Handbook of Sustainable Development
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Handbook of Sustainable Development

Second Edition

Edited by Giles Atkinson, Simon Dietz, Eric Neumayer and Matthew Agarwala

This timely and important Handbook takes stock of progress made in our understanding of what sustainable development actually is and how it can be measured and achieved.
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Chapter 8: Equitable intergenerational preferences and sustainability

Geir B. Asheim


There are about 7 billion people currently alive. Just over 100 billion people have ever lived (Haub, 2011). Hence, the ratio of people who have ever lived in the past to people living today is only 15 to 1. With 500 million years left of the earth as acceptable habitat for humans, population being stable at a sustainable level of 1 billion with an average life-length of 70 years, the ratio of people who will potentially live in the future to people living now is more than 1 million to 1. Thus, there are many people that might potentially live in the future, and this observation might justify modeling the future as consisting of infinitely many generations. In spite of the development that accumulated reproducible and human capital has led to during the recent past, there are clear conflicts of interest between generations: the well-being of future generations might be undermined unless we take costly action today. Abating greenhouse gas emissions, which reduces future climate change, is a prime example of such costly current action with long-term future benefits. This conflict has been the subject of much recent attention (Stern, 2007; Nordhaus, 2008). However, other conflicts with similar characteristics include preserving biodiversity (which widens options for future generations), exploiting soil and water resources with caution (which increases the potential for future food production) and using antibiotics with care (which reduces future health problems).

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