeed any life at all?

I suggest that the answer is: because we haven’t fully thought through yet that future people deserve to be well-treated and must be decently provided for, just as children and severely disabled people (and so on and so forth) must be. Just because we can’t hear the cries of anguish of our descendants yet to come, doesn’t mean that they don’t count. On the contrary, it just makes it all the more urgent that we make the effort to think and care about them,

We have got better about caring about people who are spatially distant from us - people in the ‘developing’ world. The increased power of broadcast media technology has been helpful here. But: there just ain’t any such thing as beaming pictures back to us from the future. That has to be left up to films such as The Age of Stupid or Children of Men. We are still just not good enough about caring about people who are temporally distant from us. Future people.

Nor is this even just a failure of the political right. Many socialists also seem markedly more interested in the poor of the developing world and in the working class (and in enriching them materially) than in future people. But if equality - the central value of socialism - is to mean anything at all, then it must apply to future people too. Focusing on industrial growth does no good if it leads us to fail to take the rights and needs of future people seriously. We should treat them as our equals. So it is clear that any real socialism must be eco-socialism.

I think that the considerations above explain some of the current epidemic of manmade-climate-change denialism, which is a striking phenomenon now on the political right (e.g. in Britain: in UKIP, the BNP, the DUP, and across swathes of the Tory Party). As my UEA colleague Mike Hulme has recently argued, the debate over manmade climate change is a proxy for a debate over differing visions of society: for the green movement, of a better, more localised world; for the right, of unabated 'freedom' now (whatever the consequences for future people). But it is vital to note that the conservative vision is rarely honest with us: few conservative politicians dare openly to acknowledge that the consequences of unmitigated uncaring 'freedom' (to burn, to consume, to fly, etc) now are highly likely to be mass disaster later. And so they hide behind a tragic refusal to acknowledge the climate science that greens (and most of the left), by contrast, can and do honestly embrace. The simple reality, of course, is that the science in practice does support one side in the debate, and not the other.

The next great leap forward in seeking justice in this world, and seeking to put in place an ethic of real responsibility and care, will be to take seriously the claims of the future ones. It is no longer possible in the courts to treat other human beings as property, to ignore their rights: slavery is long gone. In countries such as Spain, Switzerland, and New Zealand, such real rights and protections (not mere welfarist gestures which keep animals’ property status in place) are now being extended to great apes, and to some extent to other animals. There has even been weighty discussion, for over a generation now, of the strong arguments in favour of giving legal standing to plants and (more generally) to ecosystems, and some actual movement in this direction this year, in Ecuador.

We will not flourish as a species unless our ecosystems flourish. I believe that it is high time for future people to be given the kinds of rights and protections that present people – black or white, gay or straight, abled or disabled – already take for granted. Our human descendants need to be granted legal standing. This will protect them, and will offer some significant protection – probably, much better protection than any we currently have in place – for ecosystems.

So: if you are against prejudice against ethnic minorities, women, and so on – and you surely are – then it is time to take up the same attitude toward the people of the future. If you believe in justice, if you care about people – and you certainly do – then it is time to get behind the idea of being unprejudiced against future people. Let us not take refuge, tacitly or explicitly, in this prejudice, ever again. Ending this prejudice will mean a revolution in our practices. It will save our civilisation. 

As the Copenhagen Climate Conference, the most important Conference in the history of our living planet, proceeds, but with virtually no prospect whatsoever of real success, there has never been a more timely idea.

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