Although there are different perspectives on the right of the future generations to the limited natural resources on the planet, there is common agreement on the existence and compelling force of this right. This may be because of the concurrent recognition that the earth’s natural resources are indeed scarce. As such, the rational thing to do is to conserve limited natural resources.
Intergenerational equity is one theory that explains the right of future generations to scarce resources and the concurrent obligation of the present generation to initiate conservation. This theory explains that all people hold the earth’s natural resources in common. This gives the present and future generations the right to use these resources but with the right to use comes the concomitant obligation as the earth’s custodians implying the role of becoming accountable for the use of resources as well as conserving scarce natural resources. The theory also posits inter-generational relationship in the utility and conservation of all people’s common patrimony. (Wood, 1996)
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This finds parallelism with the legal concept of life estate, wherein the holder exercises the right over the use and enjoyment of the estate but the utility should be in a manner that eschews the destruction of the estate for the benefit of remainder. By establishing the right of future generations to limited natural resources, the rights imposes the duty of the present generation to conserve resources, support equitable access to resources, prevent or minimize the irreversible destruction of natural resources, mitigate preventable natural disasters, and bear all costs for damage to resources or degradation of environmental quality.
Genetic predisposition is the concept that challenges the premise of intergenerational equity but nonetheless supports the right of future generations to the earth’s limited resources and the obligation of the present generation to conserve these resources for future use. This concept points to biology to explain this right and the duty to conserve instead of beliefs and traditions as in intergenerational equity. Humans hold the predisposition towards procreation, which posits the concern towards the welfare of the future generations.
However, the concern towards the future generation has strong links to the degree of perception of the genetic relation of future generations to the present generation. An individual takes responsibility to conserve natural resources because of the recognition of the future need of ones offspring and their concurrent offspring. (Barresi, 1997)
Commons trusts, which emerged from environmentalist advocacy, comprise an alternative perspective of the right of future generations to natural resources and the responsibility of present generations to conserve. The premise of this concept is that natural resources comprise ‘the commons’ because this is something that the society aggregately inherits. As a legacy for the future generations to inherit, the present holders of ‘the commons’ establish ‘the commons trusts’, which represents the obligation to conserve resources as the people entrusted with ‘the commons’. (Barnes, 2006)
This is parallel to intergenerational equity in terms of beliefs, traditions and culture as the premise of the right of future generations towards resources and the duty of the present generation to conserve, particularly common utility or inheritance of natural resources as the basis of the right and obligation. However, intergenerational equity utilizes equity as the justification while ‘commons trusts’ justifies these through the legal concept of trusts.
Nevertheless, amidst the differences in premise and justification, these concepts commonly support the existence of the right of the future generations to enjoy the earth’s natural resources and since these resources are scarce, the present generation holds the duty to conserve what remains of the natural environment.
A right and obligation gain force when translated into guidelines or rule for action and compliance. These three principles, especially intergenerational equity, that explain the right and obligation of the future and present generations respectively towards the environment find expression, explicitly and implicitly, in international law. These provisions support the exercise of the right for future enjoyment and imposition of compliance with the obligation for present conservation.
The Charter of the United Nations provides that “We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations…” expresses the aggregate responsibility of the present generation to ensure the welfare of the future generations by ensuring, among others, the conservation of natural resources. This also supports the inter-temporal nature of the right, which means that it extends to the unborn. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also recognizes inter-temporality by providing that “all members of the human family” including the future generations holds basic human rights. Third generation rights also support inter-temporal rights encompassing the right to a dignified environment. (Lee, 2000)
The Stockholm Declaration also expresses the basic right of man to a quality environment, among other rights, together with the vow to enhance the natural environment for both the present and the succeeding generations. The Rio Declaration and Vienna Declaration both call for the assumption of responsibility to ensure the natural resource needs of present and future citizens of the earth. (Lee, 2000) These statutes expressly establish the relationship between environmental conservation and the interests of the next generations via the notion of sustainable development, which refers to the exploitation or utility of natural resources in a manner that ensures sufficient resources for future generations.
Thus, the future generations have a right to the limited natural resources on the planet and respect for this right necessitates the obligation of the present generation to conserve, the earth’s resources. This finds support from legal theories or concepts and in international law.
Barresi, P. A. (1997). Beyond fairness to future generations: An intragenerational alternative to intergenerational equity in the international environmental arena. Tulane Environmental Law Journal, 11(1), 59-88.
Wood, J. C. (1996). Intergenerational equity and climate change. Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, 8(293), 302-303.
Lee, J. (2000). The underlying legal theory to support a well-defined human right to a healthy environment as a principle of customary international law. Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 25(283), 317-318.
Charter of the United Nations 1945
Rio Declaration 1992
Stockholm Declaration 1972
North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation 1994
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
Vienna Declaration 1993
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