Some Of Our Books


« Northwestern University Society for the Theory of Ethics and Politics--CFP | Main | Murphy Institute Fellowship (Tulane) - Final Call »

November 12, 2014


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

We could spend all of the "social security trust fund".
We could let public buildings decay instead of investing in their capital upkeep.
We could leave great islands of trash instead of paying to tidy it up in landfills.
We could fish all of the tuna from the oceans.

Oh, sorry, future humans! But not really sorry. Hey, we could have screwed you much worse than this, so be thankful.

Hi Jamie,

I know the comment is not completely serious. Of course, Broome acknowledges that this isn't the ideal solution for the reasons you give in the end. My question really is if my life is made worse because I cannot fly, how am I supposed to be able to spend the trust fund and the money I save from letting the buildings decay and letting the trash be where it is to improve my life by consuming more in a way that does not itself cause greenhouse gas emissions in a way that defeats the whole project? Eating more tuna sounds good though.

Hi Jussi

As I understand it Broome thinks that for refraining from doing some enjoyable things which generate CO2 we are entitled to compensate ourselves by refraining from doing some of the unenjoyable things that we would otherwise have done which benefit future generations. So we do not repair the machinery etc.

The time and money saved can be spent in ways which generate relatively small amounts of CO2, for example, chatting, eating (other than red meat), drinking, attending clubs, plays, films, concerts, exhibitions, reading, philosophising, hiking, cycling, lazing around etc.. Maybe you have too expensive tastes :-)

Broome’s account does not document what is the right and just way to behave. Rather, as he, Jamie and you are aware, it is merely pragmatic – trying to persuade people to harm future generations less than they otherwise would. Thus objections have to focus on what is practical.

One practical problem is that the current generation actually do not do much that is solely for future generations (if they were focused upon future generations then climate change would not be a problem). They repair the machinery because they want it to still work in ten years’ time because this will benefit them. They maintain the art galleries because they want them to still be there in twenty years’ time so they can return to them. They do not overfish because they want to be able to eat cod and tuna in thirty years’ time. And so on. Thus there is not much to be cut back on.

Another practical problem is that either people are selfish, in which case they will carry on as they are, or they try to be ethical in which case they will try to do what is right – something that Broome does not explore. Offering them a way of behaving that is somewhat less wrong than what they otherwise would do, is unlikely to motivate them, I suspect.

You mention you are preparing a course on climate change ethics, so you might be interested in a special issue on ‘Justice and Natural Resources. Intergenerational and Global Dimensions’ in the new De Gruyter journal, ‘Moral and Political Philosophy’. It is due out in January, with advance view papers here:
My paper is here:
And information on how to get free access to this journal is here:

Best wishes


Hi Jussi (if I may),

I had similar worries when I worked through this for a unit on climate change in an environmental ethics course I taught last summer. Here's how I made sense of the suggestion. (I'm not sure if it works in the end.)

In the supermarket, "green" products tend to cost more than their non-"green" counterparts. Using green energy tends to cost more (at least initially) than burning fossil fuels. If we can somehow extract wealth from the future, we can use this wealth to subsidize the initial cost of switching to a greener way of life by, for example, making the cost of those "green" products cheaper in the supermarket, paying for a Manhatten Project style investment in developing renewable energy, and investing in off-setting (which is something Broome argues individuals should do). So I can still use my big TV, and it won't cost me anything extra, if future generations subsidize the cost of powering it with renewable energy. And I can still take my trip by plane, and it need not cost me anything extra, if future generations pay the off-setting costs.

[About offsetting: Some people, such as Naomi Klein, seem to think that carbon off-setting is a scam. But given the fact that Broome argues that individuals should offset their carbon footprints, I take it that he thinks it need not be, even if every existing off-setting company is a scam. I'm not informed enough to have an opinion of my own on this matter.]

There is still the question of how to extract wealth from the future. One way is to "borrow" the money by using economic tools (such as bonds, inflation, etc.) that in effect levy a tax on the future. I'm not an economics buff, so I don't know the full array of tools available, nor how most of them work. But I take it that we have such tools at our disposal. Of course, the very people who are resistant to making sacrifices for future generations will also be resistant to using these economic tools (for political reasons). So in the end, it doesn't seem likely that Efficiency without Sacrifice is actually all that more viable politically (at least in the US) than Efficiency with Sacrifice.

I'm a little confused by some of the subsequent comments, but to Jussi: The way we benefit from the measures I described is that we don't have to spend the effort and hours on constructing ecologically sound landfills, and we don't have to use labor and materials that we want for other stuff on capital maintenance, and that sort of thing. Of course, you personally weren't going to be working on landfills and building maintenance, but you'll benefit from the economic goods produced by the people who would have been doing it, since they'll be designing fun phone apps and growing avocados and cutting sushi instead.

I share all your worries about making Efficiency Without Sacrifice work in practice. But I also think there is a serious theoretical flaw in the argument. The short version is that the argument works only if we measure the harms of climate change using the willingness to pay of future generations, and even Broome thinks that's not the right measure. In case you're interested, I've got a forthcoming paper on this:

Hi all

thanks for the very helpful comments. They've really helped me to rephrase my question as two separate questions and I am starting to be slightly more optimistic of the answers on Broome's behalf. Here's the questions I am thinking of now:

1. Currently our sources of well-being are energy-intensive and the energy is produced by burning fossil fuels which leads to greenhouse gas emissions. In order to reach efficiency, we have to vastly reduce our emissions.

Two options: a) we generate the same energy from green sources in which case we perhaps need not to change our sources of well-being. b) we do some of a) but perhaps we will have to give up some of the energy-intensive sources of well-being to reduce emissions. The question then is are there alternative sources of well-being that are much less energy-intensive.Things like chatting, eating vegetables, plays, films, philosophizing, clubbing, phone apps, avocados, sushi and so on are suggested. The questions then are: will these really be in the end less energy-intensive enough as replacement activities and more importantly will they give us as much well-being as the energy intensive activities? I've got some doubts about this.

2. The second question is how is the moving to alternative energies and the new green replacement activities funded by the consumption of the artificial and natural resources that would have been invested to the future generations otherwise. I can see how this might work with directing resources to alternative energy. I'm less certain about how this works with the suggested replacement activities. One suggestion seems to be that this has mainly to do with spending time - not necessarily by me but by the people who were carrying out the projects that constitute investing in the future generations. I'm still unsure whether this work on the right kind of scale to improve all our lives enough.

Thanks anyway everyone!

It is worth remarking the example of Germany, arguably the most successful advanced industrial economy in the world, which is transitioning its power grid over to renewables with remarkable success and also shutting nuclear plants.
Of course, the investments in transitioning the power grid from fossil fuels are themselves economic activity.
Where there's a will, there's a way!

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ethics at PEA Soup

PPE at PEA Soup

Like PEA Soup

Search PEA Soup


  • Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in any given post reflect the opinion of only that individual who posted the particular entry or comment.