Why We Should Care about a Sustainable Future Beyond our Own (Extended Version)

The need to develop a sustainable society and economy is reiterated among designers and others who care about the future of our planet. These concerns are supported by evidence that is cited by leaders in industry and government. For example, the Paris Agreement cites four important issues that threaten the future of the planet: human-generated emissions, global warming, climate change’s threat to human health and life’s resources*.

While large initiatives are implemented at an institutional level, these leaders are encouraging change at the individual level. How do they convince people to change their values about sustainability? One message for those individuals is that they have to consider sustainability’s importance for the future. In the near future, these issues will most certainly affect the generations alive now. But I think the care for a sustainable future extends further — these problems will affect the generations that haven’t yet been born.

Here I will consider why people of any age should now think of the importance of preserving life’s resources beyond their own lifetime.

I took a class on sustainable futures that semester, and these pressing issues that the Paris Agreement cited were explained. “We need to care about the future our planet,” they taught us. We read about predicting futures in 2080 and beyond. But I kept asking myself:

Why care about a future beyond our own?

I think this is also a psychological question because I’m not only asking if sustainability is important, but also why it is important to individuals.

I believe that people who care about a sustainable future are driven by at least two factors: appreciation of life and compassion.

Those committed to sustainability have a sense of appreciation for life’s ecosystems and how they serve human life. We care about the natural privileges we have now: clean water, landmasses above water, and more. We recognize that our harmful practices affect these privileges that we appreciate.

The human trait of compassion is also a motivation towards sustainability. We feel compassion for the people of the future whose lives are threatened because of our noxious practices. We feel a responsibility for these practices, and recognize that there’s something we can do now to help those people. This is a compassion for the generations after us, perhaps of our lineage or that of others.

I am profoundly appreciative of the compassion of those who care for a sustainable future beyond their own. It is a testament to human connection not only to the people we know now, but to the people of the future who we will never meet.

*Natural Resources Defense Council, 2020.

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