How long will it take a plastic bottle or bag to biodegrade? How long will it take for greenhouse gas emissions to raise atmospheric temperature 2-4 degrees? How long can we ensure the safe storage of nuclear waste? All of these questions are central to current environmental debates, and, of course, all involve consequences that none of us will live to see. The “seventh generation” approach to judging our actions gives us a sense of the long view, but may not ultimately provide a ton of motivation: we don’t know those people, after all.
Of course, not all environmental issues revolve around long-term impacts: it’s taken a relatively short amount of time to create ocean dead zones because of increasing nitrogen pollution, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from larger amount of plastic in our waste streams. We’ll see other species go extinct in our own lifetimes while we watch our own population balloon. Sure, we should consider the needs of future generations, but we can look around ourselves right now and see the consequences of refusing to consider ourselves a part of the greater natural order.