Temporal Imperialism

Temporal Imperialism

The concept of “imperialism” -- “the policy and practice of seeking to dominate the economic or political affairs of underdeveloped areas or weaker countries,” according to Webster’s -- is fairly familiar. A more recent variant, “cultural imperialism,” where the domination is through indigenous adoption of another culture, is also well known: the French routinely charge the United States with cultural imperialism, and many in developing countries, especially in Asia, charge Western human rights and environmentalist NGOs with a similar offense.

Like most things cultural, such arguments are interminable, with common sense hounded by the politically correct, the nationalists, right- and left-wing ideologues, true believers of all stripes, and other hobgoblins of our age.

A related phenomenon, temporal imperialism, is also pervasive, though a much less explicit form of imperialism. It manifests itself in the effort by today’s environmental elites to impose their views and ideologies on the future.

I intend neither to support nor attack temporal imperialism; rather, as it is so implicit and unconscious for most participants in environmental discourses, to simply note its existence and suggest that justifying it is an important and unfinished piece of ethical business.

After all, the future is essentially powerless in the face of today’s interest groups, making temporal imperialism easy, but, concomitantly, a serious ethical challenge. Elites need to be concerned about those, such as the future, who have no voice at all.

Temporal imperialism is by no means rare. Just as historians have long noted the tendency of colonists to carry their familiar landscapes with them through space, it appears to be a very human desire to carry one’s cultural landscape through time. The desire of a powerful elite for stability has often been quite successful through the ages -- examples include ancient Egypt, China from 1400 onwards, and Spain from the 1600’s on.

But the cost of such stifling stability has often been the eclipse of the static culture by other, more dynamic, ones, for freezing technological and cultural evolution reduces the fitness of a culture to compete with others. Moreover, most humans do not want to forego the benefits of technological and cultural evolution, which historically have tended to include increased freedom (from drudgery, disease, poverty, and authoritarian community and cultural patterns).

What are current examples in the environmental area? One might begin with the powerful opposition to genetically modified organisms on the part of deep greens. While scientific questions certainly exist and should be researched, the opposition is in many cases absolute, nonnegotiable, and nearly theological. The precautionary principle as commonly phrased is another example. Consider the language in the UN General Assembly Resolution on the World Charter for Nature (1982), which states, “Where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities shall not proceed.” As “potential adverse effects” are never fully understood, if taken literally, this would freeze technological, economic, and cultural evolution -- a victory for temporal imperialism. The climate change negotiations seek to stabilize climate within certain bounds, which has the effect of reducing or eliminating what has been a significant driver of biological evolution. And, ironically, the concept of “sustainable development” might be interpreted by a Marxist as an effort by today’s elites to impose a cultural construct (“this is the world we want you to have”) on the future.

Temporal imperialism is unavoidable and, in many ways, may be desirable. What is of more concern is the failure of institutions and individuals in highly ideological environmental debates to perceive, much less understand, that what they seek to do to the future may reflect their own biases and predispositions, not what future generations may, in fact, desire.

The remedy for unethical constraints on future generations is optimizing their choices, not imposing ours -- and recognizing what we are doing. For only then do we also recognize, and begin to accept, our moral responsibility for doing so.


Allenby is Environment, Health and Safety Vice President, AT&T, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Princeton Theological Seminary, and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily any entity with which he is associated.