Want politics to be better? Focus on future generations.
Residents began the meeting by discussing their current priorities: keeping taxes manageable while maintaining a clean and affordable water supply. Then came something more unusual: they donned ceremonial yellow robes and underwent a sort of “mental time travel.” Together, they imagined they had been residents of Yahaba since the year 2060, facing a water sustainability crisis brought on by their ancestors’ failure to properly invest in infrastructure. Struck by the vivacity of this vision, the people of Yahaba reached a consensus: they would increase the water tax rate by 6%, enough to sustain the supply.
from Japan future design The workshops, which have become a global phenomenon, still teach the same lesson: made to see our decisions through the eyes of our descendants, we can broaden and extend the horizon of policy-making, thinking beyond future terms policies. Yet most governments do not institutionalize the perspective of future generations.
It’s easy to think of the future of humanity as a bloodless abstraction, but the people of the future will live lives just as real as ours. Right now, none of these people have a say in the decisions we make that shape their world. The current generation rules like a clumsy despot over the generations to come. Our shortcomings on particular issues that jeopardize the future share this common cause: that future generations receive almost no consideration in our political decision-making. We should settle this.
The struggle to document covid-19 for future generations
Climate change provides a striking example of the need to consider the people of tomorrow. The average atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide is of the order of tens of thousands of years. When the damage accumulates over many successive generations, we will have had sufficient warning in advance.
Political myopia goes well beyond climate change. One hope amid the devastation of the pandemic was that governments would finally invest meaningfully in pandemic preparedness. This does not happen.
Eventually, our lack of seriousness in the face of pandemics will prove ruinous. We could see the coronavirus again, or worse, a modified pathogen with greater infectivity and lethality. And it’s not for lack of promising strategies: we could strengthen our international institutions for mobilizes quickly a common answer. We could stock advanced personal protective equipment or invest in a early detection network to find pathogens with pandemic potential in wastewater.
But we could also think longer term and protect future generations by institutionalizing their perspective in government. It won’t be easy. We literally cannot give them the right to vote or hear their voices. So we have to be creative. We will have to represent the interests of future generations like a parent caring for a child who cannot yet make decisions about his future. We can start with our moral and political culture. The people of the future play little role in today’s public discourse and attitudes. This must change: we must create widespread public concern for our descendants.
In the case of climate change, this shift in mentality is already underway. Where governments have implemented environmental reform, it has been through sustained conversation and advocacy around the world – ignited in the 1960s in books like Rachel Carson”silent spring“, to today’s ‘Fridays for Future’ youth protests led by Greta Thunberg. Environmentalists have championed ideas such as sustainability and the rights of future generations, and shown us how the consequences of our actions, such as carbon emissions and species extinctions, will not only affect the current generation, but more to come.
But beyond climate change, we are missing a focused movement united around future generations. We hardly ever discuss, in sober terms, the extinction level threats it could put our whole future at risk. And we seldom dare look beyond the next few centuries to consider the destiny of mankind through the fullness of time.
A movement for future generations could start by championing the use of forecasting in political decision-making. In major experience conducted with US intelligence agencies, subject matter experts scored no better than chance on multiple-choice questions about the outcomes of major world events. But other people – known as “superforecasters” – have reliably outplayed the crowd. Super-forecasters often lacked impressive expert credentials; they included a retired pipe fitter, a filmmaker and a former dancer. Their common thread was a set of principles and techniques: avoiding imprecision in favor of quantitative estimates, extrapolating from general trends, paying attention to “base rates” and the “external view”. Thanks to these skills, public forecasting sites such as Metaculus – mostly frequented by forecasting enthusiasts – were about a month ahead of predicting that the coronavirus outbreak would turn into a pandemic. Governments could create a forecasting agency made up of people trained in these skills, providing quantitative forecasts to other ministries. Foresight in politics is a rare art; we could make a science out of it.
Children live with climate catastrophe. That doesn’t mean they believe it.
Other concrete reforms could still help us take care of future generations. Since emerging technologies are likely to shape the lives of these generations, we need to ensure that our decision makers understand them. In the United States, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment has played this role for more than 20 years, producing more than 750 nonpartisan reports on topics such as medical innovations and space technology. In 1995, however, it was cancelled. Today, major technology-related policy decisions in the United States are often shockingly ill-informed. This is particularly worrying given that we are seeing huge – and potentially very dangerous – changes in areas such as AI and synthetic biology. But the solution is at hand: we can relaunch expert advisory boards for relevant technologies.
We must also entrust someone with the task of representing the interests of future generations so that they cannot be ignored in political decisions. Could we scale Yahaba’s Future Design experiences to a country level? Introduce a perm citizens’ assembly for the future? An unprecedented legislative chamber?
We do not advance these suggestions with confidence. Any such proposal should be treated with extreme caution. Proxy representation can easily be co-opted by lobbyists and special interest groups. And bureaucratic complexity has real costs. California environmental impact assessments, for example, require proposed construction projects to meet environmental standards. It’s a noble idea, but this requirement can slow down the construction of affordable housing, leaving ever more people homeless or paying inflated rent. California’s homeless population has increased by approximately 40% since 2015 alone, making it the state with the largest homeless population and double the national average by population. If we are not careful, creating a well-meaning bill or office for future generations could easily make matters worse, becoming yet another tool for parties to pursue their short-term, justified interests. through opaque and partisan claims about the needs of future generations. .
But the right answer is not to give up and completely ignore future generations. We need reflection institutional experimentation, undertaken in a spirit of humility, incrementalism and exploration. As the residents of Yahaba have understood, it is time for a long-term policy.