Let’s take an excursion into the weeds. This little trip will be a bit wonkish, but it’s prompted by a significant question: How do we value the wellbeing of future generations compared to our own?
Imagine that we have a limited amount of money and we could spend it preventing 100 deaths now or preventing 500 deaths a century in the future. How would we make the choice? This might sound entirely theoretical, but questions like this are at the core of a number of policy matters where economy and ecology overlap. Climate change is the most obvious example.
It’s important to realize that we generally do value present wellbeing over future wellbeing. Part of this is because very little in the future is a sure thing, and part of this is because humans are likely to be wealthier in the future than we are now. That’s true even if we take inflation into account. A hundred dollars given to a student now is likely to improve his or her well-being more than if that same $100 were saved in a coffee can and given 50 years from now.
In order to capture the difference in value between present wellbeing and that of the future, economists employ something called a discount rate. It’s like the inverse of compounding interest. What’s curious about these quantitative functions is that they are not entirely objective. There is always a judgment call in how much we discount the value of future wellbeing. Some economists refer to this troubling bit of guesswork as a “matter of taste.” It’s not just how much more good the dollars from your future self could do now, it’s also that you value the now more than the future.
Christians not known for considering the seventh generation
Let’s scurry further into a different set of weeds: Christian theology has been blamed for the extent to which we discount the value of future wellbeing. There’s no way to prove a connection like this, but who among us hasn’t heard a Christian say: “Why should we worry about the future state of the earth, when God’s going to destroy it anyway?” Or “It’s all going to burn, so why are we trying to maintain it?” In places where Christians make up a significant chunk of the population, this thinking is bound to have an effect.
Christians are not known for considering how people seven generations down the line will be impacted by their decisions. They are known for thinking that Armageddon is just around the corner. To the extent that our low value of the future is a result of biblical exegesis, it comes from a misreading (or even a mistranslation) of II Peter 3:10 and a handful of similar texts. In the KJV, that verse seems to claim that the earth will be burned up. There is good reason to think that passages like these aren’t describing the destruction of the earth at all, but rather the honest disclosure of things that had been hidden. A full rebuttal of the common misreading of this passage would take more than two sentences, but let’s keep moving and consider two other biblical arguments for valuing the future.
First, a more thoroughly biblical vision of the future takes notice of all that the Bible says about God’s care for creation and its eventual renewal. Genesis tells us that God saw creation as “very good.” Closer to the middle of the Bible, we hear the psalmist suggest repeatedly that our praise for God joins that of the rest of creation. In the gospels, Jesus tells us that God keeps track of the sparrows. And at the far end of the Bible, we read that, instead of being raptured off to heaven, the author of Revelation actually envisions heaven coming to earth. Can we really read this Bible and think that we have license to radically discount the future wellbeing of creation and all its creatures?
On a more economic note, it’s also worth recalling that Jesus taught his followers to “lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35). No doubt Jesus was aware of the Torah provision that forbade Israelites from charging each other interest (Deut. 23:19). For generations, much of the church took this as prohibition against charging any interest. Over time, and as the basic structure of the economy changed, it became a prohibition against charging exorbitant rates of interest, what was known as ‘usury.’
How is this relevant to our valuation of future wellbeing? Part of the problem with allowing exorbitant interest rates is that it permits the wealthy to take advantage of those in difficult situations. It requires the poor to sell their future wellbeing just to make ends meet in the present. Severely discounting the wellbeing of future generations is similar. It takes those with little current power (future generations) and sacrifices their wellbeing for our own. The radical discrepancy between the valuation of wellbeing at one point in time to that of another should clue us in to an injustice.
The wellbeing of those in the distant future, say a century away, will never be exactly as important to us as wellbeing in the present. However, I hope one result of this wonkish exploration is a wariness about discounting their wellbeing too much. We must ask our political leaders why they are failing to take seriously the wellbeing of people a century down the road.
The recent announcement that the Canadian government is committing the country to being carbon net-zero by 2050 is a step in the right direction. However, more concrete actions are needed if we are to believe that we are not selling off the future for the present. We should also feel free to ask those who wear the Christian label why they insist on using the Bible to radically discount the wellbeing of future generations. We need economists to help us understand the comparative value of various environmental projects and policies. However, the message they should be getting from us is that it’s in much better taste to err on the side of valuing future generations a bit too much than too little.
The classic debate on this issue was between William Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern. The New York Times ran a summary on Feb. 21 of 2007. The UK-based website Carbon Brief includes a helpful summary of the larger issue in a Q&A on the social cost of carbon.
Anthony Siegrist is lead minister at Ottawa Mennonite Church near the Ontario/Quebec border and the author of Speaking of God: An Essential Guide to Christian Thought. He and his family enjoy exploring the museums and green spaces around Canada’s capital. When time permits, he blogs at anthonysiegrist.com.