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Published: 20 Feb, 2020 Updated: 20 Apr, 2020, 15:14

Future people in our hands

FEATURE The definition of sustainability takes future people into consideration. But who and how many are they? These are questions Kalle Grill wants to answer.

Text: Johanna Fredriksson

Sustainable development is development that satisfies existing needs without endan-gering the possibilities for future generations to satisfy their needs.

That sentence comes from the Brundtland Report written by the World Commission on Environment and Development for the UN in 1987. It was this report that gave sustainable development international attention and became a leading concept.

Should we aim for fewer people with a high standard of living, or is it alright if a larger number is born with lesser opportunities, fewer travels and a lower standard of living?

But what does ‘future people’ mean in this context? Who and how many are they? How do present-day humans affect future generations?

Kalle Grill, docent in philosophy at Umeå University, is studying these questions in-depth in a four-year research project.

“I’d like to better understand and come to terms with what ‘future generations’ means in terms of sustainability,” he says.

Kalle Grill suggests that the concept of sustainability in its current use is unprecise, and that it contains a presumption that there will be humans in the future, something that is not set in stone.

According to him, we can determine how many people will be around in the future. We know that policy calls, such as subsidies for child care, affect if people have children, and how many. From a sustainable perspective, several scenarios can be regarded as sustainable.

Through gene-technology or by replacing future humans with artificial intelligence, maybe we could get people to settle for less, with reduced needs.

“Should we aim for fewer people with a high standard of living, or is it alright if a larger number is born with lesser opportunities, fewer travels and a lower standard of living?”

Using research, we can affect how humanity develops.

“Through gene-technology or by replacing future humans with artificial intelligence, maybe we could get people to settle for less, with reduced needs. Either physically or psychologically. If they settle for less, we can use up more resources now. Is that sustainable?” Kalle Grill wonders and says that thinking along those lines agrees with the literal definition, but the authors probably didn’t intend just that.

The purpose of his project is to define what is meant by ‘future people’ in the sustainability definition, make it well-defined and hence more useful as a policy tool.

“We’re making sure that ‘future generations’ means the right thing."

About Kalle Grill

Kalle Grill is docent and associate professor of philosophy and coordinator of the Bachelor’s programme in Philosophy and Social Analysis. He teaches and supervises moral and political philosophy.

He runs several research projects, one of them being “Future people and the sustainability concept” together with Lars Samuelsson. The project finishes in 2020.

This article was first published in the magazine Think no. 1 2020.