A Child-Centered World

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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 longterm

flourishing of Earth’s human and ecological communities”


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 Appalachia

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


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 selfreplicating

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


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.