Governing for future generations: what are our options?

26 November 2013

An innovative approach is needed to the options available for creating a sustainable world for future generations, said political philosopher Professor Simon Caney at his Oxford Martin School seminar on Thursday (November 21) . The seminar, ‘Governance, sustainability and future generations: designing institutions with a long term focus’, was the latest in the Now for the Long Term series, which focuses on issues in the report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations.

Climate change, resource depletion, ageing societies, population growth and budget deficits were all challenges where the cause was taking place now but the impact would “come and bite” much later, he said. He went on to explain that societies faced a number of intrinsic obstacles when making long-term decisions, including basic human nature, self-interest and our reasoning abilities – “If we are presented with an immediate risk or uncertainty we react to it, but when we are presented with an abstract model we are more likely to think, ‘It won’t happen to me’. And we tend to prefer pleasure now, rather than later. If this is how we are hard-wired we are not going to be very good at coping with long-term pressures.”

Focusing therefore on reforming institutions rather than human nature, he cited examples of countries that had created specific posts or committees to focus on future generations, including Israel, Hungary, Finland and Scotland. Possible proposals for reform, he said, could include changing voting rights to lower the voting age or giving extra votes to parents depending on the number of children they have; having specific representatives in the legislature for future generations, or changing the tenure of the legislature. Options also included making voters aware of long-term and creeping problems, recreating the Sustainable Development Commission abolished by the UK’s current coalition government and creating a national ‘deliberative democracy day’ to consider the future. Newly-elected governments could, after one year, be required to issue a statement on what they were doing about long-term problems, with a select committee to evaluate the statement and hold the government to account. “The aim of all these factors would be to tackle the causes of myopia: out of sight, out of mind; temptation and weakness of will. It would be in ministers’ self-interest to make it work – people don’t like public embarrassment.”

Any global institutions created to focus on future generations would need to be very ambitious in their aims, he said, in order to make headway. “It would have to be something that plays a role at G7, at the World Bank, at COP negotiations, not something that is free floating. It has got to be something locked into the policy process.” Looking at legal reform, he said he had reservations about the role of an ombudsman for future generations, as they would only be as good as the laws they were charged with upholding: “If they are no good then these sorts of mechanisms are toothless.”

Concluding, Professor Caney said governing for the long term would work only with the support of the public. A capacity to think about the long term needed to be instilled in society, he said, with education providers having an important role to play.