Paul Collier, ethics and climate change

14/05/2009

Paul Collier, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, doesn’t buy economists’ case for fighting climate change and writes this very good article about it. But right after asserting that “Most professional economists will at this point stop reading because they will think that rights are a quagmire”, he goes on:

Natural assets such as biodiversity, and natural liabilities, such as carbon, are not owned by the current generation, because we did not create them. We have them because previous generations passed them on to us, and we are obliged to do the same. If we deplete natural assets, or run up natural liabilities, we have an obligation to compensate future generations in some other way.

Which shows that he as an economist is not very competent with ethical concepts as rights and duties. If I receive a gift or purchase something that I have not created, don’t I own it? Do we only own what we create? Biodiversity is a circumstance of life, not something that could be owned or not owned. His statements about our obligations to the future generations are purely arbitrary: he just says it is so, without explaining why or groundinghis assertions; and in fact the opposite is true. We do not have any obligations towards the future; the fact that we have “received” something from the past does not imply that we must give it untouched to the future. Rights and duties are ethical concepts used to express rules that permit social life by minimizing conflict and maximizing freedom. There can be no rights or duties to people who do not exist yet (there can be no conflict with them). If future generations wanted to demand compensation from us when we are not here any more, how will they do it?