Opinion: Legislating for tomorrow`s problems today - dealing with intergenerational equity

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The question of how we protect the ‘future’ is central to the concept of sustainable development; it is the forward thinking that makes the idea of sustainable development so challenging. The increasingly dire warnings of the consequences of our present behaviour on global climate change bring the issue into sharp focus.

From my personal perspective, it seems that we have reached the stage of recognising that we owe some sort of duty to future generations not to ‘mess up the planet’ but have made little progress in identifying the nature of this duty or the
means of complying with it. There are a number of reasons for this failure including:

  • an inherent inability to envisage change or even to recognise it when it happens if the process is slow and gradual;
  • a large measure of uncertainty about what future changes might look like and when they might occur;
  • a reluctance to change the way we live now for a rather nebulous unspecified future;
  • a belief that individuals can do nothing in the grand scheme of things which leads in turn to a variation of the tragedy of the commons;
  • a belief that there will always be a technological fix to address any problem the world might throw at us.

Issues of intergenerational equity, that is the way in which burdens and benefits are apportioned between different generations, have come to the fore in deliberations over the long-term management of radioactive waste. Unlike most hazardous substances, which remain in the same state forever, radioactive waste, and other radioactive materials, progressively lose their radioactivity. The rate of loss is exponential and is measured in terms of half lives.

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