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Future People and the Concept of Sustainability

Research project The concept of sustainabitlity is increasingly important in many different contexts. According to the UN "Brundtland report" from 1987, a sustainable development requires that we avoid "compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

The concept of sustainability is based on the needs of future people. The main purpose of this project is to specify what we should mean by future people in this context, in such a way that sustainability becomes more well-defined and thereby more useful as a policy tool. Phase one is focused on the fact that our actions today determine which people will exist in the future, phase two the fact that our actions today will determine how many people live in the future, and phase three considers the value of human survival. We expect that these investigations will benefit both sustainability research and population ethics as a philosophical field of study.

Head of project

Kalle Grill
Associate professor

Project overview

Project period:

2017-09-01 2020-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Faculty of Arts and Humanities

Research area

Philosophy and philosophy of science

Project description

1. Aim, Purpose and Background

The question driving this project is how we should understand the idea of future people in relation to the goal of
 sustainability. The overall aim is to provide a specification of future people in this context such that the concept of sustainability becomes more well-defined, theoretically coherent and thereby more useful as a political and policy instrument.

1.1 The concept of sustainability

The concept of sustainability is applied in a wide variety of contexts - not only in relation to managing natural resources, such as in sustainable fishery, forestry or agriculture, but also in e.g. sustainable tourism, sustainable manufacturing and sustainable living in general. In addition, we hear of sustainable businesses, schools, municipalities, and so on. In short, sustainability is relevant to most human activity and is nowadays generally agreed to provide an important guideline for the development and implementation of such activity.

As providing such a guideline, sustainability is a normative concept. A sustainable development is supposed to be a desirable development, one that we ought to strive towards. It is the normative content of the concept of sustainability that makes it important to interpret, investigate and operationalize, and that endows it with practical relevance as a political and policy instrument. But its normative force also brings with it the risk that the term ‘sustainability’ is used simply as a catchphrase by various groups, and given a content that suits their particular interests (M Redclift “Sustainable Development (1987–2005): An Oxymoron Comes of Age”, Sustainable Development 13, 2005). Hence it is an important task to critically examine the concept of sustainability and expose it to ethical analysis.

The term ‘sustainability’ received widespread attention with the ‘Brundtland Report’ (published in 1987), characterizing sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, Our Common Future, 1987). This formulation is open to a variety of interpretations depending on what content one assigns to its components. The concepts of ‘needs’, ‘the present’, ‘compromising’, ‘ability’ and ‘future generations’ can all be given different interpretations and be understood in relation to different theoretical frameworks (e.g. W Beckerman, “How Would you Like your ‘Sustainability’, Sir? Weak or Strong?”, Environmental Values 4, 1995; M Jacobs “Sustainable Development as a Contested Concept”, in Fairness and Futurity 1999; L Samuelsson, The Moral Status of Nature, 2008, 5-13).

This research project is focused on one central component of sustainability. In terms of the Brundtland formulation of sustainable development, our research question can be stated as follows: Which are these future generations of people whose ability to meet their own needs we must not compromise? This question is surprisingly difficult to answer and has ignited what is today a substantial philosophical research area - population ethics.

1.2 Population Ethics

Conventional moral and political theories run into two main problems when they are applied to the future, and more specifically to future people: 1) The non-identity problem. 2) The population size problem. Impersonal consequentialist theories are not vulnerable to problem 1. All theories that include some sort of concern for future people are vulnerable to problem2.

The non-identity problem starts from the empirical observation that current actions or policies that cause hardships for future people will typically also figure among the causes of these people’s very existence. With different policies, we would have a different society, different people would become parents at different times and so we would have different people. The consequent moral problem is that it is not clear that people can be harmed by actions without which they would not have existed, and so any moral theory for which the concept of harm is central risks being irrelevant with regard to the future. (D Parfit, Reasons and Persons 1984, 362-3, M Roberts & D Wasserman (eds.), Harming Future Persons: Ethics, Genetics and the Nonidentity Problem, 2009)

In the context of sustainability, the central notion is need, or ability to meet need, rather than harm. Interestingly, the hypothetical example used to originally introduce the non-identity problem concerns depletion of natural resources: A society has two strategies: Depletion and Conservation. Depletion generates higher wellbeing for current people and those bornwithinthenexttwohundredyears,lowerwellbeingforthosebornlater.(Parfit1984) The problem from a sustainability perspective is this: The future generations that suffer low wellbeing under Depletion would not have existed under Conservation. Can we still say that we have compromised their ability to meet their needs? A coherent and robust theory of sustainability must address and solve this problem.

The second main problem for conventional moral and political theories in regard to the future is that our current actions and policies will affect how many people will exist in the future. This problem comes into focus if we assume that the identity of future people is not important, but only their wellbeing (J Broome, Weighing Lives, 2004, 136). With this assumption made, the remaining task is generally taken to be the ranking of possible populations in terms of the overall goodness or desirability of their wellbeing distributions (for an overview, see G Arrhenius, Population Ethics: The Challenge of Future Generations, forthcoming). A wellbeing distribution is a limited description of a population, that includes only the number of lives and the level of wellbeing for each of these lives. In this context, the important question of what exactly wellbeing consists in is typically bracketed, while it is presumed that wellbeing can be measured on an interval scale, so that the wellbeing of several different lives can be compared and aggregated.

In discussion on sustainability, the issue of population size is often bracketed, and the attention is focused either on natural resources directly, or on some sort of average or per capita measurement of wellbeing or material resources or ability to meet needs. This leaves out a central aspect of sustainability. Assume for example that a society can, again, choose between two strategies: Under Restraint, a larger proportion of the population can meet their needs, while under Expansion, a larger number of people can meet their needs. Which of these strategies is most sustainable? Unlike in the case of Depletion versus Conservation, there seems to be no clear answer. Since any large-scale and long-term policy choice will have potential effects on population size, a coherent and robust conception of sustainability must address this issue just as it must address the non-identity problem.

2. Research Plan

The main strategy for reaching the aim of this project is to assess population ethical theories from the perspective of sustainability. In doing so, we will start from existing theories in this field and develop and modify these, as well as consider novel combinations, in order to make for a happier fit with the sustainability perspective. The project will be divided into three phases.

2.1 Phase 1: Non-identity

The main hypothesis in this first phase of the project is that future people in the context of sustainability should be understood in a generic sense such that it refers not to those particular people who will in fact live in the future, but rather to the collective entity of future people, which may be made up of quite different particular individuals in different alternative futures.

In general population ethics, non-identity is mainly discussed in relation to harm. Traditional views on harm are typically comparative, such that to be harmed is to be made worse off than in some alternative. Because of non-identity, harm- centered views in population ethics typically involve either some more sophisticated comparative view (e.g. P Algander, Harm, Benefit, and Non-Identity, 2013) or some non-comparative view according to which you are harmed by being badly off in absolute terms, regardless of alternatives (e.g. Roberts & Wasserman 2009).

Taking the impersonal perspective on general axiology means to deny that whether or not people are harmed affects the desirability of outcomes in general. As noted above, this is often assumed in population ethics and is one aspect of utilitarianism. Our hypothesis is more modest, as it only concerns the concept of sustainability. This concept is essentially about societies and not about individuals. While different sorts of aggregate effects might influence whether or not a society is sustainable, particular setbacks to individual interests, or even great harms to some individuals, do not necessarily make some alternative future less sustainable.

If our hypothesis is correct, it implies that sustainability is not so much about the rights of future people as it is about the protection or promotion of an impersonal value - that future people, whoever they are, have the ability to meet their own needs.

2.2 Phase 2: Impersonal views on future people

The purpose of this phase of the project is to investigate the potential of the main impersonal axiologies in mainstream population ethics to provide an interpretation of the moral importance of future people that is suitable to the concept of sustainability. The hypothesis is that no view is very plausible as such, but that there may be modifications and/or combinations of views that are more promising.

Henry Sidgwick (The Methods of Ethics 1907) distinguished the two main alternative population ethical views which still structure the ongoing debate: The total view, according to which a population is better than another if it contains a larger total sum of wellbeing, and the average view, according to which a population is better than another if the average wellbeing of its members is higher. More recently, philosophers have identified critical level views, which are generalizations of the total view that jettison the assumption that the neutral level of wellbeing is also the neutral level of impersonal value. Instead, on these views, the neutral level of value is some positive level of wellbeing (Broome 2004; C Blackorby, W Bossert & D Donaldson, Population Issues in Social Choice Theory, Welfare Economics, and Ethics 2005).

The total view amounts to a sort of gold standard in population ethics, against which other views are measured. Its main appeal is its congruence with "maximizing rationality" - more wellbeing is always better (Scheffler 1988, 252). One of its main weaknesses is that it implies the repugnant conclusion: For any population with consistently high wellbeing, there is some larger population where everyone has a life barely worth living, that is better (Parfit 1984). We will argue that, whatever its merits as a general axiology, the total view must be rejected as an interpretation of sustainability. People who have the ability to meet their needs generally have lives that are substantially above neutral wellbeing. Therefore, critical level views are more promising.

The average view is quite discredited in philosophy, mainly for two reasons. First, the view implies that one happy person with very high wellbeing is better than a large population with somewhat lower average wellbeing. Second, the choice between averaging either over lives at a certain time or lives over all time seems an unfortunate one: On the first option, we can increase the average by killing people with sub-par wellbeing. On the second option, the value of a life depends on the wellbeing of people in the distant past (e.g. Parfit 1984, 420-21).

In the context of sustainability, we are not interested in maximizing either current or all time average wellbeing. Instead, sustainability is sometimes defined as ensuring that average wellbeing, or some indicator of it such as wealth, is steady or increasing (e.g. Arrow et al., “Sustainability and the Measurement of Wealth.” Environment and Development Economics 17, 2012). We believe the focus on average is more plausible for sustainability than in general axiology. Still, the killing problem must be solved, perhaps by averaging over all lives started during some interval, rather than over those (still) alive. The ‘one happy person’ problem must also be solved, perhaps by introducing an independent value tied to the population having sufficient size.

An additional weakness of impersonal views in the context of sustainability is that they are insensitive to the distribution of wellbeing: If some people can meet their needs very well and others not at all, this may be equally as good as everyone just about meeting their needs, which is obviously more sustainable. This insensitivity can be partially addressed by introducing weighted wellbeing with priority for lives with lower wellbeing (D Parfit, Equality or Priority, 1991). However, lack of equality can still be balanced up by additional lives with high wellbeing, such that a large and unequal population is better than one smaller and more equal. The threshold property of having the ability to meet one’s needs may point to a sufficientarian view, underexplored in population ethics (an exception is R Huseby, “Sufficiency and Population Ethics” Ethical Perspectives 19, 2012).

Sustainability as ability to meet needs also indicates that we should care about opportunities rather than outcomes, so that we have sustainability if future people have this ability, even if they choose not to use it. Both the issue of distribution and that of opportunities versus outcomes are much discussed in political philosophy, raising the question to what extent the ideaoffuturepeoplecanbespecifiedinisolationfromsuchpoliticalconcerns.

A radical take on population ethics is axiological neutrality, according to which the addition of future people has neutral value as long as their wellbeing is positive (e.g. J McMahan, “Causing People to Exist and Saving People’s Lives.” The Journal of Ethics 17, 2013). Philosophers have pointed out that we have strong neutralist intuitions and that society is for the most part organized as if neutrality was correct (for example we do not prioritize fertile people in health care and safety contexts, even if they are likely to produce additional lives). However, neutrality has proven difficult to incorporate into a coherent axiology (one attempt is K Grill, “Asymmetric Population Axiology: Deliberative Neutrality Delivered”, submitted manuscript). However, neutrality may be more plausible as a sustainability ideal, especially in combination with other values.

Against this background, the project will focus on critical level views, the average view, sufficientarianism and neutrality as potential specifications of future people in the context of sustainability, as well as combinations of these. For all views, we will consider whether there are priority and/or opportunity versions that are more suitable.

2.3 Phase 3: The importance of survival

In this phase, the purpose is to examine the relevance to sustainability of human survival. Our hypothesis is that survival is an aspect of sustainability that is not reducible to other aspects.

Human survival has received very little attention in population ethics. It has been emphasized in the related debate on existential risks, but with the assumption that the only point of survival is the enabling of more individual lives (e.g. N Bostrom, “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” Global Policy 4, 2013). Usually in this debate, the total view is implicitly assumed to be true. We believe that it is a common intuition that human survival has importance over and above the enabling of more individual lives, such that a shorter life-span for humanity cannot be fully compensated by having a larger global population at any one time.

If the idea of future people is understood in terms of concrete individuals that only happen to be separated from us in time, then if there will be no future people beyond some date it seems we would have no reason to be concerned with what happens thereafter. On the other hand, if the idea of future people is understood in the generic sense that we propose, we may have reason to ensure that there will be people around for as long as possible. Indeed, this may be considered a sort of minimal sustainability - to sustain the human species.

One of few philosophers who have discussed survival from a population ethical point of view is Thomas Hurka (“Value and Population Size” Ethics 93, 1983). Hurka’s concern with this issue led to his invention of variable value views. Such views have also been favored for other reasons - to capture the value of humanity existing at all (Broome 2004, 197), or the alleged marginal decrease in value from additional lives in an already very large population (Y Ng, “ What Should We Do About Future Generations?” Economics and Philosophy 5, 1989).

On Hurka’s preferred view, the value of a life with a set level of wellbeing varies with the size of the population at the time. This time slice view of population value leads to problems with aggregation, since time slices are difficult to individuate and evaluate. The total value of a population is typically aggregated over lives rather than times. However, this plausible method is not easily combined with variable value views. Therefore, it seems problematic to accommodate the value of survival in a standard population ethical view, and so if it is a value it seems independent of the value of wellbeing, however aggregated (K Grill, “Mänsklighetens undergång ur ett befolkningsaxiologiskt perspektiv”, Filosofisk Tidskrift 2015).

Depending on the main interpretation of sustainability as investigated in phase 2, it seems likely that the value of survival must be an independent aspect of sustainability as well. On the one hand, sustainability is about meeting the needs of future people, generically understood. On the other hand, sustainability is also about ensuring that there are a sufficient number of future people around, at any given future time.

2.4 Domestic and international collaboration

Alongside his research in political philosophy, Grill has worked on population ethics for several years, presenting work in progress at international conferences and workshops in such places as Yokohama, Japan, and Oxford, UK. Grill has exchanged drafts and/or had substantial correspondence with leading international scholars such as John Broome (Oxford), Gustaf Arrhenius (Institutet för Framtidsstudier), Erik Carlson (Uppsala), Richard Arneson (UCSD), Stephen Wilkinson (Lancaster) and Ben Bradley (Syracuse). Grill has in previous research projects, in other areas, organized several international workshops with leading scholars, both at his home institution and in other places (Manchester, UK; Münster, Germany).

Most of Samuelsson’s research has been done in the field of environmental ethics, broadly construed. He has been actively networking with other environmental ethicists in Sweden. With Erik Persson and Erik Brandstedt he organized a workshop for Swedish environmental ethicists in Lund 2010 on the topic “Ethical aspects on sustainable development”. Samuelsson has also been involved in interdisciplinary research, in particular through his work within the multidisciplinary research program Future Forests, collaborating with researchers from other disciplines relevant to sustainability issues, e.g. ecologists Lucy Rist and Adam Felton (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), political scientist Camilla Sandström (Umeå University) and historian of science and ideas, Erland Mårald (Umeå University).

As part of this research project, we will organize at least one workshop with internationally leading scholars from both population ethics and environmental ethics, broadly construed, to address the issue of future people in relation to sustainability.

3. Society and Impact

The aim of this project is to make the concept of sustainability more well-defined and theoretically coherent and thereby more useful as a political and policy instrument. We plan to do this by sharpening and providing more substance to the central notion of future people.

There are two main potential impacts from this project: First, to strengthen the concept of sustainability so that it can withstand pressure from population ethical theories with which it does not align well. If the total view is the correct view, and if this is all there is to valuing the future, then we may have no strong reason to care about sustainability as we know it. Perhaps we should rather focus on increasing the number of people, whether by using resources on earth more efficiently or by colonizing other planets (e.g. N Bostrom, “Astronomical Waste: The Opportunity Cost of Delayed Technological Development”, Utilitas 15, 2003), or even by creating digital life forms that use much less resources per capita for the same yield in wellbeing. The science fiction scenarios may sound far-fetched but need not be in the long-term, and steps could be taken today to aim for their future attainment, whether or not they can ultimately be attained. Without excluding from the outset that these scenarios could also be sustainable, it seems clear that if sustainability proponents cannot even credibly specify what they mean by future people, they leave themselves quite vulnerable.

The target audience for this defense of the concept of sustainability can be both the research community, and people in government and elsewhere who work with sustainable environments or infrastructure or other policy areas. In terms of the research community, it is noteworthy that the philosophical field of population ethics, though motivated in no small part by concern for the future and especially environmental concerns, has not very actively engaged with the notion of sustainability. At the same time, sustainability researchers have not engaged with the questions posed by population ethicists, such as the importance or not of identity, and the how to measure the value of aggregate wellbeing in a population.

Because of this lack of interaction between these two related research fields, it is particularly important to communicate our results to both camps (recognizing that the division is not that neat exactly). We will do so mainly by our academic publications, which we will strategically submit to journals that cater to different research areas. For example, we will aim to publish both in journals focused in environmental ethics (such as Environmental Values) and in journals focused on general normative ethics (such as Utilitas). We will also organize at least one workshop to bring together a variety of internationally leading scholars from the relevant areas of expertise. In addition, we aim to publish our results also as popular science, both in Swedish and in English.

The second main impact of the project is to help specify sustainability policy in various ways. If our hypothesis are correct, then future people should be understood in a generic sense rather than as concrete individuals (phase 1), and sustainability should include as an independent aspect the very survival of humanity (phase 3). Furthermore, there are more and less plausible ways of interpreting the relationship between sustainability and population size (phase 2).

The target audience for the specification of sustainability is both fellow academics, but also, and perhaps to a larger extent than for the first impact, people whose work include describing the concept of sustainability and especially its role in wider contexts of development and planning. We aim to communicate our results to such people in order to contribute to goal descriptions that are more conceptually coherent and less vulnerable to criticism based either on non-identity or population size issues. Examples of communication partners are government agents like the Swedish Miljömålsberedningen and the European Environment Agency, as well as civil society agents like the Swedish Naturskyddsföreningen and Friends of the Earth International.

In the following, we will emphasize two more specific results as they relate to sustainability policy and policy documents.

3.1 Generic contra concrete interpretations of future people

If the interest in the future is based on the rights of future individual’s, then this interest is held hostage by arguments from non-identity. Though there are many ingenious attempts to show that future people can be harmed by actions that cause them to exist, even when their lives are on the whole well worth living, it remains doubtful whether these attempts really work, and if they do, to what extent - it may be that future people can be harmed, but not very easily. If, on the other hand, we recognize the value of there being future people with the ability to meet their own needs, irrespective of whether or not anyone is harmed by their absence, then we have obvious reasons to care for the future and limit our negative impacts on the environment, whether or not future people can be harmed, have rights, etc.

Some attempts of making politics more responsive to the needs of the future employ tools that seem rather straightforwardly based on the harm/rights perspective. Examples include the Commission for Future Generations in Israel and the Ombudsman for future generations in Hungary. Some researcher endorse these and similar solutions (J Tremmel, “Parliaments and future generations: The four-power-model”, In The Politics of Sustainability: Philosophical Perspectives 2015). Motions have been proposed to the Swedish parliament along these same lines (Motion 2013/14:MJ239). Our hypothesis throws some doubt on these approaches, though it would be a question for further research to investigate if exactly the apparent tension may perhaps be resolved.

3.2 Sustainability, survival and population size

It is interesting, given the general rejection of the average view in philosophy, that the view is often presumed to be true, without argument, in political contexts, and by economists and other academics who analyze the future prospects of humanity. One prominent example is the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009), commissioned by then president Nicholas Sarkozy in order to “identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress” (p. 7). The report is focused on social progress in terms of wellbeing and its line of co-authors is very impressive, with (Nobel laureate) Joseph Stiglitz its main author and (likewise Nobel laureate) Amartya Sen his main advisor. The report includes a comprehensive chapter on "sustainable development and environment". Whether society is sustainable is understood as “whether our children or grandchildren will face opportunities at least equivalent to the ones that we have had." (Stiglitz et. al., p. 233) As in the Brundtland definition of sustainability, it is simply presumed that there will be some grandchildren around. The fact that we will determine who they are, and how many, if any, is not discussed. The authors note at one point (pp. 251-253) the problems associated with limitless future generations, but they never engage with the issue of population size and the possibility that additional future people, above some level of wellbeing or some level of ability to meet their own needs, may be a goal in itself.

In Sweden, many government reports invoke sustainability in a rather superficial way, no different from e.g. "eco-friendly". Future reports and studies on sustainability could benefit from a richer understanding of the concept, including a coherent and comprehensive understanding of future people.
Latest update: 2018-06-20