In virtually every institution in human society, we humans concern ourselves with the continuation of the species. We have children, we raise them in some sort of family, we educate them for the world of work and citizenship, and then we see them couple and start the cycle all over again. All the while we seek to defend ourselves from disease, violence, economic deprivation, in fact, anything that might cut short our lives or those of our children. It ought to be self-evident that human beings do care about the future. What I want to examine is whether they should and if so, how much.
For this I will need to take you through some simple thought experiments which will test just how much you might do for the sake of human continuity and just how far into the future you might project your own responsibility.
It is a truism that parents concern themselves with the well-being and happiness of their children and grandchildren (and great grandchildren if they live that long). So, a concern about the general state of human society will extend two or perhaps three generations into the future or roughly 50 to 75 years. After that, it’s hard for us to put a lot of emotion into making things right for people we will never know.
But let’s say you have an altruistic streak that transcends time. You actually believe that people you will never meet deserve your consideration now. You believe that you should leave them a society that makes a good life possible, however you conceive of that good life. How far into the future will this concern carry? 100 years? 1,000 years? 10,000 years? I sense your commitment fading the further out in time I go. After all, how can any of us possibly foresee what human life will be like in 10,000 years (assuming humans survive that long)? How can we even conceive of what a good life will look like then?
Now, let me throw a little cold water on your warm-blooded altruism. Let’s say that today we as a global society decided to do everything we need to do to create what is roughly speaking a sustainable society. This would include ending our reliance on fossil fuels, adopting organic farming techniques, letting go of consumerism as an organizing principle, harvesting renewable resources only at the rate they can be renewed, gradually but drastically reducing population over time until it is below the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans, and creating a cradle-to-cradle resource management system for all finite resources. Certainly, this list could be expanded. But the point is that the system we create could, in theory, be bequeathed to humans for as long as there is a planet Earth.
Now, what if at some point, say, 500 years into this grand experiment, a society arises that decides all these rules on what we can and cannot do should be repealed, especially the restriction on burning fossil fuels? So, today we make great sacrifices to move from a doomed society to one that is sustainable out of concern and respect for future generations. Then, some future generation blows it by undoing everything we’ve done. How’s that for slap in the face? Except, of course, you won’t be around to actually feel the slap. Still, this thought experiment forces us to confront a very ugly possibility and question how much we should sacrifice now for a potentially ungrateful and lethal generation in the future.
Now, let’s go even further into the future. Let’s say humans remain responsibly sustainable indefinitely. How long will that be? Well, the fossil record suggests that mammalian species such as humans have an average lifespan of 2 million years. So, if we date humans using the classification Homo sapiens, then we are a young species, perhaps 200,000 years old. If we date humans back to the beginning of the entire genus of hominids at least 4 million years ago, then humans are essentially in evolutionary overtime.
But no matter what time line you use, one thing remains true: The chances that we humans will defy the logic of the fossil record seem slim. Some 99 percent of all species that have ever existed on Earth have disappeared. We are very unlikely to evolve into some superior being that carries on the traditions and cultures of humans. We are much more likely to go extinct at some point no matter how sustainably we live as a species.
And finally, let’s assume that somehow future humans evolve and adapt so well that they are alive billions of years from now. At some point, our Sun will expand as part of its death throes and consume the Earth. No more life at all on Earth at that point. (I know some of you are saying that perhaps humans will populate the stars. I see no realistic prospect that humans could actually do this even if they could find Earth-like planets. First, the distances would likely be so great that even highly advance spaceships would still take so long to reach such planets that the chance of survival would be small. Second, the Earth-like planet would almost certainly have micro-organisms that would kill humans almost as soon as they landed. Instead of the Andromeda strain coming to us, we would go to it.)
As I’ve lengthened the time line, no doubt you’ve found yourself wondering why any of us today should be concerned about the sustainability of human society in a future that is so vast that it is several orders of magnitude longer than human civilization has so far existed. Good question. The continuity of human beings simply cannot be guaranteed indefinitely into the future regardless of what our genes, our minds, or several hundred Star Trek episodes may tell us. We are largely powerless in that regard.
Now, I am not minimizing the impulse to make the world a sustainable place for our progeny. I recognize that as a very strong drive. And, it is one that is featured in countless environmentally-oriented appeals. But I am looking for bedrock here. Is there a way of thinking about sustainability that doesn’t involve the inherently impossible task of seeking to assure human continuity indefinitely into the future? I think I have an answer.
Sustainable practices must be in and of themselves a path to a good life. If that’s the case, then they are worth implementing simply because they lead to happier and more fulfilling lives. We can take a cue from the simplicity movement which embraced simple living as more fulfilling. Let me illustrate. I ride my bicycle for most of my errands and for exercise as well. Even if there were no climate change problem, even if there were no peak oil problem, even if there were no sustainability crisis, riding my bicycle would still enhance the quality of my life. I’m more fit. I’m more in touch with my physical surroundings. Typically, I’m still moving when traffic is halted. I can get closer to my destination. I pay no parking fees. I find myself now in a kind of universal brotherhood with every other cyclist on the road (a very underrated plus). I could go on. But I think it would be possible to say something similar about any practice that is truly sustainable.
I’m not suggesting that we give up on the rhetoric of creating a sustainable future for our children. But I am suggesting adding to that pitch that almost everything we call sustainable would make us happier even absent the problems we are trying to solve. That means people would ultimately have no regrets about adopting sustainable habits because, in general, they give us a fuller, more compelling life.
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.