He was the author of the Declaration of Independence -- that ringing declaration of Enlightenment values in action -- and one of history's great constitutional thinkers, helping deliver the modern world's first republic; he was the first to state explicitly that the foreign policy of a free country is explicitly free trade -- insisting too that free trade requires free sea lanes uninfested by piracy, and that appeasement of aggressors was both unprincipled and impractical. In his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, he (with his co-author Madison) insisted on the complete legal separation of church and state -- an insistence without historical precedent, and still an example of how (and why) such a separation should be effected.
Jefferson lent his great mind to almost every area of human affairs, and in each he offered important and path-breaking insight.
And it turns out too he even had something to say about today's fashionable concern: sustainability.
In common use, "sustainability" amounts to a hand-wringing concern with "the well-being of future generations" -- notwithstanding that the wishes, desires and concerns of future generations are in no way known by this one, and that everything indicates (to the extent at least that the enemies of progress are unsuccessful) that future generations will be infinitely wealthier than this one -- a concern then both irrational and unethical, sacrificing as it does the wealth, prosperity and industry of today to a future that is never allowed to arrive.
Answering this question on the possible claims of future generations on this one (in a letter to Madison in a discussion on the Bill of Rights), Jefferson said, in short, that the Earth belongs to the living.
The question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. ... I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;" that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it...Explains Lubos Motl in a lucid post entitled 'Was Thomas Jefferson an Alarmist,'
Jefferson said very explicitly that the past generations - the dead people - or the people who are not yet living have no right to control the resources that exist at a given moment or bind the future generations to pay any money (or land). That's a good policy because otherwise we would be governed by zombies...
According to Jefferson (as well as any other person who understands some of the basic principles of Western democracy), a generation has no right to bind another generation, e.g. by carbon targets or a territorial debt. Jefferson declares clearly that everything about these resources should be decided by the people who live at the particular moment. The Earth belongs to them in "usufruct". The purpose of this word - meaning the right to use assets of someone else - seems controversial but I certainly assume that the actual owner according to Jefferson is God or Nature and not future generations or anything of this sort... ...[T]he first generation or generations have the right to use them.
How it could be otherwise? The civilization would be completely dysfunctional if people who don't live right now had any rights to decide what happens tonight. Jefferson knows it, every sane person knows it - probably not only in the West. Hansen doesn't.
According to Jefferson, should our generation try to give gifts to the future generations out of the resources that, as he has explained, effectively belong to the living generation? Do these distant generations have such special relationships with each other and obligations with respect to each other? Once again, Jefferson is very transparent - maybe too transparent for our tastes, tastes of 21st century sissies - about the relationship that should exist between different generations:
It's the law of nature, reality itself, that the notion of sustainability seeks to flout. And it's the good Mr Jefferson to whom who we can look to point that out.... but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.