What Do We Owe The Future?

There are many problems facing us as a species. Some, like racism, have to do with how we treat each other now. Others, like climate change or fossil fuel use, are problems we can predict for the future.

The most immediate problems that we see are the problems facing us right now. For instance, do I need a haircut? Am I dressed appropriately for today’s weather? Is my stomach growling? Which bills are due this week?

We do some planning for the future. For example, when possible we create retirement accounts so that we have enough money to last us into our old age.

However, we aren’t all that good at looking far ahead. Most people do not save enough money for a comfortable retirement. Some of that, no doubt, has to do with the lack of extra income to put toward retirement. But some of it comes from our inability to imagine the future.

As difficult as it might be for an individual — rarely do we actually have our lives mapped out in advance — but it becomes almost impossible in aggregate. Our society has a difficult time sacrificing our present for a better future.

As an example, let’s consider fossil fuel use. We’ve known for decades that the supply of fossil fuels is limited. There is only so much oil and coal in the ground. However, this stored energy has allowed us to build our modern day society, from the grandiose, like the ability to travel around the world quickly, to the mundane like having a light to read during the night time.

However, knowing that we have a limited supply of fossil fuels, fuels that power our present-day life, we continue to increase our usage year after year. It is only recently, after decades, that we have started to develop renewable fuel technologies. Even now, decades later, they still only make up a tiny fraction of our overall energy usage. We have concentrated instead on more efficient ways of extracting these fossil fuels, rather than transitioning to alternate sources.

Why is it so hard to plan, collectively, for the future? Individually, we might be able to sacrifice present-day luxuries for a better future. Why not as a species?

Or is the question itself the wrong one to ask? Should we not be making decisions for the future? As airplane safety teaches us, it is important to secure our own oxygen mask before assisting others. If we don’t survive in the present day, preparing for the future won’t matter.

To summarize, how much of our thought and energy should be thinking about future generations? What do we owe the future?

Related questions: What are our responsibilities to others? How do you set priorities? What is the greatest problem facing humanity? What is your five year prediction? Ten? What are you saving for?