The pitfalls of generational thinking

Taking collective action on climate change requires that we avoid privatising and depoliticising the problems we want to solve.

Jonathan White
15 May 2018

People's Climate March 2014 in New York City. Credit: Flickr/South Bend Voice. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The concept of generations has been central to the way scholars, decision-makers and activists portray the implications of climate change. International agreements enshrine ‘future generations’ as stakeholders in the decision-making of the present. Moral philosophers and economists describe ‘intergenerational’ obligations that are designed to preserve a stable environment. And climate-change science has been brought to a mass public by evoking the threats posed to our children and grandchildren

This generational framework has emerged as the pre-eminent way in which human-caused climate change is rendered intelligible in contemporary societies. But the same qualities that lend the framework its appeal are also the source of some serious tensions: its use in public debate tends to privatise and depoliticise how the future is conceived. 

One reason why future generations are so widely evoked has surely to do with what follows for our concept of the present. To speak of future generations is to imply the existence of a current generation, and to suggest that it lives at a critical juncture. When President Obama announced policies to tackle climate change in August 2015 he declared

“We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it…This is our moment to get this right and leave something better for our kids.”  

In this sense, the generational frame evokes a collective subject and hints at its capacity for agency. Broadly in line with the relevant science, it implies that the most far-reaching effects of climate change still lie some decades away, but also that present-day choices will be critical for how they play out.  

In a period when many have questioned societies’ capacity to take the long-term view, this offers a way to make the future more intelligible. ‘Generationalism,’ as it can be called, is a way to make the future susceptible to empirical investigation by producing units of analysis that can be aggregated and counted.

In turn, this makes it easier to contribute to political and policy planning, as when discount rates, for example, are applied in budgeting. By allowing the enumeration and allocation of value, generational thinking promises to render the future calculable and governable. It also facilitates movement between the micro and macro timescales by evoking both concrete individuals in the present and an open-ended chain stretching into the future, connecting lived experience with the ‘deep time’ over which climatological forces play out.  

The concept’s utility also seems to hinge on how it brings together a variety of meanings. When one talks of the generations of a family, one is using the term in a genealogical sense to describe relations between concrete individuals. When one talks of the ‘present generation’ one is using the term in a more sociological sense to describe the shared fate and shared responsibilities of those born within a certain period. And when one talks more generally of ‘future generations’ one is using the term in an abstract, philosophical sense, to describe featureless markers in time—a succession of the unborn about whom we know little yet should care greatly.

The difficulty of separating these meanings is both the virtue and vice of generationalism. One problem is how future-oriented concerns become conflated with concerns about the wellbeing of ‘our’ direct descendants. Casting future people as kin groups—as ‘our children and grandchildren’—implies that, if individuals muster concern for their direct descendants, then their moral responsibilities are discharged.  

But what if an adequate response to the human costs of climate change demands mobilising those in the world’s higher economic strata to show concern for those to whom they are not directly related, such as the poorest and least mobile sections of populations in lower-income countries? What if concern needs to be mustered for other people’s children? 

The generational frame validates the thought that one might legitimately ‘look after one’s own.’ Thinking about the human future as the future of the family suggests a kind of privatisation, a shrinking of the sphere of ethical concern. To the extent that policy-making genuinely reflects kinship preference it’s unlikely to address problems in a fair and effective fashion. To the extent that policy is more enlightened but still understood in kinship terms it rests precariously on a misconception.

Consider also the idea of a ‘present generation’ as an unbounded and undifferentiated category. This image of unity is motivationally attractive, but what if serving the good of the future requires contesting certain ideas and interests? What if conflict in the present is part of responding effectively to climate-change issues, not just another problem to be overcome? Such possibilities are obscured if the living are all cast as members of one collective. 

Such depoliticizing tendencies come through clearly in one of the most celebrated efforts to bring climate-change science to a mass audience: as Al Gore put it in his book An Inconvenient Truth:

“The climate crisis…offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside…pettiness and conflict…[T]his crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.”

Generationalism risks obscuring the diversity of experiences, ideas and interests that characterise human society at any given moment. By locating the lines of conflict and solidarity on a cross-temporal plane, some important divisions—between rich and poor countries, different class groups, and rival views of the market, state and the economics of growth—are  rendered less visible in the present. 

Likewise, there is a risk of equalising the obligations of those who are unequally responsible for climate change if one lines people up as members alike of ‘the present generation.’ Justice, but also an effective concrete response to climate change, requires attending to intra-generational differences.  

For how long will the challenges posed by climate change be expressed in generational terms? Will future generations, as we have learned to call them, still appeal to the interests of ‘future generations’ that come after them—to their children and grandchildren’s prospects? Generational thinking reflects a moment in time when climate-change problems, though recognised, are expected to manifest themselves in the future, at a distance of some decades from now. But as climate change increasingly intrudes on the present the cross-temporal perspective may recede.  

The recasting of climate change as a problem of the present rather than the future would be a positive step.This is arguably the simplest way to contend with the pitfalls of generational thinking.The lure of channeling ethics through the family, and of overlooking some meaningful political and economic divisions, is thereby removed at source. As in other fields, taking collective action requires that we avoid privatising and depoliticising the problems we seek to solve.

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