Child Centered World

On July 30, 1998, the Supreme Court of the Philippines in Minors Oposa ruled that a group of 44 children had standing to sue on behalf of subsequent generations. In their suit, the children were trying to cancel agreements between timber companies and the Philippines government. The court found "no difficulty in ruling that they can, for themselves, for others of their generation and for the succeeding generations file a class suit . . . based on the concept of intergenerational responsibility insofar as the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is concerned" (quoted in Gates 2000, 289; see also Ledewitz 1998). The court considered the essence of that right to be the preservation of "the rhythm and harmony of nature" including "the judicious disposition, utilization, management, renewal and conservation of the country's forest, mineral, land, waters, fisheries, wildlife, off-shore areas and other natural resources" (Ledewitz 1998, 605). The court further stated that every generation has a responsibility to the next to preserve that rhythm and harmony for the full enjoyment of a balanced and healthful ecology." That right, the court argued, "belongs to a category . .. which may even predate all governments and constitutions . . . exist[ing] from the inception of humankind." Without the protection of such rights "those to come inherit nothing but parched earth incapable of sustaining life" (ibid.).

The court's decision recognizes what is, I think, simply obvious: that the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is the sine qua non for all other rights. The court acknowledged, in other words, that human health and well-being is inseparable from that of the larger systems on which we are utterly dependent. The court's decision implicitly acknowledges the inverse principle that no generation has a right to disrupt the biogeochemical conditions of the earth or to impair the stability, integrity, and beauty of biotic systems, the consequences of which would fall on subsequent generations as a form of irrevocable intergenerational remote tyranny.

No mention of ecological rights was made in our own Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional development because, until recently, only the most prescient realized that we could damage the earth enough to threaten all life and all rights. But the idea that rights extend across generations was part of the revolutionary ethos of the late eighteenth century. The Virginia Bill of Rights (June 12, 1776), for example, held that "all men . . . have certain inherent rights, of which when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety" (emphasis added; quoted in Commager 1963, 103). That same idea was central to Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy. In the famous exchange of letters with James Madison in 1789, Jefferson argued that "the earth belongs in usufruct to the living . . . no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living" (Jefferson 1975, 445). Jefferson's use of the word "usufruct," the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another, is central to his point. For Jefferson, "the essence of the relationship between humans and the earth," in Richard Matthews's words, is "that of a trust, a guardianship, where the future takes priority over the present or past" (1995, 256). Initially skeptical, Madison, in time, came to hold a similar view (ibid., 260). On the other side of the political spectrum, Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, arrived at a similar position. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France ([1790] 1986), Burke described the intergenerational obligation to pass on liberties "as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity" (119). For Burke, society is "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born" (ibid., 195).

It is reasonable, given what we now know, to enlarge the concept of intergenerational debt to include intergenerational ecological debts including biotic impoverishment, soil loss, ugly and toxic landscapes, and unstable climate. It is entirely logical to believe that the right to life and liberty presumes that the bearers of those rights also have prior rights to the biological and ecological conditions on which life and liberty depend. If Jefferson were alive now he would, I think, agree wholeheartedly with that amendment. Similarly, Burke would agree that the entailed inheritance of institutions, laws, and customs must also be expanded to include its ecological foundations without which there can be no useable inheritance at all. This suggests a convergence of Left and Right around the idea that the legitimate interests of our children and future generations sets boundaries to present behavior and changes the character of the present generation from property holders with absolute ecological rights to trustees for those yet to be born. The echo of this tradition is sounded in our time in documents such as the World Commission on Environment and Development report Our Common Future, which defines sustainable development as a way "to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future" (1987, 40). Similarly, the "Earth Charter" aims, in part, to "transmit to future generations values, tradition, and institutions that support the long-term flourishing of Earth's human and ecological communities" (www. E arthcharter. org).

The extension of rights to some limits the freedom of others, thereby acknowledging that we live in a community and must be disciplined by the legitimate interests of every member of that community, now and in the future. Mesmerized by the industrial version of progress, we have been slow to recognize the revolutionary implications of that idea. But taken seriously, what do the ideas that children have standing to sue on behalf of the unborn or that certain ecological rights extend across time require of us? The answer is that we are required to follow the thread of obligations back to the economic and political conditions that affect children now and that will do so in the future. This requires, in short, that we rethink political economy from the perspective of those who cannot speak on their own behalf.

The most obvious of the present conditions affecting children has to do with the distribution of wealth. It is an article of faith in the contemporary political economy that everyone has the right to amass as much wealth as they possibly can and that any single generation has the same right vis-à-vis subsequent generations. As a result the top 1 percent in the United States have greater financial net worth than the remaining 95 percent (Gates 2000, 79). Working-class families have watched their real income decline by 7 percent between 1973 and 1998, putting more pressure on children who receive, as Jeff Gates puts it, "less parenting from substantially more stressed parents" (ibid., 47). Despite the huge increase in wealth in the past half-century, one-fifth of American children still live in poverty (ibid., 69). To guarantee that every child has the basics of food, shelter, medical care, decent parenting, and education means that we must address basic problems of economic security for families. Because poverty and its effects are often self-perpetuating across generations, inequity casts a long shadow over the future.

Similarly, implicit in the political economy of capitalism is the faith that the prosperity of the present generation will flow into the future as a positive stream of wealth. Losses in natural capital, it is assumed, will be offset by increased wealth. It is clear, however, that a stream of liabilities—toxic waste dumps, depleted landscapes, biotic impoverishment, climate change—cannot be nullified because natural and economic capital are not always interchangeable (Costanza and Daly 1992). The intergenerational balance of economic capital created minus the natural capital lost may not be positive because the costs of repairing, restoring, or simply adjusting to a world of depleted natural capital will exceed the benefits of advanced technology, sprawling cities, and larger stock portfolios.

Second, the recognition of children's rights would require us to rethink the taboo subject of property ownership. From that perspective we are obliged to protect not only the big components of the biosphere but also the small places in which children live. Children need access to safe places, parks, and wild areas. This recognition would cause us more often to rebuild decaying urban areas, restore degraded places, preserve more open spaces and river corridors, build more parks, set limits to urban sprawl, and repair ruined industrial landscapes. But doing so would require changing our belief in the nearly absolute rights of the landowner supposedly derived from English philosopher John Locke. We need to reread John Locke with the interests of children and future generations in mind. In fact, Locke's case for private ownership carried the caveat that land ownership should be limited so that "there is enough and as good left in common for others" (Locke [1688] 1965, 329; see also Schrader-Frechette 1993). The rights of children and future generations run counter to notions of property which give present owners the rights to do with land much as they please. At its most egregious, absentee corporations own land and subsurface mineral rights to large portions of Ap-palachia while paying minuscule taxes and practicing a kind of mining that decapitates entire mountains (Lockard 1998). Nothing in the law or current business ethics or mainstream economics would require them to give the slightest heed to the rights of the children living in those places or to those who will live there. Property rights, in a child-centered political economy, will require that owners must leave "enough and as good" or forfeit ownership.

Third, what do the rights of children mean for the interpretation of other rights such as the First Amendment guarantee of freedom speech and press? From a child's point of view that freedom has been corrupted to allow corporations to target children through advertising, movies, and television programming. More fundamentally, it has been corrupted to protect the rights of property, not the rights of people, by allowing corporations the same legal standing as persons. A child-centered political economy would, I think, permit no such reading of the Constitution or violations of common sense. Freedom of speech was intended by the founders, not as a license, but as a fundamental protection of religious and political freedoms and should not be interpreted as a right to prey on children for any purpose whatsoever.

Perhaps most difficult of all, what do the rights of children mean for the development of technology? Neil Postman once asked whether "a culture [could] preserve humane values and create new ones by allowing modern technology the fullest possible authority to control its destiny" (1982, 145). We have good reason to believe that the answer is no. But the subject is virtually taboo in the United States. Biologist Robert Sinsheimer (1978, 33) once proposed to limit the rights of scientists where their freedom to investigate was

"incompatible with the maintenance of other freedoms." His argument was met with a thundering silence. In a society much enamored of invention, he inconveniently asked whether the rights of the inventor to create risky and dangerous technologies exceeded the rights of society to a safe and humane environment. Nearly a quarter of a century later, computer software engineer Bill Joy raised the same question regarding the rapid advance in technologies with self-replicating potential like genetic engineering, nanotechnologies, and robotics. In Joy's words, "we are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes" (2000, 256). Like Sinsheimer, Joy proposed placing limits on the freedom to innovate, assuming that the rights of some to pursue wealth, fame, or simply their curiosity should not trump the rights of future generations to a decent and humane world. A child-centered political economy would begin with the right of the child and future generations, not with those of the scientist and inventor. It would put brakes on the rights of technological change and scientific research where those might incur large and irreversible risks.

Fifth, a child-centered political economy would give priority to democratically controlled communities over the rights of finance capital and corporations—another taboo subject. In a series of decisions beginning with the Dartmouth College case and culminating in the 1886 Santa Clara case, the U.S. Supreme Court gave corporations the same protections given to individuals:

We live in the shadow of a super-species, a quasi-legal organism that competes with humans and other life-forms in order to grow and thrive. ...It can "live" in many places simultaneously. It can change its body at will—shed an arm or a leg or even a head without harm. It can morph into a variety of new forms absorb other members of its species, or be absorbed itself. Most astoundingly, it can live forever. To remain alive, it only needs to meet one condition: its income must exceed its expenditures over the long run. (Lasn and Liacas 2000, 41)

Corporations now rival or exceed the power and influence of nation-states. The largest 100 control 33 percent of the world's assets but employ only 1 percent of the world's labor (ibid.). They control trade, communications, agriculture, food processing, genetic materi als, entertainment, housing, health care, transportation, and, not least, the political process. If there is anything left out of their control, it is because it is not profitable. Some routinely lie, steal, corrupt, and violate environmental laws with near impunity. As a consequence there is no safe future for children, nor are there safe communities in a world dominated by organizations that exist partly beyond the reach of law and owing no loyalty to anyone or to any place. The solutions are obvious. Corporations are chartered by the state and they can be dissolved by the state for just cause. We have implemented a "three strikes and you are out" standard for criminals; why not hold corporations and the people who serve them to the same standard? Wayne township in Pennsylvania, for example, bars any corporation with three or more regulatory violations within seven years. Many are asking for community control of investment capital and major assets. Nine midwestern states forbid corporate farm ownership. What attorney Michael Shuman (1998) calls "going local" requires a rejuvenation of democracy beginning by establishing local control over resources and investment decisions.

Finally, as farsighted and revolutionary as the decision of the Philippine court is, there is another and collateral right to be preserved, which is children's capacity to affiliate with nature and the places in which they live. Biologist Hugh Iltis describes that capacity thus: "Our eyes and ears, noses, brains, and bodies have all been shaped by nature. Would it not then be incredible indeed, if savannas and forest groves, flowers and animals, the multiplicity of environmental components to which our bodies were originally shaped, were not, at the very least, still important to us?" (quoted in Shepard 1998, 136). Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson calls this capacity "biophilia," which he defines as "the urge to affiliate with other forms of life" (1984, 85). "We are a biological species and will find little ultimate meaning apart from the remainder of life" (ibid., 81). Rachel Carson defined this capacity simply as "the sense of wonder" aided and abetted by "the companionship of at least one adult" (Carson [1956] 1984,45).

Is the opportunity to develop biophilia and a sense of wonder important? Can it be considered a right? The answer to the first question is yes, because it is unlikely that we will want to preserve nature only for utilitarian reasons. We are likely to save only what we have first come to love. Without that affection, we are unlikely to care about the destruction of forests, the decline of biological diversity, or the destabilization of climate. To the second question the answer must again be affirmative because affiliation with nature, by whatever name, is an essential part of what makes us human. We have good reason to believe that human intelligence evolved in direct contact with animals, landscapes, wetlands, deserts, forests, night skies, seas, and rivers. We have reason to believe that "the potential for becoming as fully intelligent and mature as possible can be hindered and even mutilated by circumstances in which human congestion and ecological destitution limit the scope of experience" (Shepard 1998, 127). We can all agree that the act of deliberately crippling a child would violate basic rights. By the same token, mutilation of a child's capacity to form what theologian Thomas Berry (2000, 15) calls "an intimate presence within a meaningful universe," although harder to discern, is no less appalling because it would deprive the child of a vital dimension of experience. According to Berry:

We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. To achieve this attitude we must first make our children unfeeling in their relation with the natural world. . . . For children to live only in contact with concrete and steel and wires and wheels and machines and computers and plastics, to seldom experience any primordial reality or even to see the stars at night, is a soul deprivation that diminishes the deepest of their human experiences. (2000, 15, 82)

The result of that deprivation is a kind of emotional and spiritual blindness to the larger context in which we live, abridging the sense of life.

Were we to take the right to a balanced and healthful ecology seriously, we would do all in our power to protect the right of children to develop a healthy kinship with the earth. We would honor the ancient tug of the Pleistocene in our genes by preserving opportunities for children to "soak in a place and [for] the adolescent and adult . . . to return to that place to ponder the visible substrate of his or her own personality" (Shepard 1996, 106). We would "find ways to let children roam beyond the pavement, to gain access to vegetation and earth that allows them to tunnel, climb, or even fall" (Nabhan and Trimble 1994, 9). We would preserve the right to "the playful explo ration of habitat ... as well as the gradual accumulation of an oral tradition about the land [that] have been essential to child development for over a million years" (ibid., 83). We would preserve wildness even in urban settings. This is not nature education as commonly understood. It is, rather, a larger subject of how and how carefully we manage the ecology of particular places to permit the full flowering of human potentials.

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