Today's Trolley Problem: Only One Track Leads to the Future | Opinion

The trolley problem is a story philosophers often use to get people thinking about ethics and their obligations to others. Traditionally, the problem has us imagine we are an onlooker standing next to a trolley track. There are five people tied to the track ahead of a moving trolley. We have the choice to save the five by pulling a lever and diverting the trolley to another track. But there is someone tied to that other track. If we pull the lever, we save the five, but the trolley will certainly kill the one person.

What's the right thing to do?

With few modifications, this thought problem becomes a very real way of thinking about the current climate crisis. The overwhelming majority of people today are standing by the lever or are on the trolly itself, while all future generations are tied to the track the trolley is already on, facing certain death. The extremely wealthy (individuals and organizations) are on the other track.

Do we pull the lever?

Now, set aside the world of thought and come back to our current reality.

A Metaphor
The San Francisco trolley in 2019. Paul Rovere/Getty Images

Given the impact of our lives on Earth's ecology, including the way we are exacerbating the climate crisis every day, it is clear that we are set to kill many people—millions or more—in the future. The very wealthy, who are most responsible for the climate crisis, are the only ones who stand to benefit from this situation.

It is clear that we must pull the lever, but how do we do it?

It can be done by overriding some of the property rights held by the wealthiest persons—who are also those most responsible for the climate crisis—regardless of what governments that helped create the crisis would do to protect them. We will demand that wealth and those resources as a matter of right, to pay it ahead to minimize the harm we would otherwise do. Pulling this lever will allow society to use that immense wealth, obtained by ending the fossil fuel industry for example, to fund family and family planning reforms that will ensure parenting delay, rapid climate migration, and intense family preparation so that all future children are only born and raised in conditions that will best protect them from the challenges to come.

That would save millions of lives, perhaps billions.

But these entities—the few and wealthy people and their corporations—are not likely to go quietly and simply make these investments in smaller, more educated, and prosperous families through child welfare reform. Instead, if they do not relent, we must demand the resources necessary to save future generations. This will not be an easy process. Even early attempts to put the rights of future generations above ours have been met with hostility.

But given that things like property rights—like all laws in a true democracy comprised of what our Constitution refers to as "We the People"—fundamentally derive from all of us and not those we choose to elect, we on the trolley certainly have the authority to act. Also, the wealth accumulated by the few was built by externalizing social and ecological costs, relative to a truly just baseline, and it was that intentional move—according to one Nobel Laureate—that put future generations on the track ahead of us now.

In other words, the wealthy never paid the full costs of that wealth, the costs it imposed on our environment, and future generations, relative to what the Children's Rights Convention says they deserve. The wealthy would first have to pay the proportional costs, through things like family planning reparations to future generation, to fully own the remainder of their wealth.

There is a specific legal process to do this, to authorize the pulling of the lever, that is now pending before the United Nations. It calls on the United Nations to treat every child's right to a fair start in life, socially and environmentally, as the first and overriding human right, and authorizes climate reparations to future generations that proportionally limit property rights based on a variety of metrics. And while the highly criticized movement for effective altruism might come to a different answer for what we owe future generations, investing in family planning and children under the Children's Rights Convention to do things like eliminate the gulf of inequity and servitude into which especially black babies now fall, is what we seem legally obligated to do.

Such levers have been pulled in the past, from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter, in very public rejections of the status quo. And this case could be far more successful than the others. In this case there are reasons for support on the left and right of the political spectrum. If people on the left value equality, and those on the right freedom, then we get both by investing more, and more equally, in children, bending the arc of population growth with family planning entitlements toward a future filled with biodiverse nature free of the climate crisis and pollution.

In a truly democratic future, people would enjoy the freedom of true equality of opportunity from birth, the freedom of trusting those around us, and smaller populations comprising functional townhalls where each person, raised with equal opportunity through things like steeply scaled baby bonds, has a greater voice to help make and thereby limit the rules under which they live. Without this move it's hard to see how we can truly be free, or physically limit the power other people would have over us, whether through our environment or otherwise.

Should we pull the lever and lay claim to those resources for future generations?

Carter, author of Justice as a Fair Start in Life, began his career as an Honors Program appointee to the U.S. Department of Justice. He later served as a legal adviser to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in the national security law division.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.