Let future generations speak

Published on 24 February 2020

One hundred years ago, the economist Arthur Cecil Pigou pointed out that “our telescopic faculty is defective, and …we, therefore, see future pleasures, as it were, on a diminished scale”; as Al Gore wrote, “The future whispers while the present shouts”.  Before climate change threatened to undermine, or even destroy, future opportunities, this didn’t appear to matter.

It was assumed that technology change would ensure ever rising incomes, so that future generations would be richer than current generations, and so could be (relatively) neglected in current decisions without making them worse off. But this is no longer the case. The climate emergency and other environmental costs resulting from our present economic system mean that future generations may be seriously less well off than those alive today and, for many, not only their incomes but their very lives may be at stake.

Present generations prioritised over those in the future

Theories of justice and human rights generally regard humans as of equal value and entitled to the same rights whenever they are born (and wherever they are located). But it is increasingly apparent that decisions taken today do not respect this principle, but give the present generation marked priority.  Despite scientists’ warnings, carbon emissions continue to rise, while four of the nine core planetary boundaries had already been crossed by 2015. Governments make commitments to limit environmental damage, but their actions do not respect these commitments. For example, carbon subsidies around the world currently amount to over five trillion dollars.

There are several reasons for this blatant failure to take action in light of the dire warnings of the scientific community and the highly adverse effects already apparent. One is the power of interest groups – fossil fuel producers in particular – another is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – countries and individuals who feel that there is no point in taking action as long as others continue to emit and pollute. A third reason is the nature of political systems round the world: democracies respond to the interests of current voters. The same is true of decisions taken by ‘democratic consensus’  (i.e. in deliberative democratic discussions) where only adults alive today have a voice.  Indeed, future generations are not represented in any of the significant decision-making arenas. If we are to respect the rights of future generations, this needs to be corrected.

How can future generations have their voices heard?

But how? By definition future generations are not alive and cannot represent themselves either in voting or deliberations. Hence we need to devise a system whereby even in their absence their voices and votes can be included through indirect representation. There are many ways of achieving this.  People could be elected to represent future generations, and a share of parliamentary assemblies allocated to them. Future generations representatives could form an upper House, replacing the House of Lords in the UK, for example.

At a government level, there could be a Minister and a department for Future Generations, as well as representatives for them within all departments.  An ombudsman for future generations could be introduced to vet/revise/and possibly veto parliamentary decisions. In arenas of deliberative democracy, future generations’ representatives could also be appointed, such as in national commissions, and statistical and economics institutions.  At an international level, there could be a future generations UN Agency (UNIFGEN); a UN Commissioner; and a representative on the Security Council.

Representing future generations in decision-making

Projects carried out by the Research Institute for Future Design at Kochi University of Technology (led by Yoshi Saijo) have experimented with this type of approach by appointing representatives of future generations to contribute to decision-making. These representatives, drawn from the current population, are known as ‘imaginary future persons’ (IFPs).  One study showed that where some participants (chosen from the student body) were included to represent future generations, 60 percent chose an environment-friendly option, compared with only 28 percent where there was no future generation-representative.

A workshop planning the future of an urban area included IFPs chosen from the community. The group representing IFPs made quite different choices than community members in general – with holistic solutions to the transport system, for example, as against more short term concerns related to improving crèches and reducing medical waiting times chosen by those with only current perspectives.

Future generation representatives within public bodies

Institutional reform to bring the interests of future generations into decisions has been introduced in several places. In Wales, The Well-being of Future Generations Act, 2015,  ‘requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change’. A Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has been appointed, as ‘guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales’ who can advise, encourage and promote the interests of future generations. This commissioner has prevented the construction of a major road.

In Hungary, a parliamentary commissioner and a Future Generations Ombudsman has been appointed with responsibility to ‘safeguard intergenerational justice’. Significant achievements include preventing the US agrochemical company Monsanto from taking over the gene pool of agriculture, protecting forests and limiting the privatization of water.

There are also several parliamentary committees for future generations around the world. In Britain there is an all-party parliamentary group for future generations and a private members bill, Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill [HL] 2019-20 was put before the House of Lords in January 2020.  Citizens assemblies have also been introduced in some areas to identify and promote environmentally responsible policies, but only in an advisory capacity.

Comprehensive reforms are urgently needed

Comprehensive political and institutional reforms that incorporate future generations into decision-making are urgently needed. They may help to counter the short-termism of most decision-making bodies and to offset the influence of interest groups opposed to sustainable policies.  This should not, of course, be at the expense of the deprived alive today. Justice requires putting future and current generations on an equal footing.

While modern democracies treat their electorates – the current generation of voters – as king, some traditional societies do take a much more holistic view. The constitution of the Iroquois, a confederation of native tribes in Northeast America, includes the following statement:

“Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”

Political systems should incorporate this principle into their philosophy and constitutions.

Frances Stewart is Professor Emeritus of Development Economics at the University of Oxford and is on IDS’ Board of Trustees.



The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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