We urgently need "a politics for future generations". Why do we act as if nobody will live there, asks Roman Krznaric
From the very beginning, A/UK has asserted that localities and communities have a right to imagine and shape their own future [see our “Futures” category].
They must be able to discuss and explore what the major trends are, with as much legitimacy as any tech mogul or party politician or public intellectual. And then they must have the right to reach for technologies, and invent institutions and organisations, that empower them to shape that future - rather than think they are just the victim or the sufferers of great, implacable forces.
Whether it’s the challenges of climate breakdown, or automation, citizens in communities should be able to respond and act substantially and materially. In our collaboratories and events, we always bring different visions of the future into our spaces.
So we are very excited to read this BBC Future article by philosopher Roman Krznaric, which addresses our interest in a “future politics” directly and brilliantly. He begins by eruditely quoting from David Hume, who thought that governments existed to take the long view, against “that narrowness of soul, which makes us prefer the present to the remote”. Roman responds:
Today Hume’s view appears little more than wishful thinking, since it is so startlingly clear that our political systems have become a cause of rampant short-termism rather than a cure for it. Many politicians can barely see beyond the next election, and dance to the tune of the latest opinion poll or tweet.
Governments typically prefer quick fixes, such as putting more criminals behind bars rather than dealing with the deeper social and economic causes of crime. Nations bicker around international conference tables, focused on their near-term interests, while the planet burns and species disappear.
This we know (“politics is broken - what’s the alternative?”). Roman calls this “political presentism”, and identifies three causes. First, an electoral cycle that forces short-term thinking; second, lobbyists constraining policy to immediate concerns.
But thirdly, and originally, Krznaric claims that “representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people”. He explains:
The citizens of tomorrow are granted no rights, nor – in the vast majority of countries – are there any bodies to represent their concerns or potential views on decisions today that will undoubtedly affect their lives.
It’s a blind spot so enormous that we barely notice it: in the decade I spent as a political scientist specialising in democratic governance, it simply never occurred to me that future generations are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves or women were in the past. But that is the reality.
And that’s why hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren worldwide, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, have been striking and marching to get rich nations to reduce their carbon emissions: they have had enough of democratic systems that render them voiceless and airbrush their futures out of the political picture.
He also proposes another striking metaphor: modern democracy has “colonised the future”:
We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please. When Britain colonised Australia in the 18th and 19th Century, it drew on the legal doctrine now known as terra nullius – nobody’s land – to justify its conquest and treat the indigenous population as if they didn’t exist or have any claims on the land. Today our attitude is one of tempus nullius. The future is an “empty time”, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants. Like the distant realms of empire, it is ours for the taking.
The daunting challenge we face is to reinvent democracy itself to overcome its inherent short-termism and to address the intergenerational theft that underlies our colonial domination of the future. How to do so is, I believe, the most urgent political challenge of our times.
The most exciting part of Roman’s article is when he starts to do a global tour of the horizon of political and cultural initiatives that respond to the idea of a “politics for future generations”
“Finland, for instance, has a parliamentary Committee for the Future that scrutinises legislation for its impact on future generations. Between 2001 and 2006 Israel had an Ombudsman for Future Generations, although the position was abolished as it was deemed to have too much power to delay legislation.”
“Perhaps the best-known contemporary example is in Wales, which established a Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, as part of the 2015 Well-being for Future Generations Act. 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.”
[Editor: see this interview [pdf] with Sophie Howe in Progressive Review]
“There are now growing calls for a similar Future Generations Act to cover the whole UK. It’s an idea that may gain traction with a new All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations, formed in 2018 with support from Martin Rees, who sits in the House of Lords and clearly still has some faith in the democratic process.”
“The veteran Canadian ecological campaigner David Suzuki wants to replace the country’s elected politicians with a randomly selected citizens’ assembly, which would contain everyday Canadians with no party affiliation who would each spend six years in office.
“In his view, such an assembly, resembling a form of political jury service, would deal more effectively with long-term issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, and solve the problem of politicians obsessed with the next election.”
“A new movement in Japan called Future Design is attempting to answer this very question. Led by economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, the movement has been conducting citizen assemblies in municipalities across the country.
“One group of participants takes the position of current residents, and the other group imagines themselves to be “future residents” from the year 2060, even wearing special ceremonial robes to aid their imaginative leap forward in time. Multiple studies have shown that the future residents devise far more radical and progressive city plans compared to current ones.
“Ultimately the movement aims to establish a Ministry of the Future as part of central government, and a Department of the Future within all local government authorities, which would use the future citizens’ assembly model for policy-making.”
“Future Design is partly inspired by the Seventh Generation Principle, observed by some Native American peoples, where the impact on the welfare of the seventh generation in the future (around 150 years ahead) is taken into account.
“Such indigenous thinking has also motivated a major lawsuit in the US, where the youth-led organisation Our Children’s Trust is attempting to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for the benefit of all present and future generations.
“What makes this case notable is that the plaintiffs are in their teens or early 20s. They are arguing the US government has wittingly pursued policies that have contributed to an unstable future climate, a public resource, therefore denying their future constitutional rights.
“As Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California Los Angeles, told Vox recently: “That’s the brilliance of having children as the plaintiffs…they’re arguing about the future of the planet.” If successful, it will be a landmark case finally granting rights to the citizens of tomorrow.
What do all these initiatives add up to? We are in the midst of an historic political shift. It is clear that a movement for the rights and interests of future generations is beginning to emerge on a global scale, and is set to gain momentum over coming decades as the twin threats of ecological collapse and technological risk loom ever larger… The next democratic revolution – one that empowers future generations and decolonises the future – may well be on the political horizon.
More here on this very exciting vision. See tomorrow’s blog for Roman’s empathy projects.