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Environmental Ethics

Volume 24, Issue 4, Winter 2002

Kenneth B. Peter
Pages 371-387

Jefferson and the Independence of Generations

Thomas Jefferson’s argument against long-term debt and his theory of usufruct are used to show why each generation is obligated to protect the independence of future generations. This argument forms the theory of “Jeffersonian generational independence.” The theory has wide implications for the environmental movement because most environmental problems result in limitations on the liberty of future generations. I compare and defend Jeffersonian generational independence from two alternatives including the investment theory raised by James Madison and the problem of generational interdependence raised by John Passmore or Edmund Burke. When the obligation to protect the independence of future generations is taken seriously, liberalism can no longer reasonably be used to defend environmental exploitation, since such exploitation amounts to an attack on the liberty and independence which form its core values.

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