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What is Equity?

Intergenerational Equity

Intergenerational equity is a concept that says that humans 'hold the natural and cultural environment of the Earth in common both with other members of the present generation and with other generations, past and future' (Weiss, 1990, p. 8). It means that we inherit the Earth from previous generations and have an obligation to pass it on in reasonable condition to future generations.

The idea behind not reducing the ability of future generations to meet their needs is that, although future generations might gain from economic progress, those gains might be more than offset by environmental deterioration. Most people would acknowledge a moral obligation to future generations, particularly as people who are not yet born can have no say in decisions taken today that may affect them.

There are two different ways of looking at the need to ensure that future generations can supply their needs. One is to view the environment in terms of the natural resources or natural capital that is available for wealth creation, and to say that future generations should have the same ability to create wealth as we have. Therefore, future generations will be adequately compensated for any loss of environmental amenity by having alternative sources of wealth creation. This is referred to as 'weak sustainability'.

The government's ESD working groups have argued that, unless substantial change occurs, the present generation may not be able to pass on an equivalent stock of environmental goods to the next generation. This would be due to three factors:

Firstly, the rates of loss of animal and plant species, arable land, water quality, tropical forests and cultural heritage are especially serious. Secondly, and perhaps more widely recognised, is the fact that we will not pass on to future generations the ozone layer or global climate system that the current generation inherited. A third factor that contributes overwhelmingly to the anxieties about the first two is the prospective impact of continuing population growth and the environmental consequences if rising standards of material income around the world produce the same sorts of consumption patterns that are characteristic of the currently industrialised countries. (ESD Working Group Chairs 1992, p. 10)

The other way is to view the environment as offering more than just economic potential that cannot be replaced by man-made wealth and to argue that future generations should not inherit a degraded environment, no matter how many extra sources of wealth are available to them. This is referred to as 'strong sustainability'.

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Source: Sharon Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development, 2nd edition, Scribe, Newham, Vic.,1996.