Fine Wine, Future Generations And Notions Of Sustainability by Susan Brown
There is a lot of discussion of the term ‘sustainability’ and numerous definitions of the term. I’m not going to delve into a comparative exploration of these in this post. I’d like, instead, to explore a notion common to a number of definitions of sustainability: that we need to pass on to future generations a World fit to live in (I include examples of such definitions at the end of the post).
Implicit in this notion is the belief that humans can care about the lives of those in a future beyond their lifespan. This belief runs contrary to the view that people find it difficult to envisage and/or care about a future in which they no longer play a part. If this is the case, many definitions of sustainability can be seen as hopelessly naive.
The view that humans are preoccupied with the present or near future and incapable of caring about a more distant future brings to my mind a story I heard once about wine procurement at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, Trinity College. According to the story wine is procured for the cellars of the college for consumption 50 years hence. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story but I find it an interesting starting point for considering our capacity to care about the future.
Procuring wine to be drunk 50 years hence requires not only knowledge of how wine ages but also, arguably, significant imagination. The person charged with the task must consider how a wine will taste on the palate of future quaffers. Will it have matured- the acidity ceded to fruitiness? Will it delight the discerning drinker with its complexity and balance? Will it possess the aromatic qualities of a fine, old wine? As the procurer weighs up how a wine will age do they imagine some oak-panelled combination room where academics sip a vintage 2012? Can the procurer care about the pleasure of future drinkers?
Humans seem pretty good at imagining contexts they have never encountered themselves; we have never physically voyaged to new Worlds outside of the solar system though we enjoy considering what they might be like and what it might be like to voyage to them. We can read a book that describes such an imaginary voyage and care about the characters in it, though we ourselves will never go on such a voyage.
We can become fascinated by the physical laws that would operate, for example while voyaging through a worm hole. This fascination has little apparent links to our own lives seeming to stem from sheer curiosity. Our imaginations, our curiosity and love of problem solving and our ability to empathise with fictional humans are fundamental parts of us, allowing us to care beyond the boundaries of our own lives.
You can, of course, argue that when there is a perceived tension between ensuring our current needs and ensuring that future generations can look after theirs, we abandon imaginings and privilege our current lives. If the wine procurer has to choose between ensuring there is wine to be drunk in Trinity for present consumption, and ensuring a stock for future generations, they will favour present needs. I have a hunch though that a wine procurer who has dedicated years to thinking about how bottles of wine will taste to future generations will squirrel a few bottles away in some corner of the Trinity cellar; will conspire with imagined future individuals to ensure its discovery.
If we believe that we are not able to think beyond our own lives to the lives of those in the future, then the future for sustainability, in these terms, looks rather bleak. I’m venturing another view: that we are actually very good at thinking beyond our own lives, that our capacity to voyage out of our lives is innate and powerful. If it is innate it is likely to perform a role in our own welfare, even if that role is not apparent to us. In thinking about how wine will taste to a future imbiber the wine procurer gets to learn more about wine and potentially also to extend their scope for creative activity, scope on which humans thrive.
If there is any merit in the view that people are very good at thinking beyond their own lives through imagination and curiosity then this should have implications for sustainability education. It suggests that the ‘understand that you need to do something now, in order to safeguard the well being of future generations’ approach is not the best way forward. An approach which asks people to Imagine potential scenarios for future generations, and how we can ensure the more positive of these may elicit more creative thinking and a greater willingness to engage in action now to achieve those ends.
Definitions of sustainability and sustainable development with a focus on future generations:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” – Brundtland Commission (The World Commission on Environment and Development), 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
See also Wikipedia on the Bruntland: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Commission_on_Environment_and_Development
“Sustainability is a way of working and living that balances immediate needs for commerce, living, habitation, food, transportation, energy and entertainment with future needs for these resources and systems as well as the liveliness and support of nature, natural resources and future generations.” – Natural Capitalism Solutions (undated). Definitions of sustainability [blog post].
“Sustainable development is concerned with the development of a society where the costs of development are not transferred to future generations, or at least an attempt is made to compensate for such costs.” – Pearce, D. 1993. Economic values and the natural world. World Bank Publications. Available as Google Ebook .
“Most societies want to achieve economic development to secure higher standards of living, now and for future generations. They also seek to protect and enhance their environment, now and for their children. Sustainable development tries to reconcile these two objectives.” – HMSO (Her Majesty’s Stationary Office). 1994.Sustainable Development: The UK Strategy – Cm 2426