Intergenerational justice and curtailments on the discretionary powers of governments

Environmental Ethics 26 (4):411-428 (2004)
Abstract
Governments of all nations presume they possess full discretionary policymaking powers over the lands and waters within their geopolitical boundaries. At least one global environmental issue—the rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity, the sixth major mass extinction event in geological time—challenges the legitimacy of this presumption. Increment by increment, the present generation is depleting the world’s biodiversity by way of altering species’ habitats for the sake of short term economic gain. When biodiversity is understood as an essential environmental condition—essential in the long term because it is the source of the biological resources upon which humans depend—then the strongly differential distribution of benefits and burdens between generations raises an issue of intergenerational justice. We receive the short-term benefits of economic development; future generations will receive the resulting burden of a biosphere in which one of the life-support systems necessary for humanity will have been compromised. Using Ronald Dworkin’s conceptions of distributive justice, it can be demonstrated that constitutional constraints on the discretionary powers of governments, for the sake of intergenerational justice, are entirely consistent with central tenets of liberal democracy. As a result, we should abandon to some extent the presumption that governments have full jurisdiction over the lands and waters within their boundaries
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