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ECPR Joint Sessions, University of Helsinki, 7-12  May 2007


 Democracy on the day after tomorrow? Global environmental change and intergenerational justice


Edward A. Page (Warwick University) and Ludvig Beckman (Stockholm University)


Outline of workshop topic and existing research

Human-originating changes in the environment have sparked a re-thinking of the spatial and temporal bounds of rights and obligations. A consensus is emerging that what is needed is a global theory of justice and democracy that takes seriously the special features of environmental issues, as they are currently understood. This involves extending the scope of our obligations to posterity because current social, economic and political practices are likely to have far reaching consequences for future generations.  However, the more precise content of these obligations, as well as the institutional orders justified by them, has received less attention. In this workshop, participants are invited to present papers on the scope of, conflicts between, and democratic implications of intergenerational obligations generated by the long-term impact of the living generation on the environment. The principal issue addressed is the scope of the obligations owed by the existing generation, and in particular the individuals and institutions in the developed who are mainly responsible for current environment unfriendly policies. Do obligations of justice apply with equal force beyond the borders of countries and generations? This question has three dimensions.

Firstly, should our obligations to future generations be understood in terms of justice and rights, or in terms of other ethical concepts such as compassion or charity? Early contributions to the debate by John Rawls (1971), Brian Barry (1978), and Derek Parfit (1984) focused on two arguments that complicate attempts to construct robust theories of intergenerational justice. (i) According to the non-reciprocity argument, taking the unborn into account in our policy-making cannot be required by justice since it presupposes certain conditions that are absent in dealings between generations, such as mutually advantageous interaction. In this respect, there are problems here that mirror those facing accounts of international, or global, justice. According to the non-identity argument, justice or rights cannot be predicated to future individuals because the present acts and social policies that might be thought to harm or benefit them are also remote, but necessary, conditions of them coming into existence in the first place. The idea is that no future individual will be in a position to argue that their interests or rights were violated by an historical environmental policy since, in its absence, they would never have been born (Parfit, 1984, 367ff; Page, 1999). The non-identity problem has challenged a range of traditional views about the scope, content and justification of justice and rights. New critical perspectives on these issues are greatly welcomed.

Secondly, there are largely unexplored questions about the potential conflicts between obligations to the future and the present poor, who overwhelmingly reside in developing countries. What is the relation between the obligations owed by the rich nations to the global poor and the obligations owed to the future? A common point is to argue that the recognition of obligations to our descendants cannot be isolated from considerations of our obligations to peoples in other parts of the world (Singer, 2002, 26ff). Yet, a potential dilemma arises between policies that will benefit future members of the developing world ‘directly’ by protecting environmental resources and systems and those that will benefit them ‘indirectly’ by helping their societies to develop. Moreover, reducing current consumption may conserve resources for the unborn at the cost of worsening the lot of the present poor by contracting existing opportunities for trade, work and growth (Beckerman and Pasek, 2001).

Thirdly, questions have been raised about the role to be played by democratic institutions in these respects. If there are far reaching obligations that the living owe the unborn, it would appear that current political systems of government need to be reshaped in order to be more sensitive to the interests of future peoples. Would such measures be the full realization of democratic ideals or require a radically different understanding of the concept of democracy? One aspect of this debate concerns the rationale for the idea of extending democracy into the future. A common argument is that the living generation has few incentives to pursue policies in the interests of future people and that what is needed is consequently that they be represented politically (van Parjis 1997; Goodin 1996). It has also been argued that the “all affected” principle - according to which everyone affected by a decision should have the right to participate in its making - grounds an obligation to grant future generations a “voice” in democratic institutions (Dobson 1996; Eckersley 2001). Yet the all affected principle is ambiguous (Beckman 2006) and there are many issues that need to be explored further about its philosophical status, as well as its implications for democratic institutions (O’Neill 2003 and Thompson 2005). A further aspect of the debate concerns the methods by which granting a “voice to the voiceless” could be institutionalized. One indirect method of representation is to introduce a system of constitutional rights that prevents earlier generations from adopting policies and laws that are discriminatory towards later generations. Tim Hayward, for example, has argued recently that a fundamental right to an adequate environment should be entrenched into the constitutions of modern democracies (Hayward, 2004). A more radical, and direct, set of proposals includes the reserving of parliamentary seats for parties acting as trustees for future generations (Ekeli 2005) and granting the environmental lobby a special status in the legislative process (Dobson 1996). The Israeli Parliament’s (the Knesset) decision to appoint a Commissioner for future generations, with the designated task of guarding the interests of future people in new reforms and legislation, is one interesting example of how future people might be represented today.  But which possible institutional measures would best allow future people to be represented? Papers providing innovative and critical perspectives on these issues are most welcome.

Participants and papers

The panel brought together 16 European scholars in political theory, philosophy and environmental and political science in order to seek parallels, synergies and intellectual progress on the above issues, and lead to the pubication of a series of peer reviewed articles as well as the commissioning of a special issue of the Journal Environmental Politics on the theme of the workshop to be published in Summer 2008.

The papers delivered represented a broad cross section of current research in environmental issues, with the focus being on explorations of the intersection between justice and democracy that is sparked by the obligations generated by environmental concerns and that seek to address the global and intergenerational ramifications of the issue. Papers addressing the relationships amongst equity, democracy and global environmental issues, such as climate change, ecological debt, nuclear waste storage and genetic modification were also encouraged.  


Paper Title

BECKMAN   Ludvig (Stockholm)

Democracy, future generations and global climate change

JAGERS Sverker (Gothenburg)


EKELI   Kristian Skagen (NTNU Trondheim)

Constitutional experiments: Representing future generations through submajority rules

GOSSERIES   Axel (Lovain)

Does generational overlap make any difference?

HEYWARD   Clare (Oxford)

The Case for Constitutional Rights of Future Generations.

HUSEBY   Robert (Oslo)

Solving the non-identity problem

KARLSSON   Rasmus (Lund)

Beyond the Rawlsian monologue - a two-stage approach to intergenerational justice

MALNES   Raino (Oslo)

Uncertainty, political ethics and the ethos of science

MALTAIS   Aaron (Uppsala)

The Threat of Global Warming and Demanding Global Political Duties

PAAVOLA   Jouni (Leeds)

Science and Social Justice in the Governance of Atmospheric Sinks

PAGE   Edward (Warwick)

Distributing the burdens of climate change

RENDALL   Matthew (Nottingham)

Nuclear weapons and intergenerational exploitation

WISSENBURG   Marcel (Nijmegen)

Intergenerational Environmental and Ecological Justice: The Polluter Pays

WOLF   Johanna (UEA)

The ecological citizen and climate change

WOODS   Kerri-Anne (Glasgow)

An overlapping consensus on environmental sustainability?


Biographical note on Workshop Directors

Dr Edward Page is Associate Professor in Political Theory at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Warwick University. He has previously held teaching and research posts at the Universities of Southampton, Keele, Lund and Birmingham. His research interests focus on theories of intergenerational and international justice; environmental ethics; theories of rights; and global climate change. See below for relevant publications.

Dr Ludvig Beckman is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. His current research interests include theoretical and empirical aspects of democratic inclusion (children, aliens, disabled, prisoners, etc.); theories of ecological democracy; problems of privacy rights in relation to national security and the commercial use of gene technology; the political uses of conceptions of human dignity; and methodological problems in normative political theory. See below for relevant publications.


Barry, Brian (1978) ‘Circumstances of Justice and Future Generations’, in Sikora R. and Barry B. (eds.) Obligations to Future Generations ( Philadelphia: Temple University Press).

Barry, Brian (1989) Theories of Justice ( London:  Harvester-Weatsheaf).

Barry, Brian (1999) ‘Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice’, in Dobson A. (ed.) Fairness and Futurity (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.93-107.

Barry, Brian (2005) Why Social Justice Matters ( Cambridge: Polity).

Barry, John (1999) Environment and Social Theory (London: Routledge).

Baxter, Brian (1999) Ecologism ( Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Beckerman, Wilfrid and Pasek, Joanna (2001) Justice, Posterity and the Environment ( Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Beckman, Ludvig (2001), ‘Virtue, Sustainability and Liberal Values’, in Barry J. and Marcel W. (eds), Sustaining Liberal Democracy (Houndmills: Palgrave), pp.79-91.

Beckman, Ludvig, (2006) ‘Citizenship and voting rights: Should resident aliens vote?’ Citizenship Studies 10(2).

Caney, Simon (2005) Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory ( Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Dobson, Andrew (1996) ‘Representative democracy and the environment’, in Lafferty W. and Meadowcraft J. (eds.), Democracy and the environment ( Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).

Dobson, Andrew (1998) Justice and the Environment ( Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Dobson, Andrew (2003) Citizenship and the Environment ( Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Dobson, Andrew (2006) ‘Thick Cosmopolitanism’, Political Studies, 54, pp.165-84.

Eckersley, Robyn, 2000. “Deliberative democracy, ecological representation and risk. Towards a democracy of all affected”, in Saward M. (ed.), Democratic innovation. Deliberation, representation and association ( London: Routledge).

Ekeli, Kristian Skagen (2005) ‘Giving a voice to posterity – deliberative democracy and representation of future people’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 18, pp.429-450.

Goodin, Robert (1996) ‘Enfranchising the earth, and its alternatives’ Political Studies 44, pp. 835-849.

Hayward, Tim (2004) Constitutional Environmental Rights ( Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Jagers, Sverker (2002) Justice, liberty and bread for all? On the compatibility betwen sustainable development and liberal democracy (Gothenburg: Gothenburg University Press).

Kavka, Gregory and Warren, Virginia (1983) ‘Political representation for future generations’, in Elliot, R. and Gare, A. (eds.), Environmental philosophy. A collection of readings ( University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press).

Low, Nicholas and Gleeson, Brendon (1998) Justice, Society and Nature ( London: Routledge).

O’Neill, John, (2001) ‘Representing people, representing nature, representing the world’ Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 19, pp. 483-500.

O’Neill, Onora (2000) Bounds of Justice ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Page, Edward A. (1999) ‘Intergenerational Justice and Climate Change’, Political Studies 47, pp.53-66.

Page, Edward A. (2006) Climate Change, Justice, and Future Generations ( Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).

Parfit, Derek (1984) Reasons and Persons ( Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Singer, Peter (2002) One World ( London: Yale University Press).

Thompson, Dennis (2005) ‘Democracy in time: Popular sovereignty and temporal representation’ Constellations 12(2), pp. 245-261.

Van Parijs, Philippe (1998) ‘The disenfranchisement of the elderly and other attempts to secure intergenerational justice’, Philosophy and public affairs 27:4, pp.292-333.

Wissenburg, Marcel (1998) Green Liberalism: The Free and green society ( London: UCL Press).