What is Intergenerational Justice (IJ)? – It’s an intuitive thing, isn’t it? Something like: “Meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs…” ? That of course is Brundtland’s definition of Sustainable Development – so perhaps IJ is another way of defining Sustainable Development, preferred because its not a semantic contradiction!
But is IJ any easier to achieve than sustainable development has been in the 20+ years since Brundtland? Maybe – because even the most gung-ho ‘climate-change-is-a-load-of-baloney’ oilman does not want to kill his grand-children. Justice is about being fair to future generations – leaving the world a better place than you found it. So IJ occupies the moral high ground that, hopefully, every leader, wants to occupy.
We raise this now as Peace Child International has just launched its ‘Road to Rio+20’ – to prepare and mobilise young people around the world to make sure that the UN Heads of State ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro in May 2012 is NOT just another boring UN Summit that achieves nothing. We have hundreds of partners around the world.
We had the first meeting of 14 of our key partners from around the world at the end of January: just before we met, Jonathon Porritt – Britain’s best known environmentalist – wrote to us with an idea that set our blood racing:
“Reading through your papers on Rio+20 – I felt a weird combination of despair and rage. Twenty years on and here we are going through the same motions all over again. Rage alone won’t do it. Rage has to provide the spearhead of something much bigger, something that cannot just be brushed aside. In your papers, I saw a reference to the University of Vermont’s coalition of legal academics exploring ‘legal sanctions that might be set in place to deter politicians from wrecking the chances of future generations to meet their own needs’. This is just one of a number of initiatives out there looking at some kind of legal redress to translate the concept of intergenerational justice into formal legal process. I suggest that you work with them to come up with a specific ‘actionable’ form of legal redress, on behalf of young people as the plaintive. Essentially, a global class action lawsuit against today’s rulers….”
There are indeed several fascinating initiatives. You can find the Vermont Climate Legacy Initiative at: http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Academics/Environmental_Law_Center/Institutes_and_Initiatives/Climate_Legacy_Initiative/CLI_Home/A_Legal_Legacy.htm) There is the campaign for the ICE (Intl. Court for the Environment; See: http://www.environmentcourt.com/) And there is a Coalition of groups led by WWF, the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development and World Future Council. They have published a compendium of Legal methods to achieve IJ: (see: www.fdsd.org/reports/)
We took these ideas to run by a group of international students at Atlantic College – as part of their ‘Green Week’ activities. The climax of the day was a Full Dress debate on the motion: “This house supports those who seek ways to prosecute current governments and corporations for intergenerational murder.” It was proposed by students and opposed by older members of staff. The students spoke brilliantly, and won! Because, of course, it has to be in young people’s interests to support any who seek ways to protect our future. But – in the brainstormings that preceded the debate, the students came up with several other, possibly better ways, to achieve IJ. One girl proposed the idea of ‘IJ-labelling’ – “because no one would want to buy a product that would harm their grand-children…” Another pointed out: “Consumers will always go for the cheapest product. You have to work towards a system where doing things in a sustainable way is cheaper than not doing them in a sustainable way…” In other words: Green taxes or pricing mechanisms. If you tax products produced in unsustainable ways, and make goods produced sustainably, using renewable energy, no-waste processes etc. cheaper, – you will create a green economy in which consumers will quickly bankrupt unsustainable corporations. Slapping on a tax is much quicker and easier than hauling a corporation or government through the courts. And, as Ken Corn said in his excellent speech opposing the motion: “Where is your court? What court in the world can possibly prosecute a government elected by its people? Who is going to prosecute Obama? Get real, kids: this motion is petulant, provocative, childish and a dead end!”
But there is a role for legal redress. Green taxes can be avoided or brushed aside by corrupt politicians and corporations. The right kind of legal redress for Tar Sands oilmen and strip mining merchants would be a legal requirement that they re-construct the environment post-extraction to exactly as it was before. And impose enormous, ten-figure fines on them if they don’t. A simple before and after photograph would be all that a court would need to prosecute. Combined, Green taxes and these kinds of legal measures would deliver the kind of Intergenerational Justice that we all dream about.
But will governments deliver those kinds of measures at the Rio+20 Summit? They will face colossal pressure from the oil lobbies and others not to. So young people around the world, and right-thinking elders, will have to get very, very active over the next 18 months to ensure that Rio+20 is not another disappointment, like Copenhagen, but a watershed moment: the moment when we move from the dark ages of fossil-fuelled industrialisation, to the clean green economy of the future.