Global Warming, Public Health, and Human Futures: Thoughts on Scheffler’s "Afterlife" Thesis

A premise behind today's growing concern about climate change is that the future matters, i.e., that we today should seek to avoid doing irreparable damage to people whom we will never know and, indeed, are mostly not even born yet. From quite different angles, this premise is also subject to exploration in moral philosophy including by John Rawls, the most prominent philosopher of the 20th century through extension of his concept of the “Veil of Ignorance.” Currently, Sam Scheffler, one of the most prominent living moral philosophers, is indirectly addressing this question in a series of lectures around the world entitled “the Afterlife”. In these, he argues that, in spite of evidence that people disregard the future beyond themselves – Pigou’s lament about our “defective telescopic faculty” or Samuelson’s Golden Rule of economics to “always act to optimize present value” – there is even more powerful evidence that we actually act in ways showing that we regard a continuing human future as more important than even our own personal survival or anything else in the present. Taking inspiration from these philosophers as well from literature (e.g., PD James, Kafka), I will explore the critical but largely hidden importance of the population "Afterlife" in current debates about future extreme climate change scenarios as now emerging from global modeling.

Presented by Kirk R. Smith, Professor Global Environmental Health, UC Berkeley on Nov. 16, 2012 at the Center for Historical Research, The Ohio State University Department of History.


The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.