What is the value of a human life? An impossible question that, depending on who you direct it at, can have some surprisingly concrete answers.
Ask a healthcare economist and they might tell you that the so-called ‘value of a statistical life year’ is an important point of reference used by planners to quantify our collective willingness to pay for health measures that prolong lives. In Asia and Europe, that willingness translates to around 5 times GDP/capita, while citizens in North America are prepared to invest almost 7 times GDP/capita for each life year gained. Although varying greatly between regions, the median international pain point for keeping a human being alive for one year is calculated to precisely 164,409 Euros. The dismal science indeed.
In the US, economists have adopted a similar approach to the question that helps them avoid the moral quagmire of having to come up with a value themselves. They estimate the worth of an American life based on the willingness of the public to make risky choices or to pay for safety features in the products they buy. Cigarettes, cars, dangerous jobs, smoke alarms, bicycle helmets: When everything is added up, the sum comes to somewhere around 10 million USD. Beyond serving as a calculation exercise for morbid bean counters, this number is a benchmark used on a policy level to assess whether implementing life-saving safety regulations can be considered worth the expenditure.
Of course, such equations don’t tell us much about the biases that tend to skew their application in practice, or how highly context-dependent valuations of this nature tend to be, especially when lives are at stake. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our impulse to come to the aid of those in immediate distress, no matter how costly, tends to outweigh our motivation to introduce measures that prevent similar loss of life in the future. In other words, we are highly motivated to save identified human lives – trapped miners or a child with a terminal disease – and less motivated to save those statistical lives who might be helped by introducing a new safety regulation, public health program, or environmental standard.
To make matters more convoluted, statistical lives can be broken down into two subsets: predictable and unpredictable statistical lives. For an illustration of their difference, consider the example of a factory – one that is so run-down that keeping it going poses severe risks to the workers and surrounding residents.
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The factory owner is faced with a choice between two costly safety measures. The first involves installing filters that decrease the deadliness of the factory’s fumes. The lives lost or saved here are somewhat predictable because they can be estimated by calculating things like exposure and toxicity.
The other option is to instead replace some of the factory’s old and potentially faulty equipment. Not doing so comes with a small risk that a major accident like an explosion will occur sometime in the future which will endanger the lives of many employees and locals. There is no telling whether the equipment will malfunction or not, so there’s a chance nothing will happen, which would have made the air filters a better investment. If an accident does happen, however, the destruction and loss of life will be substantial. The people at risk here are unpredictable statistical lives, and they’re the kind of lives that we tend to discount the most and value the least. In fact, according to researchers from the Society for Risk Analysis, we value them even lower than we should, statistically speaking.
The explanation for why, they write in a research paper, comes down to two factors. One is the difficulty of estimating the probability of rare events (like an explosion at a factory). The other is the incentive to reduce care for unpredictable statistical lives in favour of providing care for equivalent, predictable statistical lives (the lives saved each year by introducing air filters). It’s comparable to how our motivation to save the trapped miners is stronger than our motivation to prevent other mine shafts from collapsing in the future.
It’s reasonable to object to such hypothetical scenarios by pointing out that both air filters and equipment that won’t explode should be required at factories by law. Although it’s hard to disagree with this view, we are often forced to make difficult decisions that weigh the cost of human health and wellbeing against other considerations. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this came during the Covid-19 lockdowns, which made the trade-offs between human lives saved and economic damage caused apparent.
If we imagine not one, but thousands of factory owners facing the same dilemma as the one sketched out above, then it’s easy to see how the tendency to favour the predictable outcome over the unpredictable one might skew priorities on a societal level.
The same can be said about our tendency to value the relatively predictable present higher than the uncertain future.
It’s an unfortunate truth because so many of the risks facing us in the decades to come fall under the unpredictable category. Pandemics, for example, are certainly preventable if the right measures are taken before they strike. But such measures are never simple, and they are always costly. We also have no way of knowing when the next infectious disease will get out of control, or exactly how deadly it will be.
Add to this that incentives for investing in measures to mitigate low-probability threats are generally weak, as risk analysts are prone to point out. We may imagine a range of disastrous potentialities (futurists are especially adept at cooking up such wild card scenarios); but if no one takes meaningful action to prevent them from occurring, pondering the risk of catastrophic outcomes becomes nothing more than an academic exercise.
Past failures to cut carbon emissions is perhaps the best example of this dynamic in action. Although there are already serious human costs incurred in the present, the cumulative effects of centuries of pollution will greatly increase the number of risks that future generations will have to contend with. Once certain temperature thresholds are passed, climate tipping points can trigger potentially devastating cascading effects.
Even before reaching these major tipping points, we know that climate threats will multiply. Threats like the floods experienced in Pakistan in the summer of 2022 or across South Asia in 2020, which killed thousands of people and cost astronomical sums in material damage. Such violent weather outbursts will only become more frequent in the future. In fact, researchers have estimated that children born in 2020 will experience between two and seven times as many extreme weather events during their lifetimes compared to people born in 1960. On a local level, however, it’s very difficult to predict when such an event will occur, and how severe it will be.
It’s easy to see how the consequences of our actions are easily ignored when doing so requires taking things into account that don’t yet exist: people not yet born, tipping points not yet reached, accidents or events that aren’t yet likely to occur. The risks are manifold, large but out of focus, and have so far been easily ignored by kicking the proverbial can of political action down the road. Since the generations alive today will not experience the worst of what’s in store, we are essentially taking out loans that will have to be repaid, with interests, by future humans. To make matters worse, we can’t be sure that the damage caused now will ever be reversible, no matter how wealthy or technologically powerful our descendants will be. It’s an example of the ‘tragedy of the time horizon’, where entrenched short-termism undermines our ability to make decisions with longterm benefits – a kind of delayed gratification marshmallow experiment played out on a global scale. We can be sure that it will eventually come back to bite us. Climate destruction, after all, is rarely good for business.
There are probably few who would disagree that we have a moral obligation to the countless people who have yet to be born but whose lives are nonetheless heavily affected by our actions. What can be done to ensure that their wellbeing becomes a central focal point in our decision making?
Suggestions for how to achieve more intergenerational fairness come in different shapes and sizes, from ‘asymmetric voting’ that gives the most weight to the wishes of those with a greater stake in the future, to wealth redistribution – including in the form of climate reparations paid by those who have benefitted the most from the fossil economy to those who suffer the brunt of its consequences.
There are also efforts underway seeking to ensure better political representation for unborn generations. Acting on behalf of people who do not yet exist comes with some obvious challenges, but inspiration for how to approach the task can be found in the Welsh Future Generations Commission, Malta’s Guardian of the Future Generations office and other similar initiatives. On the international level, we could hope to see the formation of an actual Ministry for the Future, a concept that was first explored in Kim Stanley Robinson’s titular science fiction novel from 2020, which also describes a system of proxy voting for the yet unborn. The UN General Assembly took a small step in this direction in 2022 with the publication of a “Declaration on Future Generations”. Included in its recommendations are a ‘generational test’ to evaluate decisions and policies against their long-term impact on future generations, as well as the development of an ‘Intergenerational Sustainability Index’.
Economists, too, have made some suggestions. One which seems especially prescient in our era of widening intergenerational gaps was proposed already in 1974 by Nobel Prize winner James Tobin. He suggests a system of institutional spending regulations that would divide endowed assets equally among current and future generations, writing that “the trustees of endowed institutions are the guardians of the future against the claims of the present. Their task in managing the endowment is to preserve equity among generations.”
Although there is no shortage of good intentions, the fact remains that that the balance sheet of intergenerational equity is still heavily skewed in favour of the present. It will remain so until we start factoring in the impact of our decisions on humans in the far future rather than treating them as an afterthought. It will require making uncomfortable concessions today, but then, it will be our children and their descendants who will benefit from our foresight.
This is an article from FARSIGHT: Safeguarding Tomorrow