What Do We Owe To Future Generations? (Part One)

“On Christmas Day, 1776, British explorer Captain Cook arrived on Kerguelen Island, a Connecticut –sized land mass covered with grass in the Indian Ocean. One of the things Cook did while he was there was release a few rabbits. He thought that rabbits would provide fresh meat for any sailors who followed. The rabbits, in a favorable climate with not natural predators, multiplied. And grew. And flourished. And overpopulated. In a short span of time, the rabbit population exploded into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

Then, after eating every single blade of grass, they died. They died as they lived, by the hundreds of thousands. The old once died, the baby bunnies died, the pregnant mothers died. They died because that is how the Web of Life works. Biologists call it “overshoot and dieback”. No rabbit was immune.

If you go to the island today, you will see that no one rabbit or one blade of grass exists. Both rabbits and grass were rendered extinct by the rabbit’s success. The rabbits were killed by their own story.

Each rabbit had a story that governed its existence and behavior: “Creating a World That Works for Me”. According to this story, each rabbit maximized its position, eating as much as it could and producing as many offspring as possible. This formula for “success”, in the absence of competing owl and coyote success formulas, was fatal. The rabbits were disastrously successful. Exclusivity is death.

Think about how the rabbits must have felt when their population has reached a million and “only” half of their grass was gone. They were in Rabbit Heaven! All the grass you could eat (with no competition), half a million sex partners, and not a coyote in sight! Eat, sleep and screw all day! The only thing they didn’t’ know was that they were just one generation away from annihilation. Assume that, at this time, a more reflective-than-average-bunny wrote a book entitled Creating an Island That Works for All. In it, he said that if they were to continue to thrive, rabbits everywhere on the island would have to change their thinking. No more “maximum food, maximum sex”.

This strange bunny even went so far as to say that rabbits needed eagles, owls and coyotes! Without them, the rabbit population would outstrip the generative capacity of the island and it would die. In order for the island to work for rabbits, it had to work for coyotes also. The bunny writer called his concept “inclusivity”. He believed that if the rabbits consciously reduce their food intake, consciously restricted their sex habits, and invited in a few owls, eagles and coyotes, the rabbits and the grass would continue to flourish. We’ll never know whether or not the book bunny was right. We do know, however, that the others were wrong. Dead wrong.”

This analogy is mentioned in the book “Creating A World That Works For All” by Sharif Abdullah. And I thought of it during the Philosophy Meetup event yesterday. About 44 people gathered on Sunday to talk philosophy and in particular discuss the topic of “What, if anything, do we owe to future generations?” Brian, the organizer, who has been leading this group for 8 years, posed the questions:

“Nearly all of us care about and have moral regard and obligations to people around us (at least to some of them). Does it follow from this, or from any other consideration, that we do or should have regard or obligations to people who live after all people currently alive have died? Normally, we think of our obligations as being to particular individuals who actually exist. How can we be obliged to people who don’t exist and may never exist? How can specific persons who don’t exist have rights and claims upon us?”

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