Sharing the cake – an intergenerational dilemma

Angus Hanton shows how the cake analogy is a useful way of seeing the difficulties of apportioning the burden of intergenerational legacies, such as carbon emissions

An extended family has assembled and a delicious cake is produced. Amongst the family are grandparents, parents and young children. The older family members have tasted this kind of cake before and the youngest have never tasted it, but there is not enough for everyone to eat as much as they would like. So the question that arises is: how should the cake be shared out?

Some people will say that children should be given first priority as they haven’t tasted this cake previously, whereas the older family members have, over their lives, shared many such cakes. Others argue that past cake-eating is irrelevant and that all family members should be treated equally.

Clearly both answers show concern for fair treatment and even some degree of equality – but should it be equality at one particular time, or equality that takes account of people’s life chances throughout their lives?

The carbon emissions cake

A conundrum similar to this intergenerational one was faced in Copenhagen in relation to carbon emissions quotas. Should all countries be treated equally or should developing countries be given more generous treatment, to reflect the fact that they haven’t yet tasted the fruits of industrialisation?

As well as rights to consume, this also raises questions of responsibility for the legacy of past carbon emissions: should richer countries be held responsible for their historical carbon emissions and correspondingly penalised in present-day settlements?

The temptation to penalise them arises partly because those countries that have historically caused most emissions are in general the richer ones, and therefore those most able to pay for carbon adjustments to their economies and most able to contribute to adjustments by others.

This discussion of how countries should be treated takes us back from different countries to different generations within each country and raises this intergenerational question within developed countries: is it fair that I should suffer because of the carbon emissions of my forebears?

Having your cake and sharing it

The apportionment of other of intergenerational issues can be visualised in the same way: how should the burdens of pensions liabilities, healthcare provision, national debt, and so on, be shared across the generations?

And how would one’s thinking change if the question was about sharing out the essential necessities of life between generations or even, in the extreme case, items that might save lives, such as food or water – or a limited supply of parachutes?