Skip to content
Surprising Science

What Exactly Do We Owe to Our Children?

“I believe the children are our future.”  Never has a more brazen tautology graced the opening line of a Top 40 song. But when Whitney Houston popularized these words in her 1986 hit, she gave voice to an orientation that seems to be in retreat today. For Douglas Rushkoff, author of a new book on the downside of the media age, we suffer today from “present shock”a constant assault by electronic blips and pings that command our attention and blind us to the sweep of time, leading us to dangerously discount the future:

When there’s no linear time, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time.

With every tweet, every Facebook status update, every Huffington Post story about improbably adorable cats and yes, every thought-provoking Big Think post, we are distracted from our work and our family. We drown out moments of peace and quiet with buzzing devices “notifying” us of something or other. And we give less thought to our place in the narrative of our own lives, or those of our children.

Not that politicians aren’t constantly encouraging us to take a longer view. In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama waved his finger and declared, “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” We need to save the earth’s climate “for the sake of our future and our children.” In January, House Speaker John Boehner sounded the same theme in his argument that the national debt is “endangering our children’s future.”

Icritiqued the GOP version of this save-the-children mantra at the Economist a few days ago. Diagnosing Boehner and other Republicans with hyperopia, I argued that massive cuts in health care and food stamps are no way to protect today’s, or tomorrow’s childrenespecially given last week’s unexpectedly cheerful news about the budget deficit.

But some critics have picked up on another application of one line of my post. ”It  would be irrational,” I wrote, “to opt for certain, indefinite-term pain now to purchase an unspecified amount of theoretical gain later.” In the words of reader “McGenius” (I kid you not), “This is a beautiful line right here. I cannot wait for the next piece advocating measures to respond to Climate Change which, at its best, advocates just that piece of irrationality.” A friend’s reply to my post was simply: “And yet on the environment…”

OK, here’s the difference. My argument is not that future generations don’t matter, or that governments do not have moral duties to protect the interests of the individuals who will inherit our nation when we are gone. As the political philosopher John Rawls wrote in A Theory of Justice, “persons in different generations have duties and obligations to one another just as contemporaries do”:

The present generation cannot do as it pleases but is bound by the principles [of justice]…between persons at different moments in time. In addition, men have a natural duty to uphold and to further just institutions and for this the improvement of civilization…is required.

My guest blogger Zane Friedkin reminded us in a recent post of the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming threatens the future of humanity; some predict that civilization may not survive to see the 22nd century absent real and dedicated action. This poses a moral imperative for policies that protect the planet, even at the cost of corporate profits. But there is no similar consensus among economists that harsh austerity measuresincluding the end of Medicare as we know it, which the Paul Ryan budget calls forare necessary to avert economic disaster in the coming century. Far from it: the conclusion of mainstream economists is that austerity is a drag on economic growth.

Bottom line: yes, we owe a lot to future generations. But we need to match rhetoric to reality. Our children and our grandchildren should not be used as pawns in a GOP campaign to dismantle institutions and revoke policies that support the neediest members of our society.


Up Next
While only three percent of the world’s surface is covered by urban landscapes, more than half of the human population lives in city environments. That’s changing human culture as well as human biology.