Posterity: Giving a Voice to Future Generations
Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence*, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America
PASOP certainly is not alone in exploring how the term ourselves and our posterity in the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution is relevant to how we organize ourselves, set values, and behave as a society.
The role of the Preamble has been argued ever since John Marshall as Chief Justice (from 1801 to 1835) made the Supreme Court a most important third leg of our three branches of government. While Marshall and others considered the Preamble to be an essential and serious part of the Constitution, some who followed saw it as a separate text which served as a well constructive narrative, but without power**.
It is somewhat surprising that the term ourselves and our posterity has never been argued with any real vigor in the courts, however, recent cases indicate that that is changing. (Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana et.al. v. United States Government et. al.).
While some may argue that the term ourselves and our posterity was included by the Founding Fathers as a casual statement that provided some literary flare, there is no real evidence that this is the case.
It was not the habit of these leaders and intellects to include language which did not have real purpose. Taken at its face value one would interpret ourselves and our posterity as assigning equal weight to each component – to both “ourselves” and “our posterity” – in determining social direction and expenditure of resources.
While it can be argued that posterity does not have rights per se, simply because they do not yet exist, the obligations that we, the living, have to posterity are strongly implied within the words of the Preamble.
At PASOP we believe it is time to seriously explore the nature and extent of this obligation, and to consider adjusting our social paradigms accordingly.
In the early years of the United States, natural resources such as timber, minerals, rivers, fish and wildlife, and coastal waters were seen as expansive and inexhaustible. It was considered necessary to change the land to accommodate agriculture and urbanization; to modify rivers and coastal harbors to improve the efficiency of commerce; to eliminate predators which threatened humans and domestic animals; and exploit the seemingly boundless fishery. It seemed reasonable that attending to the rights of posterity meant securing territory for these essential activities.
As the population grew and with increased consumption of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, it was becoming clear that these resources were finite. Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President, recognized this, and determined that land preservation was necessary to ensure wild lands were protected (e.g. Yellowstone) and renewable resources such as timber were managed and allocated to ensure they were available for future generations.
Roosevelt was also influenced by John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club) who recognized that functional ecosystems, such as those he explored at Yosemite in California and Glacier Bay in Alaska were essential components of human existence and welfare. The President was torn between conservation for providing resources well into the future, and preservation of existing ecosystems (wild lands) to attend to a subtler, but important spiritual*** need within society.
Bobby C. Billie, a Spiritual Leader of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation of Aboriginal Peoples.
This recognition of the critical connection between the quality of life within a culture and the stability and perpetuation of functional ecosystems with which they interfaced was central to the aboriginal indigenous peoples of North America (typically called Native Americans). These insights had influence on both Muir and Roosevelt, who each struggled in his own way, with how to achieve reconciliation between the social philosophy of the Native Americans with that of Euro-America which tended to view natural resources as simply convenient commodities without any real spiritual value—in fact nature was often seen as an enemy which needed to be subdued. Hence the terms “man against nature” and “taming the land”.
“We need to change the way to think about the future of our kids—what are we going to pass on to them? We can’t pass them just money. They need something else, water and earth to plant the seeds….We are not thinking of humans, but all things. You should speak of them too. Then you can make sense of life yourself.”
Bobby C. Billie
Today, while we have made progress toward this reconciliation, there remains a rift between these two social paradigms. This has resulted in a growing antagonism between what is called “environmentalism” and "laissez faire capitalism”. It appears resolution of these conflicts revolves around effective compromise.
The welfare of ourselves cannot be sacrificed because of overly aggressive environmental rehabilitation programs, nor can the stability and welfare of environmental assets be sacrificed to accommodate excessive consumption and the drive for large short-term profits at the expense of posterity.
A paradigm shift is needed. And this shift must be sensitive to our obligation to both ourselves and our posterity and to the interdependency of a stable economy to a stable, robust environment.
* The spelling of “defence” was used by Gouverneur Morris and James Madison who wrote the final version of the Preamble. The modern spelling is “defense”.
** The history of the Preamble is itself interesting and worth learning. An excellent text written by Peter Hoffer, a historian with the University of Georgia (“For Ourselves and our Posterity—The Preamble to the Federal Constitution in American History” ISBN 978-0-19-989953-1 2013 Oxford University Press) offers some helpful and interesting insight into the Preamble.
*** The term "spiritual" is often thought of in context of a formal religion or alternatively as connected to some degree of mysticism and superstition. The concept of spirituality as offered in this text refers to an understanding of the interdependency of different life forms (species) to one another and the reliance upon a predictable range of fluctuations within their physical environment.