Representing future generations: Why politics needs to look beyond the short term

by Natalie Jones

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In today’s world of nuclear threats, Brexit and a new political scandal seemingly every day, one could be forgiven for falling into the mindset of political short-termism. Immediately pressing political issues are certainly in no short supply, and the imperative of brief election cycles also contributes to politics’ tendency to focus on the short term. However, this often means that equally important, longer-term considerations are correspondingly neglected.

In the UK, for instance, we have seen the costly consequences of short-termist policymaking when it comes to the NHS, pensions policy and housing. Yet, even these examples span a mid-term timeframe of 20 to 30 years – while we need to combat short-termism in such areas, we should be thinking even further into the long term. What about issues affecting people living a century or even further ahead?

Future generations who are not yet born are perhaps the most disenfranchised group of all. They have neither a vote nor a voice in today’s political decision-making, but many choices made now will impact them profoundly. Of course, we do not yet know many of the concerns of future generations, as their lives may be very different from our own. But what we do know is that they will share many of our interests, such as having a livable environment and the freedom to pursue their conception of a ‘good life’.

Therefore, how we respond to and manage the threats raised by global catastrophic risks – risks with potentially devastating effects on the total population or potential of humanity – is of key interest to future generations. These risks include those posed by climate change, biodiversity loss, and nuclear technology, as well as developing technologies such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, geoengineering and artificial superintelligence.

Accounting for future generations in policymaking, and internalising long-term considerations within today’s political decision-making systems, are urgent challenges. Over the 2016–17 academic year, a group of Cambridge students, in connection with the Future of Sentience Society, studied institutions designed to represent future generations in various domestic political systems worldwide. We looked at public sector bodies in Finland, Hungary, Wales, Scotland, Israel and Singapore, and explored how lessons learned from these institutions could inform a similar approach in Westminster.

Where these future-representing institutions have been successful, they have in general enjoyed a large degree of cross-party and civil society support; been to some extent independent from government; and have had mandates to conduct research, scrutinise incoming legislation and make recommendations to policymakers. The Committee for the Future in Finland, which is structured similarly to a parliamentary select committee, is one such success story. Another to watch is the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, which was created relatively recently. Institutions have tended to fail where, on the other hand, they have lacked structural independence or have had too much power to be politically sustainable.

Following this research, we have created an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Future Generations supported by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). This APPG, a cross-party group of parliamentarians from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, held its inaugural meeting on 18 October 2017, and is chaired by Daniel Zeichner, the MP for Cambridge. The APPG is a step towards combating short-termism and representing future generations in Parliament: although in itself it has relatively little formal power, it is a platform to take this mission forward.

The APPG for Future Generations team. L to R: Beth Barnes, Natalie Jones, Lord Martin Rees, Tildy Stokes, Simon Beard, Julius Weitzdörfer, Mark O'Brien

Over the next 12 months and beyond, the APPG for Future Generations aims to raise the profile of long-term risks, combat short-termism in British politics, and explore ways to internalise and institutionalise the representation of future generations in policymaking. It will do this through public events held in Parliament (including a formal launch event in December 2017), high-level briefings, parliamentary debates, and strategic coalition-building with other like-minded parliamentary and civil society groups. Cambridge, as a focal point for academic expertise and forward-thinking industry, is the ideal base for this work.

About the author

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Natalie Jones is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law at Cambridge, working on non-state actor participation in global governance processes. She holds degrees in law and physics from the University of Cambridge and the University of Canterbury. Her research is supported by the Whewell Scholarship and the Commonwealth Scholarship.
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