Lawyers have been at the forefront of a long line of social movements seeking to provide legal voice to marginalized communities. How can this tradition of social-change lawyering be applied to the protection of future generations—a voiceless population that cannot vote, lobby, bargain, or mobilize on its own behalf? This question is arising in the movement to mitigate “existential risk,” which refers to events that would entirely foreclose a meaningful existence for future generations, e.g. human extinction or other permanent loss of future human potential. A leading scholar in the interdisciplinary field of existential risk studies, Oxford philosopher Toby Ord, estimates a roughly one-in-six chance of a catastrophe on this scale over the next century. Concern about this issue has spread from universities to a broader public conversation and a growing transnational movement dedicated to preserving the future of humanity. This article presents the first empirical study of the nascent but extraordinarily ambitious legal wing of this movement. How do these legal advocates design strategies to address such an abstract and probabilistic issue as existential risk? And how do they faithfully represent the multitudes of future generations who are silent stakeholders in decisions we make today? And what can these advocates learn from the interdisciplinary literature on law and social change?
Drawing on a year-long qualitative study including semi-structured interviews and ethnographic observations, the article describes the distinct model of social-change lawyering practiced among “existential advocates,” that is, legal advocates for the mitigation of existential risk. This model is marked by a rigorous, evidence-based “prioritization methodology” for maximizing impact on high-priority goals. To support the realization of this methodology, these advocates have developed a culture of scientific truth-seeking norms. This model’s focus on maximizing de facto impact is well aligned with recommendations from the literature on law and social change. But the model faces a difficult point of tension around the effort to represent future generations while also seeking to include a broader and more diverse set of current-people voices. The article concludes with recommendations for adapting this model as this movement scales up and pursues more direct and higher profile legal interventions.