Taking Turns with the Earth
Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice
Matthias Fritsch



In his masterful monograph on the special challenges imposed on us by the global environmental tragedy, Stephen Gardiner charges existing ethical and political frameworks with “theoretical inadequacy” (Gardiner 2011a, 244), and calls for “deep work in moral and political philosophy” (399). Ethical and political theories, from utilitarianism to libertarianism, liberalism, and nationalist communitarianism (241), should not be “complacent, evasive, or opaque” in face of the ecological crisis. Theories deserve these condemning labels, for instance, when they stop at an “initial diagnosis” that merely says that “climate change is seriously unjust to the global poor, future generations, and nature” (244). To explain what more we must expect, Gardiner compares our theoretical and environmental predicament to feminist responses to the situation of women. The initial diagnosis of patriarchy as fundamentally unjust and inegalitarian occurred, on his telling, roughly one hundred years ago; only then did we gradually get from ethical and political theorizing a “deep analysis” of “precisely what is wrong with patriarchal systems, and how they shape our ways of looking at issues in problematic ways” (243).

For Gardiner, the question that we must ask in the face of dangerous climate change is not only—though that is needed, too—the calculative question of how much we owe to present and future people, a question that dominates the discussion around the global temperature ceiling we must aim to stay under and the distribution of remaining greenhouse gas emissions (see, e.g., Singer 2006, 418). Theory must also not only address ways of overcoming the inadequacy of global political institutions to agree on these questions and find an adequate enforcement mechanism. Rather, we must address the “more basic” problem of the moral corruption induced by the “perfect moral storm” in its global, intergenerational, ecological, and theoretical dimensions (Gardiner 2011a, 22, 301ff.). The theoretical storm means that currently available theories of justice are “inept” or “unsuited” for the task at hand (241). Thus, deep analysis is to reflect on how we are related to our contemporaries, in particular non-co-nationals and the global poor (to deal with the “global storm”), to nature (to address the “ecological storm”), and to other generations (“the intergenerational storm”). Gardiner thinks it is the intergenerational storm, what he calls the “tyranny of the contemporary” (143), that tends to be eclipsed the most by moral corruption. This is particularly unfortunate given the central importance of capturing the environmental crisis in terms of relations among generations (145ff.). Intergenerational ethics and politics offers a critical lever in the environmental crisis, not only because of the apparent stark injustices to future people, but also because, initially at least, concern for them promises to bring together, in ways likely unmatched by other facets of the environmental crisis, a broad cross-section of the global public, from environmental activists and ecologists to policy makers and economists as well as the wider community, whose outlook is often more anthropocentric and humanist.

The account of intergenerational justice offered in this book understands itself as contributing to deep analysis. I take this analysis to be ethical in seeking to capture the “wrong” of “intergenerational buck-passing” (148), but also ethical in a broader sense, aiming to get us, in Gardiner’s words (243), to look at issues less problematically, especially at relations with future generations. Ethical and political theorizing in this broader sense, I will argue beyond Gardiner—and more in line with those who favor broader engagements with social ontology, dissatisfied with what Charles Taylor once called an “ontologically disinterested liberalism” (Taylor 1995, 186; on the “turn to ontology” in moral and political theory, see also White 2000; Calder 2008; Rosenthal 2016)—should reconsider above all what it is to be a human being who is born of a previous generation and leaves the world to future people. If we can above all debunk the presentist phantasm of self-standing individuals and generations—selves and communities that first exist, as if giving birth to themselves, and only then come to have relations with other generations—then we may hope that intergenerational ethics and politics will have roots in how we look at ourselves and our world alongside noncontemporaries. As some empirical research has demonstrated, understanding oneself as not only the present generation but also as the future generation of the past may combat moral corruption and facilitate an accepting openness to demands issued from the future as well as an imaginative anticipation of its needs (Wade-Benzoni 2002, 2009). This may (but need not necessarily) include the sense that one benefited from one’s predecessors, a sense that, as social scientists have stressed, plays a significant role in people’s pro-futural motivations. Studies show that participants who are asked to make an allocation decision for future generations are strongly influenced by information about how previous participants have behaved—generously or ungenerously—and by the source of the funds to be allocated (whether they were the result of generous gifting of previous participants or not). Summarizing this research, Wade-Benzoni writes that “[t]he data support the hypothesis . . . that the greater the amount of resources perceived as left by previous generations, the greater the amount that will be left to the future” (2002, 1021; see Wade-Benzoni 2009).

Gardiner’s deep analysis should not be understood, in my view, to entail a broad endorsement of the claim that intergenerational justice is a radically new problem, calling for completely new solutions. This view is at times presented on the assumption that before industrial modernity, ethics was more or less restricted to face-to-face relations that simply do not extend well to future people (Singer 2002, 9, 19ff.). According to some anthropologists and evolutionary theorists, moralities emerge with kin and small in-groups to which reciprocal conduct is central, but which it would be difficult to extend to non-overlapping future people, especially at a global level (see, e.g., Jamieson 2002; Garvey 2008, 59; for an overview of the evolutionary account of morality in this respect, see Singer 1998).

To be sure, contemporary environmental degradation, as a “perfect moral storm” intersecting global and intergenerational issues, poses new and unique challenges. But short-term thinking and disregard for noncontemporary generations seems rather germane to industrial, capitalist modernity, with its claim to draw its ethical resources only from itself, rather than from inheritance (Blumenberg 1983; Habermas 1988). For instance, Gardiner’s own formulation of the intergenerational side of the perfect storm self-consciously presupposes a utility-maximizing, self-regarding, present-centered subject who, as Janna Thompson has charged (Thompson 2013), is assumed to have no lifetime-transcending values (Thompson 2006, 2009). That is why a background theme of this book, beyond the old contrast between society (Gesellschaft) and community (Gemeinschaft), is formed by references to non-Western and indigenous accounts of selfhood and sociality. This is most explicit in Chapter 3 on socialization and economizing by way of gift practices, which I will develop into an account of asymmetrical reciprocities that contest presentist preconceptions of time, self, and sociality.

Displacing our self-understanding from presentist to generational being means overcoming the social-ontological assumptions of individualism in a specifically intergenerational way. In fact, many of the terms upon which we draw to define ourselves (language, nation, ethnicity, family, and so on) are transgenerational. Despite its ongoing significance, the modern ideal of autonomy should not lead us to overlook the fact that our individual identities merge into a birth cohort and generation, and that our lives are thereby stretched out into past and future. The group-individual binary obscures the interrelation between the singularization and generational collectivization of individuals: we are born as members of a generation whose unity is challenged by every death and every new birth. While this challenge results in the vexed problem of how to individuate a generation (given ongoing dying and birthing, where does a generation begin and end?), it is also an indication of the fact that our being extends into the intergenerational past and the future.

Thus, generational beings are members of groups, cultures, institutions, and environments that transcend the individual intragenerationally (the individual as member of a larger grouping, institution, and environment) and intergenerationally (at least some of these groups, institutions, and environments precede and exceed the lifetime of individuals). The ethical-political point of a nonpresentist self-understanding as generational beings is that we can be, and often are, interpellated, individually and collectively, as members of a generation, with responsibilities that apply uniquely at this level. As a professor at my university, I should worry about handing on the institution, in these days of the corporatization of public education, to the next generation of professors and their students. As a citizen at the age of maturity, I ought to reflect on the democratic heritage in view of passing on political institutions that work well for future citizens in their circumstances. As an earthling (and user of fossil fuels), I must be concerned about climate change, most of whose harms for humans and nonhumans will likely occur quite a while after my death.1

These brief examples indicate the path toward a solution to the problem of individuating a generation: as long as intergenerational sharing occurs by reference to an object (university governance structures, democratic institutions, the earth’s climate), a crisis in that object may trigger interventionist responsibilities at a given point in time, the starting point for a new generation. As long as the climate is a stable background condition, the question of when the generations that share it begin and end is not a burning issue. Global warming, however, interpellates all those who are adults—however defined, and with varying degrees of knowledge and mitigating, adaptive, and compensatory capacities—as of, say, 1990, the year knowledge of anthropogenic climate change could no longer be seriously doubted as a result of the First Scientific Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.2

Climate change in particular has helped, in recent years, to move the topic of justice for future people (especially non-overlapping) from a marginal to a central problem for society and in the theoretical literature. Global warming has come to crystallize intergenerational and environmental concerns in a particularly urgent way. Former US president Obama put it in a striking way: “We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last to be able to do something about it” (UN Climate Summit, NYC, 23 September 20143). While we have to guard against political posturing, these words capture the sense that “we”—ranging here from “we US citizens presently living” to “currently living human beings”—are singled out by a special responsibility in our historical situation. Given the data on climate change, and environmental degradation more broadly, we are “the first generation” to have the very real power of massively affecting even distant future generations by business as usual; in addition, we know about these effects, more or less conclusively. As the buzzword “Anthropocene” has it, humans are now considered by many scientists to constitute a geological force in their own right. Despite the increasing prevalence of short-termism and social acceleration (see Scheuerman 2004; Rosa 2010, 2012), today we are “interpellated . . . into unfathomably vast futures and deep pasts” (Bastian and van Dooren 2017, 1). The Anthropocene and its proliferating rivals (Capitalocene, Corporatocene, Chtulucene, etc.; Haraway 2016; Moore 2016) reinscribe recent history in deep time, and confront it with the long-term environmental effects that a much more numerous humanity has on the earth and its ecosystems, from nuclear waste and ocean plastics to greenhouse gases and mass extinctions.

These temporal and terrestrial interpellations, then, call on us to reconceive human power and sovereignty in relation to the geological and atmospheric forces on which we depend, and to rethink present time in the context of long-term intergenerational relations. If the extension of justice from the domestic to the global sphere called for a rethinking of space, then intergenerational issues demand a reconsideration, both social-ontological and normative, of the role of time in human life. Our sense of who we are—as individuals, as citizens, and as human beings—needs to reconnect not only with questions of justice beyond our immediate geographical horizon (environmental issues, after all, typically do not respect state borders), but with intergenerational time frames. While power and knowledge single us out for a special responsibility, we must, at the same time, think of our generation as only one among many generations in a long chain before and after us. This book will present three-party historical reciprocities and taking turns among generations as ways of helping us to achieve this reconceptualization of humans as generational-terrestrial beings, as well as of intergenerational relations themselves.

Other philosophers and theorists have responded to this need for reorientation in recent years. Ever since Hans Jonas’s ground-breaking The Imperative of Responsibility (1979, English edition 1984), a number of excellent monographs and essay collections on intergenerational justice have appeared, and I have benefited from many of them (Birnbacher 1988; Laslett and Fishkin 1992; de-Shalit 1995; Dobson 1999; Gosseries 2004; Meyer 2005; Tremmel 2006, 2009; Meyer and Gosseries 2009; Gardiner 2011a; Thompson 2013; Gonzalez-Ricoy and Gosseries 2016). Not many of these, however, could be said to offer the kind of deep analysis for which Gardiner calls, an analysis that I just interpreted, and will continue to elaborate, in terms of the social-ontological reconsideration of human subjectivity and sociality. On my account, the time of birth and death is co-constitutive of human agents in their interrelations with each other. As indicated, we are normative beings—vulnerable and agential bodies that are liable to moral criticisms—to the extent we are nonpresentist, generational beings. Understood as natality and mortality, birth and death not only characterize our temporal mode of existence throughout our lives, but they also link us to other generations before and after us.

In making this point, I draw more and more throughout this book on philosophical phenomenology and deconstruction. Given its central emphasis on temporality in the constitution of a human world and in relation to the origin of moral and political normativity—from Husserl’s time-consciousness to Heidegger’s being-toward-death, from Arendt’s natality to Beauvoir’s reflections on aging, from Levinas’s fecundity to Derrida’s objections to the “metaphysics of presence” in favor of the spectral presence of the dead and the unborn—the phenomenological tradition, broadly construed, may be expected to offer central insights into issues in intergenerational justice. Indeed, the work of the two latter thinkers in particular will contribute to the approach I submit here.

Where appropriate, I respond to the existing literature on intergenerational justice, but often on the basis of different philosophical sources and assumptions. A major difference from much existing work on this issue is that I argue that generational time and intergenerational justice should not be viewed as more or less indifferent to one another. Rather, questions of justice ought to be understood as emerging with the time of birth and death, a social time that separates but also links generations. Normative-theoretical proposals regarding the content of intergenerational obligations are proposed here, but only as developed on this social-ontological basis. My hypothesis is that justice should be thought in such a way as to take the temporal connectedness of human lives across birth and death centrally into account. Moral and political obligations include not only a moment of living co-presence, but also point beyond contemporary life to a time both before and after the present. If we properly conceptualize this Janus-faced, dual reference in the present, obligations to those who are not yet born may come to be seen, precisely by foregrounding temporality, as the very hallmark of moral conduct.

On the basis of natal mortality, then, the major objective of this book is to render moral and political relations with overlapping and non-overlapping future people less anomalous than we often take them to be, and to present two overarching models that may help us to think about the shape and the normativity of these relations. The book will make three overall claims: (1) French and German phenomenology, and its elaboration in deconstruction, help us to situate obligations to the future by thinking the emergence of moral relations in connection with human temporality, what I call the time of birth and death. On this basis, the book will elaborate two related models for intergenerational justice, namely, (2) a form of indirect reciprocity (I call it asymmetrical reciprocity) in which we, the presently living, owe future people both because of their needs or interests and because we received from the past, and (3) the notion of generational turn-taking applied to institutions as well as the natural environment, or what I call the earth. Precisely because the present time of the living is necessarily related to the past as well as to the future, social cooperation and democratic life are best theorized as including from the beginning forms of reciprocity and taking turns among generations with collectively shared “objects.” In conclusion, I will argue that the terrestrial biosphere as a key dimension of this kind of sharing (we share the earth with future generations, even very distant future people) is not a passive object of intergenerational sharing, but for its part turns about generations.


1. The well-known 2006 Stern Review estimates that 90 percent or more of monetized climate change damages will occur after 2200. See http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100407172811/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/stern_review_report.htm); see also Jamieson 2013, 165.

2. See https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/publications_ipcc_first_assessment_1990 _wg1.shtml (last accessed Oct. 27, 2017).

3. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/23/remarks-president-un-climate-change-summit (last accessed Feb. 20, 2017). Obama attributes the line cited to “one of America’s governors.”