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What will future generations condemn us for?

Written By: - Date published: 11:25 am, October 2nd, 2010 - 19 comments
Categories: accountability, Deep stuff, Environment, prisons - Tags:

This question is something that has been on my mind for some time. It seems as if there are endless things that we could be condemned for from where I’m standing, however my point of view is not necessarily that of my future grandchild. In this article, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton, sets out four examples of current policy that he believes those in the future will look back and say “What were people thinking?”

The American prison system is the first example he gives, and before I get into my slightly different approach, I should point out that this example is quite relevant to our small isolated nation. Our incarceration rate is second only to the U.S.A, and as Professor Appiah points out, many of those incarcerated are in there for non violent offences such as drugs. We have an unsustainable view on crime, and incarceration. He also questions factory farming and whether this will be an acceptable practice in the future, another good point for New Zealand, as in the past few years there has been significant publicity around sow crates and other horrid practices that seem completely out of place within our vast and untouched country. The institutionalization of the elderly and the environment are also mentioned, and for further reasoning on these you would be best to take a few minutes and read the article.

Unfortunately, I believe Professor Appiah looks at the issue from a position where he has already assumed the most important, and least assumable consideration of the question, how those in the future will perceive their world. When I look at the question, before even jumping into specific examples, I explore the paths that are being paved by the social norms of the present, and then consider the obstacles that will inevitably arise along the way.

If one were to believe that the path we are on now will continue without encountering any of the expected hurdles, then it could be more plausible that humans (especially in English speaking countries) will actually expand on the concepts such as factory farming, exploitation of environments, and intensive incarceration. My theory in case of this eventuality (which I have to point out, is not what I predict), is that more than likely humans will look back at physical contact with disgust, having moved into a totally virtual sports world. Why? The backbone of this is created by the desire of key players to make a profit, and a virtual stadium is much cheaper, and could also look very pretty. Another consideration behind this possibility is the growing inability for people to socially interact in a real life situation. At that point in time, real life interaction and social media interaction will be indistinguishable. It is hard to imagine this eventuality, and may seem trivial right now, yet by merely plotting the course of our social evolution from a modern idealistic point of view, it sadly becomes quite reasonable.

There would be other things that would appear old fashioned or outdated, such as travelling near a stranger on a bus or train. Fear would rule civilization, and it would be abhorrent to think that anyone would travel within the immediate proximity of someone not part of their trusted network. Physical deployment of troops to a warzone would be a horrible thought, and those in the future would be unable to comprehend how a life could be thrown away so easily, of course this masks the fact that whatever is sent into fight in place of a citizen would still be killing real humans. Sadly enough, the use of unmanned drones is already quickly increasing, and the subjective value of an American soldier versus an Afghani civilian already clearly distinguishable.

These are all considerations that come about from an idealistic view of the future from our current position, however they don’t take into account any of the inevitable obstacles we will have to deal with, and assume that the path we are following is sustainable. So realistically, the examples I’ve given above can be written off just as easily as the thought that we’ll ever end up in a position where our current system will merely be a 2.0 version of its current self in one hundred years.

Dreams come crashing down when we begin to throw the words climate change, unaffordable debt, unsustainable population growth, water wars, and globalization in there. I believe that discussing the question of what our future generation will think of us is in itself the best answer to the question. Our future generations will not look back at this sort of article and ponder how close our predictions were, no, they’ll look back and ask why, no matter what conclusions we arrive at, no one acted. Apathy is what our future generations will despise us for, our disturbing greed, and our self belief that we are more intelligent than reality suggests.

They will wonder why we allowed financial institutions to create debt that we expected them to repay, as if they would one day benefit from our 3D LCD Television sets in the middle of an energy crisis, where the metals used to make those televisions could have actually served a purpose. They won’t have time to ponder this kind of issue though, for their world will likely be one where they have issues so severe that, were they to occur today and the mainstream media reported it, we’d never believe them.

I could go on to look at detail on specific practices that future generations will condemn us for, and depending on the path we end up taking, I could be very accurate, but that misses the point that raising such a question gives rise to far more fundamental considerations. In saying that, one must live in the now or insanity is inevitable, therefore the discussions that will arise from people being asked this question should be allowed, if not encouraged.

To finish an article started with a question, I thought it best to ask another of us all, one that is probably more relevant than most are willing to accept.

If I am not selfish, why do I care nothing for my future grandchildren and their quality of life, after my grandparents sacrificed themselves to ensure I had the best quality of life? Or am I merely blinded by the veil of ignorance that droops over my plastic face to believe my current actions are in fact ensuring the best quality of life for my grandchildren?

19 comments on “What will future generations condemn us for? ”

  1. r0b 1

    Good post. Depressing, but thought provoking. In my option the folks of the future, if any, will refer to us as “The Wasters”.

  2. ianmac 2

    A huge question Mr Guest. I think that the question should revolve around what is “normal.”
    How did we get to the point that we seem to accept what might have been considered obscene in the past and might be considered obscene in the future? For example the Earthquake Rebuilding Act? The explosion of dairying for economic gains? The building of mass pig or dairy farms for economic gain? The destruction of prime land for mining?

    How come we get to accept the obscene as normal?

    • Mr Magoo 2.1

      I think the post is vague and shallow and tends to attributes a moral superiority to those that are to come and have yet had a chance to display their own brand of inhumaneness.
      What if in the future people murder each other without a thought for a litre of clean water? They might even look back on us and be envious. Or perhaps they crate sows in a more efficient fashion?
      Maybe they even crate humans by then?

      I also don’t think any of the examples you have given bear the test of being obscene in the past. What exactly about our history in the last 10,000 years makes you think that sow crates and temporary absolute powers of the state are even worth mentioning in this context?
      Slavery? Facism? Dictators and despots by the hundred? (some of them still respected by many such as Genghis Khan and Napoleon)
      In many respects we are better than we have been.

      In others, not. Especially when it comes to expansion and over population which is at the heart of the major problems that most likely will plague/endanger our descendants.

      However thinking about the future we create and the long term problems we create is a good one and if this provokes thought and introspection – something we are not very good at as a species.

      I might blame Hollywood for our constant and very annoying belief that under it all every person is good. But I think it is actually part of the human psyche, perhaps a defence mechanism.

      • felix 2.1.1

        “What if in the future people murder each other without a thought for a litre of clean water? “

        Gee I wonder how they could possibly end up in that situation? /facepalm

        • Mr Magoo

          I think you missed the point. The problem is US (the species) and the way we look at and interact with the world. Our descendants may blame us for a lot but they most likely be no different from us, just with fewer resources with which to squander.

          We think that science or a new voting system or some other magical device is just going to fix things. If we all just find a green source of energy somehow we can get back to just being us.
          In fact the current reality is that we have billions of people in the third world desperately (and it seems unstoppably) trying to become exactly like us and succeeding.

          And the naive among us somehow think that the majority are going to somehow just play along in time to save us and not as we have already seen ignore or even fight against such change in a desperate attempt to maintain/improve their quality of life.
          Heaven forbid we end up taking a page out of China’s book and actually solve our over population problem! Most of us find that so offensive it is not even allowed to be mentioned.

          I mean just imagine what happens if tomorrow someone cracks the energy problem? Unlimited, cheap energy for all.

          What do you think happens then? Is that going to stop the war and the dictators and the rich, greedy bastards who attempt to run everything? Does that mean we now have enough of everything? Will we now be satisfied?

          I think not. In fact I think it makes it WORSE.

          • Colonial Viper

            I mean just imagine what happens if tomorrow someone cracks the energy problem? Unlimited, cheap energy for all.

            Uh, then the oil companies buy out the inventor, and when oil finally runs out, the oil companies will sell you the energy from their free source at very expensive rates?

            Just guessing.

          • felix

            “I think you missed the point.”

            Yes I think I did. Sorry.

          • A

            The problem is not, as you so eloquently put it, “US”, but only some of us: i.e. that percentage of the population who cannot or will not act responsibly towards the environment. The only solution is to prevent them exercising political power by the least nasty means sufficient to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, that will probably mean an end to the present democratic system.

            All else is mere talk.

            • Mr Magoo

              If in fact the end of democracy is required then the % of the population is in fact a majority I take it? Such a majority that it is not viable to turn enough people for it to become a majority.

              In which case the US I am referring to is US as in the collective US. Just because there are a few people that don’t agree does not mean that the collective US is not the problem.

              Individuals may be able to step back and say they were not individually responsible. That does not mean that are not a member of the species/whatever that is doing it.

              Also the number of people that are not part of what I am talking about is VERY small. Just because you think the ETS is a good idea and use efficient lightbulbs does not mean you are not one….

      • Vicky32 2.1.2

        “Especially when it comes to expansion and over population which is at the heart of the major problems that most likely will plague/endanger our descendants.”
        Possibly not… the population is actually decreasing in all developed countries, and starting to do so in others. A particular writer in New Scientist (Fred Pearce) is getting very exercised about it, in a rather disturbingly racist way…

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    A peek behind the figures

    The ‘global extinction crisis’ has been in the news for a while now and conservationists are constantly throwing figures at us to illustrate the overwhelming scale of biodiversity loss. “Twenty-one percent of all known mammals, 29 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 35 percent of conifers and cycads, 17 percent of sharks and 27 percent of reef-building corals are threatened with extinction” – many of us could lose sleep over this alarming data. But what exactly does it mean?

  4. Pascal's bookie 4


  5. Puddleglum 5

    I’m sure that, in the future all sorts of things we do now will be looked upon with horror.

    But that’s not the point and such speculations about what others might condemn us for are only of concern if we assume they (in the future) are right to condemn us – which presupposes that we already know what we should be condemned for.

    To that extent, of far more importance is the contest over what we condemn ourselves for, right now. One of Appiah’s points was that, in the past, people already knew what practices were or weren’t wrong (e.g., arguments against slavery had been rehearsed for thousands of years – in fact the way he uses the example of slavery suggests he’s read ‘Bury the Chains’ by Adam Hochschild. Well worth a read if you want to know something about long term struggles by a movement.). The point is to make that sense of what’s wrong lead to action and change by preventing people from ignoring it or justifying it with incidental arguments.

    One such incidental argument that springs to mind is the argument that markets are efficient distributors of resources. That is, of course, entirely beside the moral point that people suffer greatly in economies based on individual pursuit of resources. (They also suffer greatly in other economic forms – but not in all other economic forms).

    One of the features of a modern, differentiated economy is that people, as individuals, don’t experience all the consequences of their actions. People buying cling-foil wrapped blades of meat in a supermarket have not had to slaughter an animal so, of course, they have little regard for how animals are slaughtered. Fewer and fewer people have had to raise pigs to get bacon so, of course, consumers of bacon have little regard for how pigs are kept. The soothing arguments of pig growers to the effect that (a) we’re so much more humane now, and (b) well, if we didn’t have industrial pig raising you’d all miss out on your bacon allow this separation to continue despite the fact that almost no-one, today, would say that pigs have a great time being industrially farmed (i.e., the moral point of it all).

    The same goes for most things we know are wrong. We know it is wrong to pollute but by transferring the pollution and waste quickly to somewhere out of sight and out of mind we can ignore it and then erect ever so rational defences for doing what we know is wrong.

    We know it is wrong to consume endlessly and then discard things at ever increasing rates but the shop fronts in our CBDs and malls are designed to help us ignore the immorality of such levels of consumption and we are encouraged to swallow arguments about the ‘jobs’ created and the technical fixes our boffins will come up with in the nick of time. All incidental arguments that distract us from the moral point that it is simply wrong and that we know it is – in fact the wrongness of such over-indulgent spoilage has been pointed out for as long if not longer than has the wrongness of slavery.

    When it comes to the moral wrongness of actions there is nothing new under the sun. The difference today is that we have social structures that are incredibly efficient at allowing us to do wrong by creating structural ignorance and incentives to accept incidental arguments for maintaining a status quo we know to be wrong.

  6. jcuknz 6

    As a normal human always looking for the bright side, the chink of light at the end of the tunnel, I view the possibility of humans avoiding contact with each other as positive in the search for an answer to the current population explosion … it will then be easier to reduce the population in a humane way by not providing fertile eggs to be implanted and providing the experience of motherhood by implanted electrodes fed by a central databank. Otherwise the ‘killing for a litre of water ‘ becomes a very real possibility since we are so much water, we cannot do without it.

  7. Vicky32 7

    Looking ahead, I see my (so far only grandchild, who is being brought up by dim people), not being bright enough to be upset about very much other than his inevitable un or under-employment… But living in hope that there will be people in his generation brought up by cleverer and less short-sighted people (perhaps even future grands of mine from the younger kids!) I think and hope that they will be horrified by our
    1. Gullibility
    2. Acceptance of war as a normal human activity (due largely to # 1!)
    3. Wastefulness, as r0b said..

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