Intergenerational Justice – Necessary and Difficult.
Social democracy is, and always has been, a struggle to give a voice to the voiceless: not speaking for people but giving them a platform to speak. For most inequalities, it is easier to give the marginalised group a seat at the table to advocate their own interests. There is a considerable distance left to go, but our own parliament is far more representative today than ever before in terms of gender, sexuality and ethnicity.
But intergenerational justice – the struggle not only to bring fairer outcomes for younger generations, but future ones too – proves a particularly thorny problem.
To some extent young people can be the future’s advocates: they have the most vested interest in how the future turns out. But today’s young people won’t live forever – in particular, the decades beyond 2100 will not feature many people alive today. The future, our unborn children, grandchildren and beyond, lacks a voice.
And the impact shows in how our policy treats the people of 2100. The Treasury’s own Green Book makes it clear that in their calculations they value an extra year of life today three times more than a year of life in 2100. Our current policy privileges the present: we consciously discriminate against our children and grandchildren.
The promise of our current political economy is that our children will be better off than their parents by the perpetual engine of economic growth. If the future were guaranteed to be better than today, we might not worry. However, the recent 2018 IPCC report on climate change suggests that our current trajectory of a catastrophic 4° increase in average global temperatures will trigger millions of deaths from drought, famine, flooding and economic catastrophe. Life for many in 2050, let alone 2100, will be much worse than it is today. And this is before even considering the ever-present risk of nuclear war, emerging threats from artificial intelligence or genetically engineered pandemics.
These calculations just reflect how much presentism is built into our system. Politicians are constantly torn between what is right and what is popular. Even those with noble goals weigh up the benefits of politically costly reforms now against political expediency, often without realising it. It is politically costless to kick the can long down the road. Long-sighted politicians willing to make short-term sacrifices can make a difference, but decisions to protect the interests of future generations must be taken again and again over decades. We cannot rely on the resoundingly inconsistent quality of our politicians to do this.
Only an institutional solution which hardwires the rights of future generations into the processes and culture of our politics can resolve this injustice. The idea of institutionally enshrining the rights of future generations into an institutional framework is not a novel idea. Other countries have tried; Finland and Hungary in particular can teach us lessons about the way forward.
Examples From Around The World
First, Finland’s long-standing Committee for the Future. Established in 1993 and still going today, it advises government on all long-term issues, it responds to Prime Ministerial reports on the future of Finland and it engages in public outreach. The Committee has little power to intervene in legislation or policy decisions or address public complaints, but it has substantial influence on the parliamentary agenda and government often adopts the Committee’s responses to its reports. Although inclusion of parliamentarians can risk conflict of interest, their participation lends political weight. Counter-intuitively, it grants the institution more independence; cross-party bodies are insulated from government in a way public institutions are not. This lack of fear is essential for the institution to critique government policy in a meaningful way.
Second, Hungary’s powerful but short-lived Commissioner for Future Generations. Established in 2008, the primary task of the Commissioner was to ‘ensure protection of the fundamental right to a healthy environment’, according to Hungary’s constitution. The Commissioner’s considerable powers included the ability to call for the end of any activity damaging the environment, supported by police and law enforcement, and initiate criminal proceeding or judicial review if their calls went unanswered. Investigations resulted in over 200 cases a year, with many successes in protecting the interests of future generations.
For example, it prevented Monsanto from taking over the Hungarian agricultural gene pool, stopped $1.6 billion worth of state-owned forest from being privatised, and secured a forest law with strong nature conservation provisions. It is likely that these interventions ultimately caused its downfall – it was effectively abolished by the hard right-wing party, Fidesz, four years after its creation. Civil society movements were key in championing long-term thinking in policy in this case and many others, though they were not enough to guarantee survival.
Unfortunately, institutions which are given significant power early in their lifespan tend to face rejection from politicians. An institution with little to no power cannot adequately represent future generations but the degree of institutional strength required to make a real difference seems to be incompatible with current politics.
What Should We Do?
These institutional mechanisms for protecting future generations have come up against problems following their creation, when the forces that created them waned. The most powerful of these institutions have tended to be the shortest lived. What can we do to not only build these mechanisms into our politics, but ensure they have secure, long-lasting foundations?
The APPG for Future Generations was set up last year. There are other bodies too, from think-tanks like the Intergenerational Foundation to academic research centres like the Future of Humanity Institute. These alone, however, will never be enough – change begins from within.
There should be an explicit commitment to protecting future generations in both the manifesto and constitution of the Labour Party. However, we should be wary of making it a partisan divide; instead, as has been successfully achieved with mental health, cross-party support should be encouraged.
Next, set up a permanent Joint Committee on Future Generations within parliament, with a right and duty to scrutinise all legislation that goes before parliament for its impact on the future.
From there, we can foster the development of civil society organisations dedicated to future generations, perhaps by setting up a Strategic Priorities Fund for research on future policy across the arts, humanities and sciences – or holding “Future Forum” citizens’ assemblies to engage communities throughout the country. This will plant the seeds so that civil society can grow and flourish long after changes of government to keep up the pressure on political parties.
Finally, it is often remarked that you should never waste a good crisis. If Brexit does go ahead, it will be a significant moment of constitutional change. In particular, if there is a new British Bill of Rights, it would be a perfect opportunity to put intergenerational justice into the core of our political system and give it parity to other forms of justice. While it would not be impossible for parliament to repeal any of this, the historical significance of a Bill of Rights would make it politically difficult.
We must seriously consider how we restructure our political institutions to face the increasing changes and challenges of the modern world. We face great threats from climate change, potential mass unemployment and many other long-term issues. Yet our current, reactionary political system which bounces from crisis to crisis is clearly incapable of dealing with problems before they come to a head. When the future of humanity is at stake, maintaining the status quo through inaction is unconscionable.