Taking a stand for those who not yet can
The philosopher Roman Krznaric argues that the electoral cycle, as part of a democratic system, produces short political time horizons. This he argues is a built-in flaw, that makes politicians fail to look beyond the next election, hence they lose the long term perspective. In effect it becomes more beneficial for politicians to offer tax breaks, than to deal with topics such as ecological breakdown or pension reforms. He also argues that special interests groups — namely corporations — use the political system to secure near-term benefits for themselves while passing the longer-term costs onto the rest of society. And that representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people, as these yet to be born people have no rights, neither anybody representing their concerns or potential views on decisions made today that will affect their lives. Because of this Krznaric’s conclusion is that we currently are neglecting the rights of future generations.
Now Krznaric argumentation can be opposed at at least one point, because several countries are currently experimenting with initiatives that are given the task to represent the voice of future generations. Finland has a parliamentary Committee for the future, it was established already in 1993, and it serves as a Think Tank for futures, science and technology policy in Finland. In a report released earlier this year the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) raised the Committee for the Future of the Parliament of Finland as a model for developing strategic foresight practices in the European Parliament. And as part of the development of strategic foresight practices in the European Parliament it may lead to the establishment of a Committee for the Future also in the European Parliament. A similar initiative could also be happening at the UN as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres endorsed a proposal for a Special Envoy for Future Generations, which could impact the 193 member states. He has also shown support for a UN Futures Summit in 2023 and a UN Declaration for Future Generations.
In Wales the The Well-being of Future Generations Act has been around since 2015. The act 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. As part of the act they established a position called Future Generations Commissioner, and the role of the commissioner is to ensure that public bodies in Wales (working in areas ranging from environmental protection to employment schemes) make policy decisions looking at least 30 years into the future. The current commissioner Sophie Howe has been in office since 2016 and during her time Howe has intervened on transport planning, education reform, gender and racial equality, as well as climate change. She has called for a trial of the four-day working week and has been a vocal advocate for a Universal Basic Income, which will soon be piloted by the Welsh Government. Wales’ initiative for future generations has been so successful that in September 2021, Scotland announced that it too is appointing a Future Generations Commissioner. At the moment, there is also a private member’s bill going through the UK Parliament to have a Future Generations Act for the UK.
In Japan we are seeing the rise of a research movement called Future Design that aims to step into the shoes of future generations and effectively represent their interests. Initiated in 2012 it is currently led professor Tatsuyoshi Saijo who is also the founding director of the Kochi University of Technology Research Institute for Future Design. One of the purposes of future design research is to bring together actors representing the interests of future generations to take part in present-day political decision making. In one experiment conducted in 2015 a group of citizens in the town of Yahaba, Iwate prefecture, were asked to draw up a long-term vision for the future course of the town until 2060, with the help of a group of researchers studying future design. The participants were split into four groups, each consisting of five to six members which discussed and developed a draft plan. Two of the groups represented the interests of the current generation, whereas the remaining two groups represented the interests of future generations who would be active in 2060. The experiment showed that there was a distinct difference between the first two and latter two groups in their way of thinking and the agreement reached. The current-generation groups drew up a vision as an extension of the status quo, taking the constraints and challenges that exist today as given, whilst the future-generation groups called for efforts to address tough challenges in order to enhance the strengths of the town. As the experiments has been repeated in other settings it has again and again been proven that the presence of a participant assigned to represent the interests of future generations made a difference to the outcome of deliberation.
Israel had during the years 2001–2006 an Ombudsman for Future Generations, but the position was abolished as it was deemed having too much power to delay legislation. And initiatives like the ones exemplified above have been criticised for being too reformist and doing little to alter the structure of democratic government at a fundamental level. In Wales for example the commissioner does not have the power to stop things from happening or to make things happen. Still democracy has taken many forms and been reinvented many times during the centuries, and we are yet to see if the next democratic revolution will be one that empowers future generations, and in the words of Kzanaric “decolonises” the future.
Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long-term
Committee for the Future
The European Parliamentary Research Service raises the Committee for the Future as a model for the development of strategic foresight in EP
Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015
Meet the ‘Future Generations’ Commissioner of Wales
Wales leading the way with Future Generations Legislation — UN plans to adopt Welsh Approach
Knesset Commission for Future Generations