A traditional definition of sustainable development is development that meets our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Implicit in this definition is the recognition of rights of future generation – the right to achieve a sustainable level of development and the right to be able to utilise natural resources.
Although some philosophers maintain that future generations cannot have anything until the future becomes the present, many environmental economists and lawyers increasingly recognise the rights of future generations. Whether future generations possess rights or not, it is certainly accepted that those presently alive today should at the very least take account of the interests that future generations will have and of the way that our present actions will affect those interests. Arguably, no generation should inherit less human and natural wealth than the one that preceded it.
The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), meeting in Paris in the autumn of 1997, passed the Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations. The Declaration recognised that the present generations have the responsibility of ensuring that the needs and interests of present and future generations are fully safeguarded. It stressed the importance of making every effort to ensure, with due regard to human rights and fundamental freedoms, that future as well as present generations enjoy full freedom of choice as to their political, economic and social systems and are able to preserve their cultural and religious diversity. And it maintained that the present generations have the responsibility to bequeath to future generations an Earth which will not one day be irreversibly damaged by human activity. Each generation inheriting the Earth temporarily should take care to use natural resources reasonably and ensure that life is not prejudiced by harmful modifications of the ecosystems and that scientific and technological progress in all fields does not harm life on Earth.