It seems to me that one fairly central human aspiration is to have a broadening set of options; it’s encouraging to see new options becoming possible, and worrisome to see options that existed before being closed off forever. In addition to satisfying human preferences, broadening options may also serve the purpose of building resilience in the face of massive change. If we don’t know what the future is going to be like, we have all the more reason to avoid committing ourselves to choices that may end up being poorly matched with the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Previously, I have written about the idea of a steady-state economy. In particular, I stressed the distinction between an economy that is stable in terms of the total biophysical impact of humanity and an economy in which everything stays the same. One critical difference between the ‘constant impact’ and the ‘set in stone’ options is technological development. With a set amount of copper and electricity and silicon we can now make a much better computer than we could ten or twenty years ago. Because we can make better use of resources – as well as avoiding waste, and handling the waste we do produce better – we can still aspire to an improving quality of life, even if we keep the amount of raw material we take from the planet constant and keep the amount of waste we release into the environment constant.
That’s not the only way of keeping our options open, along with those of future generations, but it is a relatively optimistic scenario. I don’t think what matters from a moral perspective is the total number of people on the planet, the size of their homes, or the amount of energy they use. What matters is the richness of their lives. Since the richness of the lives of future generations matters as much as the richness of our lives, we have an obligation to interact with the planet in a way that doesn’t close off too many options for the people who come after us. To me, that implies minimizing serious and irreversible changes in the functioning of the planet system, which in turn requires us to replace the global energy system with a sustainable one, while working to increase the sustainability of other activities. From this perspective, one of the most morally dubious things we can do is continue to invest in a fossil-fuel based economy. Not only will it be increasingly dysfunctional as fossil fuel reserves are exhausted, but our reliance on fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change.
Life inevitably involves the narrowing as well as the broadening of choices. We can’t hope to keep everything that is possible today possible forever. That being acknowledged, I think a strong case can be made that there is both a practical and moral importance to keeping options open, including across an intergenerational timespan. Similarly, we should pay more attention to irrevocable choices (like “burn all the world’s coal”) than to reversible ones. When it comes to these irreversible choices, we should also be especially on guard for people who simply make the choice that works best for them personally. There is a huge risk of moral corruption wherever the possibility of a big up-front payout with a big long-term cost exists, given that you can take the payout and fob off the cost on others (a favourite strategy of tax-cutting conservatives everywhere). Perhaps adjusting our thinking to pay more attention to keeping options open could be one way of reducing the seriousness of such problems.