Protecting future generations

A global survey of legal academics


The laws and policies of today may have historically unique consequences for future generations, yet their interests are rarely represented in current legal systems. The climate crisis has shed light on the importance of taking into consideration the interests of future generations, while the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we are not sufficiently prepared for some of the most severe risks of the next century. What we do to address these and other risks, such as from advanced artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, could drastically affect the future. However, little has been done to identify how and to what degree the law can and ought to protect future generations. To respond to these timely questions of existential importance, we sought the expertise of legal academia through a global survey of over 500 law professors (n=516).

This Article elaborates on the experimental results and implications for legal philosophy, doctrine, and policy. Our results strongly suggest that law professors across the English-speaking world widely consider the protection of future generations to be an issue of utmost importance that can be addressed through legal intervention. Strikingly, we find that law professors desire more than three times the perceived current protection for humans living in the far future (100+ years from now), roughly equal to the perceived level of current protection for present generations. Furthermore, the vast majority of law professors (72%) responded that legal mechanisms are among the most predictable, feasible mechanisms through which to influence the long-term future, with environmental and constitutional law particularly promising. These findings hold true independent of demographic factors such as age, gender, political affiliation, and legal training. Although future generations have not been granted standing in any cases to date, responses indicated that law professors believe there is a plausible legal basis for granting standing to future generations and other neglected groups, such as the environment and non-human animals, in at least some cases. Other topics surveyed included which constitutional mechanisms were perceived as more able to protect future generations.

Finally, we outline some limitations of the study and potential directions for future research. For example, one might doubt legal scholars’ ability to estimate the long-term impact of law and legal systems, due to the conjunction fallacy and availability bias. In that regard, future research could survey forecasters, who have expertise in evaluating and predicting the future more generally.