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Intra-generational solidarity



Action on climate change is underpinned by an ethical principle called inter-generational justice.

Traditional ethical concerns normally dealt with the impact of our behaviour on individuals or communities in the here-and-now or in the immediate future, but this is no longer an adequate framework.

This generation, through its powerful technologies, is bringing about massive changes to the fabric of the earth, which will also affect in a negative way every succeeding generation of humans and other creatures.

The basic principle, which arises from this ethical concern, is that future generations have the right to inherit a world as fertile and as beautiful as the one which we inhabit.

This new moral context is recognised in number 470 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

It states, “From a moral perspective based on equity and intergenerational solidarity, it will be necessary to continue, through the contribution of the scientific community, to identify new sources of energy, develop alternative sources and increase the security level of nuclear energy.

Praise be: On care for our common home (Laudato Si) gives extensive treatment to intergenerational justice.

In No. 159, Pope Francis writes, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.

“Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn” (No. 160).

The concept of intergenerational justice might help counteract a tendency I have noticed among bureaucrats in the civil service and among some religious leaders.

I have often heard them say that if something, such as climate change is not going to happen on my watch, then I’ll leave it to my successor to deal with it, even though I know what I am doing now will exacerbate the problem and maybe create a situation which will be irreversible.

The pope hopes that “once we think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently” (159).

But Pope Francis is aware of what the poor today are suffering, so he says that “in addition to a fairer sense of intergenerational solidarity, there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intra-generational solidarity” (No. 162).

In response, the Church needs to develop its teaching on sustainability. Here Pope Francis mentions the statement of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which proclaimed, “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development” (No 167).

This statement came at the end of a decade of reflection on sustainable development by those involved in researching the Brundtland Report for the United Nations. The report was published in the book, Our Common Future, in 1987.

It defines sustainable development as seeking “to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future.”

Then it goes on to affirm “that far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognises that the problems of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits” (page 40).

Almost 20 years later, any ecological evaluation of the impact of economic growth in either the smaller economies of Europe or the two digit gross domestic product annual growth of the Chinese economy must make it absolutely clear that the western, oil-dependent kinds of growth, which both China and India are now pursuing, are environmentally unsustainable.

We need to be reminded that the earth is finite and that we must live in a way that is fair and just towards future generations of humans and other creatures.

Pope Francis is also convinced that oil-dependent growth is not the way into a sustainable future. 

He agrees with the bishops of Bolivia who have stated, “The countries which have benefited from a high degree of industrialisation, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing solutions to the problems they have they have caused” (No.170).

• Father Sean McDonagh