Currently we are treating the future like colonizers of the 19th and early 20th century where treating their overseas colonies. On one hand, we are extracting resources from that “colonized future”, but on the other hand we are projecting some high tech dreams into it, pretending that economic growth can go on indefinitely. But just like those colonies where impoverished and not developed by the colonialization and the “developing nations” are still impoverished in times of neo-colonialism, the “colonized future” will not be developed and not developing, it will be devastated and economy-ravaged.
We need to develop a different attitude towards the future. Instead of a source of unlimited resources (which it isn’t), we should view it as an “area” inhabited by other people. Instead of just exploiting those people, we should enter a peaceful exchange with them. The thought-experiment behind some of the suggestions on this web site is the following: we are taking a lot of resources for ourselves because the people of the future have no power and no possibility to defend themselves and their interests. What would happen if there was a time machine that would enable them to take part in our markets and buy up some of the resources before we use them up?
I think the following things would happen:
- People of the future will not be interested in receiving radioactive waste from us. Therefore, they would buy up all the Uranium reserves in order to prevent us from using them. As a result, the price for atomic energy would rise until it becomes uneconomic.
- They would buy up all the reserves of fossil fuel in order to prevent us from burning them. As a result, the price for energy from fossil fuels would rise until it becomes uneconomic.
- They would buy up reserves of raw materials in order to get some of these materials for themselves. People from the nearer and more distant future would bid on these materials. As a result, the price would rise. Non-essential uses of these materials would become uneconomic. In some cases, these materials would be replaced by others. In the end, the price would rise until complete recycling becomes the most economic option. When this price level is reached, the price would stabilize.
- They would send money to enable us to build facilities for renewable energy as fast as possible, in order to stop the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, a lot of the infrastructure for energy will not be owned by people from the present but by people from the future.
- They would send money to buy up land, ecosystems and biodiversity resources (ecosystems) in order to protect them.
- They would compete with us for resources. As a result, economic growth would level off at a sustainable level. If the economy would grow beyond the sustainable level, it would be in the interest of future people to buy up the resources we would use to achieve that growth because unsustainable growth now would mean destruction in the future. As a result, prices for resources would go up to a level where the economy would remain below a sustainable level.
- They would buy up our cultural heritage, i.e. send money to protect as much of it as possible from destruction.
So the non-sustainable growth of our economy and the resulting catastrophic destruction we are facing may be described as a result of an asymmetry where the people of the future are barred from taking part in fair trade with us.
Of course, a true time machine is physically impossible but I realized that such a time machine can be emulated, i.e. I think it is possible to create institutions that act as if they were such time machines. Physical resources can be sent into the future by simply storing or protecting them. And it is possible to move money from the future to the present. This can be done in an exploitative way (e.g. in the years before the so called “financial crisis”, large amounts of money where extracted from the then-future (that became the present in 2008). But such an exchange is not exploitative if resources of corresponding value are sent into the future as compensation.
Of course unlike the situation of a true market economy, the people of the future cannot really take part in such an exchange. They cannot make decisions themselves. Instead, the institutions that emulate the “time machines” must make assumptions about what is in the interest of future people. The danger here is that people might try to corrupt the system and sneak in their own interests. The decisions of these institutions must be in the interest of the people of the future and this must be laid down in the constitutions of those institutions (one can think of them as something like foundations based on a charter). The decisions cannot be left to democratic decisions of today’s people because here, the people of the future would not be represented. Instead, based on the respective purpose and charter of these organizations, these decisions would have to be based on the best available science. Every aspect of these decisions must be made public and be open to public criticism.
One might view this as undemocratic. It is undemocratic in the sense that the rights of today’s democratic sovereigns to exploit the future at will would be restricted. It is an extension of democracy in the sense that the relationship of power that exists between people of today and people of the future would be regulated by such institutions. The basic purpose of democratic constitutions is to regulate power by giving people who are affected by decisions a means to defend their interests and influence the decisions. We would try here to create some kind of proxy, at least in economy, that acts in the interest of people of the future.
An economic “science” that treats resources as unlimited and external to the system is an organized and institutionalized form of denialism. Leaving the limits of the resources out of the equations has worked for more than 200 years but the time has come where it is no longer possible. If economists would embrace the ideas presented here, their concept of time would change and many familiar economic concepts would change as well. Its time for that change.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Craquelure_(2650813995).jpg.)