Justice for the future starts today

15 December 2014

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Catherine Pearce is Director of Future Justice at the World Future Council and was a participant in the recent conference on embedding a long-term perspective in our institutions, organised by the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations.

It is the decisions made today, that will form the choices available in the future. Yet we are falling far short in safeguarding the needs of future generations, mindful of our responsibilities to protect the Earth system.

Future generations have no voice to express their concerns, are not present in discussions or elections and cannot challenge present day decisions. Perhaps that is one reason why current generations are plundering natural resources, polluting the planet with seeming little thought for those to come. Attention is turning to how to overcome the short termism of our policies and decision making processes. This was the purpose of discussions at the conference, ‘How can institutional mechanisms safeguard for tomorrow, today?’ organised by the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations in October 2014. The event marked the one year anniversary of the launch of ‘Now for the Long Term’, the report from the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations which has contributed substantially to the debate.

Through our own analysis, the World Future Council has seen the value of independent Guardians or Commissioners for Future Generations. These bodies can help to fill many of the institutional gaps and begin to address the systemic challenges, by keeping an eye on policy developments, intervening and exposing the long term implications of today’s decisions.

This is not to suggest the Guardian would claim interests of the future over the present, since this presents a false dichotomy. By ensuring lives of well-being and dignity today, not only does this break the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next, but it helps to build a desire and an ability to look to the generations to come. Nor would their role extend to imposing any kind of veto. Rather, these institutions would focus on problem solving, in order to help facilitate informed decision making, and place issues in a broader inter-temporal context. The complexity of present and future challenges demands the vision and leadership to begin connecting dots and addressing systemic challenges. A Guardian for Future Generations can help institutional arrangements to build that vision, and many are already in place in parts of the world (including in Hungary, Wales, New Zealand, and Canada), helping to apply a longer term perspective to current thinking.

Public engagement is central to this debate, and it was repeatedly raised throughout our discussions. Inviting public participation and contributions from organised civil society is likely to pay off in the long term. While many are cynical to the influence of government consultations, measures can be applied to ensure meaningful engagement. Local communities and their organisational ability, combined with their understanding of and connection with their local surroundings and environment are more likely to know what works, in the interests of the present and the future. They are more likely to have a respect for their local heritage and culture and wish to pass it on. Guardians for Future Generations can be instrumental in this regard. With open and direct access to civil society and the public at large, in order to gather their views and ideas, they have proven to be an effective bridge between government and civil society. In the case of the previous Hungarian Commissioner, he could receive formal public legal petitions, using judicial means to act upon them.

If we are to respect the safe operating limit of the Earth, if we are to prioritise the true sense of equity and dignity for all, now and for the future, our systems of governance must be improved to best equip us to identify meaningful, long lasting solutions. Present and future generations deserve nothing less.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.