Sustainability Impeded

Environmental Ethics 30 (2):159-174 (2008)
Some anthropogenic environmental changes that produce net benefits for the current generation will also produce foreseeable net harms to future generations. Well recognized as “time-lag effects,” these changes are environmental issues with strongly differential benefits and burdens between generations. Some of the world’s largest environmental issues fall into this category, including biodiversity loss and global climate change. The intractability of these issues for Western governments is not merely a practical problem of avoiding unpopular policy options; it is a theoretical problem for liberal democracy. Current conceptions of political legitimacy authorize governments to act for the benefit of their respective current citizens but not for future generations. A liberal democratic government is not authorized to enact policies for the benefit of future generations if so doing would entail unwanted constraints on the current electorate. To do so would fall beyond the jurisdiction—the legitimate scope of decision making—of government. The result is an entire category of environmental issues that is largely beyond the jurisdiction of government to resolve. These are ultra vires (beyond jurisdiction) environmental issues. To the extent that the concept of sustainability embodies intergenerational justice, then current conceptions of political legitimacy are impeding sustainability
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