By Rupert Read
No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; …any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. - John Donne
We are starting to recognise that humankind is one precious tapestry, one unified mosaic. One people. It is no longer socially-acceptable to exhibit prejudice against ethnic minority people on grounds of their ethnicity, women on grounds of their gender (thus: humankind, and not just mankind), or working-class people on grounds of their class. The last bastions of discrimination are being overcome: such as prejudice against gay and lesbian people, and against disabled people.
…Or, is there one more, crucial bastion of discrimination still strongly in place?
Take this kind of remark, that I've heard on an alarming number of occasions, and perhaps you have too: "I don’t really care about what happens after I'm dead and gone." We might dismiss this as the attitude just of some old curmudgeon, and think that it is of no moral or political consequence. But: it directly implies not caring about future people, the next generation. How would we react if someone said to us, "I just don't care about what happens to black people" or "I just don't care about what happens to disabled people"? We would be appalled.
Future people count, too. Their lives matter just as much.
Or what about this: "No-one is going to infringe on my rights! I can drive or fly as much as I like. That's freedom!" This kind of sentiment, in one way or another, is widespread these days. It is a product of the extreme individualism of our times. Now think what it implies: Because of an unwillingness to tolerate 'infringements' on one's own 'liberty', one is willing to take many things that future people might need. We don't any longer tolerate stamping on (the life-chances of) black people, working-class people, disabled people… Why then do we have any respect at all for the person who prizes their own 'freedom' above the right of future people to have a decent life, or indeed any life at all?
Because we haven't fully thought through yet that future people deserve to be well-treated and decently provided for, just as children and severely disabled people (etc.) must be. Just because we can't hear the cries of anguish of our descendants yet to come, doesn’t mean that they don't count… On the contrary – it just makes it all the more urgent that we make the effort to think and care about them…
We will not flourish as a species unless our ecosystems flourish. I believe that it is high time for future people to be given the kinds of rights and protections that present people – black or white, gay or straight, abled or disabled – already take for granted. Our human descendants need to be granted legal standing. This will protect them, and will offer some significant protection – probably, much better protection than any we currently have in place – for ecosystems.
A tentative start has been made, for instance in Hungary with their bringing in a Commissioner for Future Generations, a sort of ombudsman with the interests of future people in mind. But this is only the most tentative of starts…
What John Donne's timeless poem tells us, is that we are all related, all one: past people, present people - and future people. In the wake of the utter failure at the Copenhagen climate summit - which had the chance of being the most important Conference in the history of our living planet - there has never been a more timely idea.