While the title for this piece was borrowed from the Kim Stanley Robinson cli-fi classic novel, I wanted to explore our paradoxical relationship with the future and how we struggle to engage in intergenerational stewardship to take into account the needs of our successors when decisions that are being made today that have long term implications, as I discussed in the Business Post in June.
OF COURSE, WE all claim to care about the future. After all, that’s where our children and theirs will have to live. Yet whose job exactly is it to really think about posterity? Or, as Groucho Marx quipped: “What have future generations ever done for us?”
Corporations operate in quarterly timeframes. Politics, too, is bedevilled by short-termism, dominated by the horse race of three- to five-year electoral cycles. Amid the constant clamour of competing demands, the quiet voice of the future is barely heard – and easy to ignore.
Meanwhile, the digital age has plunged society into an era of what philosopher Roman Krznaric describes as “pathological short-termism”. Never has it been more critical that we focus on the severe threats and challenges ahead, yet never have we as individuals and societies seemed more dazed, distracted and disconnected.
Nearly four decades ago, the United Nations Brundtland Commission famously defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
This 1987 definition has never been bettered – yet with every year that passes, the ecological debt we are inadvertently piling on to our children’s shoulders grows ever more crushing. This intergenerational injustice was brilliantly captured by Californian author Paul Hawken when he wrote: “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it GDP.”
Fifty years ago, Sweden appointed its first junior minister with specific responsibility for what it called future studies. This was followed up in 2011 by a Commission on the Future of Sweden, which was tasked with taking the long-term view, up to 2020 and then beyond to 2050.
In 2014, Sweden went a step further, setting up its so-called Ministry of the Future. In reality, this functions as a think tank within government, where interdisciplinary teams work together to future-proof decisions and policies being developed today.
For most policies, the acid test is how they will hold up over five- to 15-year timeframes, but on climate change the time horizon expands to 50 years. As a result of this approach, which aims to overcome the traditional rivalries between government departments, its head Kristian Persson was able to announce in late 2015 Sweden’s ambition to be “a fossil-free country” by 2030.
In an interview in 2016, Persson argued that “every country should have a Ministry for the Future. Politicians tend to be reacting to things that are happening, but then it’s too late. You should look ahead”.
Having ambitions on climate action are, she added, worthless unless you implement them boldly and rapidly. “I can see social catastrophes coming as a result of climate warming, and also from the increasing division and inequality in the world,” she warned.
While a number of other countries including Canada, Israel and Hungary have tried out various mechanisms to give a voice to future generations, arguably the one to make the most concrete progress is our nearest neighbour, Wales, which in 2015 passed the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. This created the role of Future Generations Commissioner, with statutory powers.
Sophie Howe, whose term as Future Generations Commissioner ended earlier this year, explained that her job was to ensure that political decisions being taken now did not compromise the interests of citizens in the future.
As an example of this role in action, her office opposed a £1 billion relief road project being planned for around Newport, arguing that the immediate economic benefits were offset by the likely long-term damage to biodiversity in the region.
Naturally, politicians are loath to cede power, so the commissioner’s role is limited to requiring policymakers to justify their decisions, without the power to overturn them if the answers come up short.
Political dysfunction and capture by special interest groups often mean that not alone are future generations not represented, the will of people today is also routinely ignored. For me, this is best illustrated by the outstanding success of Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly, an ongoing experiment in what is known as deliberative democracy.
This involves a randomly selected group of ordinary citizens engaging in an in-depth review of a given issue, guided by independent experts and without lobbyists being able to shape or distort their deliberations.
In 2016 the assembly was far ahead of the Oireachtas in accurately identifying the public’s wish to scrap the Eighth Amendment and overturn Ireland’s blanket abortion ban. In 2018 the assembly’s recommendations on climate action were light years beyond what politicians, fearful of pressure groups, were prepared to even countenance.
And earlier this year, the assembly’s recommendations on addressing biodiversity loss were far-reaching and ambitious – yet within weeks, both Fine Gael and Sinn Féin had caved in to agri-industrial lobbyists working to torpedo the EU’s proposed new Nature Restoration Law.
This clearly flouts the will of the great majority of Irish people, but the iron grip of self-interested lobbyists on politicians is not easily broken. This begs the question: if politicians can’t even work in the best interests of people alive today and with a vote, realistically what hope is there for a voice for those yet to be born?
Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly has won praise internationally for breathing life back into our democracy by allowing direct, meaningful civic engagement. I believe that to consolidate this success, our political parties should commit to establishing a Ministry for the Future based on a combination of the Swedish and Welsh models to form part of the next Coalition government.
While it may seem novel, this concept has long existed in indigenous communities. For example, the native American Iroquois and Onondaga nations invoked the concept of seven-generation stewardship. Every major decision taken by the tribe had to weigh its impact deep into the future.
The eyes of posterity are on this generation, right now, silently urging us to act strongly on the biodiversity and climate emergency, to save them from an immiserated future in a collapsed biosphere. Will we ignore their pleas, or will we instead rise to the moment of our greatest crisis and earn the right to one day be regarded as ‘good ancestors’?