Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Intergenerational Equity – Introduction

President Obama said this about America, but it is just as valid for Australia and the other nations of the world as well: "Loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo".

There was a really interesting survey carried out in 2013 in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. Over 500 people in each country – over 2000 in total – were asked a series of questions, which included two gems as follows -

"In your opinion, how likely is it that humans will be wiped out in the next hundred years?", "In your opinion, how likely is it that our existing way of life will end in the next hundred years?"

They are, of course, very different questions. It turns out that 24 per cent of us think that there is a fifty per cent or greater chance that humans will be wiped out in the next hundred years. Australia is right on the average, at 24 per cent, while Americans are the most apocalyptic, at 30 per cent, and Britons the most sanguine, at 19 per cent.

Even more troubling, over fifty per cent of us – 54 per cent – think our existing way of life will end in the next hundred years. Views about this are consistent from country to country - 53 per cent in Australia, 55 per cent in Canada, 51 per cent in the UK, and 57 per cent in the US, think our way of life is for the high jump. In each country less than fifty per cent thinks that our way of life will see out the century. (Melanie Randle and Richard Eckersley, "Public perceptions of future threats to humanity and different societal responses: A cross-national study", 2015).

Richard Eckersley and Melanie Randle see this pessimism as consistent with the results of a survey of 1000 Australians which asked which of two scenarios of the world in the 21st century more closely reflected their view -

"By continuing on its current path of economic and technological development, humanity will overcome the obstacles it faces and enter a new age of peace and prosperity", or

"More people, environmental destruction, new diseases and ethnic and regional conflicts mean the world is heading for a bad time of crisis and trouble".

Two thirds of Australians chose the pessimistic scenario, while less than a quarter (23 per cent) chose the optimistic one (Ibid).

Several questions arise. First, are the pessimists right? For reasons I will outline in the coming days, weeks and months, I think they are. Secondly, why do we continue on our current path given that a clear majority believes it is a path to catastrophe? Third, are there alternatives that might serve us better?

Intergenerational equity, or intergenerational fairness, means we have an obligation to pass on to our children and grandchildren a world in as good a condition as the one our parents and grandparents left us. I will set out where, how and why we are not faithfully discharging this obligation, and suggest how we could do better, giving both young people and older people a better deal than they are getting at present.

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