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Thinking about future people

clockofthelongnowFDSD Vice-Chair Ian Christie and I headed to the home of former trustee Sir Geoffrey Chandler and his wife Lucy for lunch yesterday. And our conversation turned to intergenerational thinking, and to the challenges of integrating long-termism and regard for future generations into political democracy.

Sustainable development has long been inextricably linked to the idea of ‘intergenerational equity’, that is, fairness as between generations alive today and those yet to be born, whom philosopher and green party politician Rupert Read dubs ‘future people’.

The underlying challenge is one which we and our co-signatories identified in an open letter to Prime Minister Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Clegg (we await a reply). And it has also received Select Committee attention in the UK, with a 2007 report of the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee,  Governing the Future.

Here at FDSD, we have in the past pointed to institutional innovations such as Hungary’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations as possible inspiration. But the challenge of ‘intergenerational thinking’ is a systemic one.  

We wondered about what experiences; and what existing areas of policy, can trigger long-term thinking. For Ian, the spatial planning systems of democracies are an example of long-term thinking. And indeed, here in the UK, the principle of sustainable development underpins the entire planning system.  

In the past, since the establishment of the welfare state after the Second World War, there was an implicit social contract (a compact, perhaps) in the UK that citizens would accept an obligation to pay sufficient National Insurance to secure a basic state pension for all – now and in the future. But with a rapidly ageing population that may now be breaking down. And that breakdown may be accompanied by a risk of conflict between generations alive today as younger people turn on the Baby Boomers who put home ownership and much else beyond their reach.  (On that, see David Willett’s book “The Pinch” or reports of intergenerational conflict in Italy).

As we talked, we mulled over the UK’s Climate Act 2008 as another example of leadership in long-term thinking, well beyond the short-termism of a five-year electoral cycle.

The problem, of course, is that if bold steps are taken by politicians without broad public debate and explicit buy-in, they can be vulnerable to attack subsequently as governments change.  We need leadership plus long-term vision, but we need decision-making genuinely to be by the people too. The current government, which is desperately trying to sell the idea of a ‘Big Society’ as a basis for social cohesion in the face of massive public sector cuts, knows this.  

Far-reaching policy change calls for widespread deliberation and consent from the electorate. And yet when that consent is implicit, rather than explicit, it may provide a less stable foundation for intergenerationally-regarding policy.

At a Global Dashboard brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago, Alex Evans reminded me of the story of the huge oak beams in the great dining hall of New College Oxford. When at last they needed replacing several hundred years after the hall’s construction in the fourteenth century, it emerged that a stand of oak trees on the college lands had been carefully looked after by generations of foresters to provide replacement timbers.  

The New College story is particularly heartening because it emerges out of the UK, rather than as a too-easily-dismissed insight from some distant community living “romantically” close to nature in what is still referred to as ‘the developing world’.

In the UK, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank is another great example of an institution that has been designed with the long-term in mind. The Bank now houses ten percent of the world’s flora, and almost the entirety of the UK’s native plant species. Yet around the world, botanic gardens that are a repository of ex situ genetic diversity are coming under threat from development or for simple lack of funding (see generally www.bgci.org).

These are just a few examples. There are many, many more from around the world that could be added. The challenge is systemically to find ways of enabling people around the world to express regard for the long-term in their decisions today; particularly those decisions that could mean using scarce non-renewable resources (fossil fuels among them) or that that irreversibly alter the options or reduce the opportunities available to future generations.  

In our work, we’re interested in looking at the kinds of institutional innovations that can equip democracy to deliver sustainable development. Intergenerational thinking is part of that. Some institutional innovation will almost certainly be needed in the realms of parliament or representative democracy. But we should not expect that we must find inspirations from existing systems of representative democracy alone.

Perhaps a cluster of ‘intergenerationally regarding’ initiatives and spaces could be joined together as a new tourist trail, or a suggested one-day teambuilding retreat for politicians or policy-makers? Their capacity to inspire could be part of efforts to equip democracy to deliver sustainable development.

Do get in touch if you’d like to take that idea forward.  

One Comment

  1. Marc Hudson
    Posted August 3, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm, getting people to think beyond the Moment (and we are encouraged to think of nothing but this moment). Is it tied to the Death of God, the lack of any end point or even cyclical return in our conceptions of time? There’s that clock thing, isn’t there- the Long Now.
    http://www.longnow.org/clock/prototype1/

    And for us in the west, drenched in hydrocarbons that make us feel strong to the point of invincibility, we can pretend that we aren’t prey to cycles of peak and decay. In fact, in the absence of religion, death becomes so terrifying as to be unmentionable. “Intergenerational debt/duty” holds in it the admission that we die, that the world doesn’t revolve around us. A hard sell indeed… But I ramble…

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