'Guardians of the future' Talk:
Transcript of my
Jan. 10 2012
Thanks, everyone, for comingit's a pleasure to be here.
So, my report on 'guardians for future generations' been creating a bit of a stir. By the way: If you want to get the report for free it's now available, for download, from the Greenhouse website, which is easy to find. (If you Google Green House now, we come up first rather than greenhouse adverts, so that's good...)
One of the stirs has been in the Guardian. The comments closed last night at 325, so there's clearly a lively and interesting debate there. So: what's it all about?
Well, I've got a proposal to end, or at least to seek to start to end, the chronic culture of short-termism that we have in our politics, in our electoral cycles, and in our business and economicswith business cycles and quarterly reports and even more short-termist things than that. And when one is trying to think on a timescale of hundreds of years or thousands of years or hundreds of thousands of years, for example, which is the timescale for nuclear waste, then those kind of short-term cycles don't make a lot of sense. So what are we, collectively, going to do about it?
Well, before I say what I am proposing to do about it, here's one more way of seeing the problem, that I think really helps: the concept of democracy is one of my starting points. What does 'democracy' mean? So, etymologically, democracy means 'the people rule' or 'the people govern'. Now I'm sure all those who take themselves as any kind whatsoever of progressive would agree that at the present time it's pretty inaccurate to say -- in any very meaningful, or full, sense -- that the people govern in our society. So: we don't even have AV, let alone PR; we're still waiting for the upper house to be democratically reformed; beyond those reforms, we need also participatory democracy, many of us would say economic democracy, and a serious re-localisation. There are vast, vast changes in our society which are needed if there is going to be a real democracy here. But even if all those changes occured we would still be in a society which ran the risk of being chronically short-termist. Why? Well, the way I like to put this is that the democratic institutions that we have at the moment, even the laws that would be brought in if we made all those kinds of democratic changes that I've mentioned that we would all, I'm sure, like to see, tend to still be focused upon the interests and wishes of present people, people who are alive today. They are the people who voteand whose votes alone would count even in an improved and enhanced democracy.
But a people, I want to suggest to you, is not something that exists as a time-slice; a people is something that exists over time. It begins in the past and goes on indefinitely far into the future.
And while people in the past are hard to harm, because they've had their time, people in the future are extremely easy to harm and indeed, in the extreme, to prevent from existing at all. Whereas if we get things right, people in the future could have the chance to have a great existence and to go on indefinitely longer into the future having that existence. So I want to say that we need to find a way of making democracy actually include future people. We need to find a way of representing them in our political system.
So, what would this mean? Can you give future people a vote? Well, obviously, that's not very feasible. So we need to find some form of, if you like, proxy representation for them. They need to have something like a proxy vote, I'm suggesting.
Well, as I said, if we don't screw up so badly that we stop them from existing altogether, over time there will be far more future people than there are present people, which would mean in a democracy that they would out-vote us every time, right? They would be the vast majority. So, in order to express their proxy 'vote', I suggest that what we need to give them is a proxy veto. Because: If they did vote on masse together, they would, as I say, massively out-vote us, provided we don't screw things up so badly that we stop them from having the chance of living at all... So I want to suggest that we need proxy representatives for future people empowered in and by our political system to veto things that we might want to do but that they don't want us to do. And the people who are going to be these proxies I'm calling Guardians for Future Generations, guardians to represent the interests of these future people to us.
So, who should these guardians be? How should they be selected? Well it doesn't make any sense for us to vote for them, because they are proxies for future peoplethey're there to express the votes that future people would cast if they could cast those votes.
I suggest that actually all of us and none of us are equally well positioned to be these proxy representatives for future people. We could say, Greens are the best place to represent future people, but that would be begging the question: "I'd like you to give me and my friends the power to veto all decisions made in our political system." Hmmm Not very convincing It would never ever get through: it would be perceived as a cheatit would be perceived, correctly, as utterly undemocratic. We need, plainly, to draw these proxy representatives from across the entire population. I suggest that the only fair, reasonable and democratic way of doing this is through the same principle that animates the jury system: which is random selection. Such that anyone and everyone has an equal chance to be one of the guardians for future people. So what I'm suggesting can be put in this way: that we need a super-jury drawn from any and all of us to represent to us the interests of future people and to represent those/them by having a proxy power that enables them to veto decisions (that would affect future people adversely) that are made in our current political system.
And that line of thinking really gives you exactly what my proposal isI'm proposing guardians for future people, guardians for the fundamental interests -- for the basic needs -- of future generations, to be selected at random, as jurors are, to form a super-jury, which would sit above our existing political institutions and have the power to veto proposed legislation or to force a review of existing legislation that they (the guardians) adjudged -- based on their own deliberations, based on their seeking to uphold the basic interests and needs of future people, and based on the absolute best expert advice and assistance available -- would be adversely affecting of those fundamental interests and needs, of future people.
If you like, you could think of this as a third legislative house. You would have the Commons; and hopefully we're going to get the reformed Upper House, which is also largely democratically elected; and then, sitting above that, the house of the future, the Guardians of Future Generations, able and empowered to act decisively where necessary to stop us from doing things which would adversely affect those who come after us. And that's it, that's my proposal in a nutshell. You can read the full details of it and the detailed options for how to proceed, in the full report. There's all sorts of questions: how long would they sit for, how exactly would they be trained, etc. There's a load -- there's a million -- things we can talk about if you want at the level of detail. Things to settle, a lot of which are already addressed in the report I've written. But that's the idea in a nutshell, and I hope you find it, at the very least, an interesting and provocative one. One of the main things that we at Greenhouse want to do with this is very much to open up the debate, and we seem already to be succeeding in starting that. This is not a proposal that is going to be voted in by any government next week. But we think that too often think tanks base their decision-making in terms of what they're going to say, partly upon "Well, could the government next week bring this in if they were minded to," or at the very most, they think something like, "Could the next government bring this in," and that's just would they think would be a success: if their proposallock, stock and barrelwas put in to place by this government or the next government. But that means that too often there is a chronic short-termism in the way that think tanks think as well. They don't think long term, they don't havethey don't allow themselves to have --visionary, bold ideas that people may at first attack viciously, as has happened to this idea to some extent in the Guardian comments, and much more so in a wonderfully awful piece in the Telegraph that some of you may have seen, attacking my idea, from one of the charming people (sic.) over at Spiked Think tanks too often don't want to expose themselves to that kind of attack and do want to do something which is perceived as the kind of reform which could be brought in by this government or, at the very most, by the next government. They think, only, within the box
I'll be surprisedI'll be pleasantly surprisedbut I'll be very surprised if the next government brings in this reform, lock, stock and barrel. What we're aiming to do is start the debate. So I have put forward a visionary proposal that over time may come to be perceived not as so extreme but as something, eventually, akin to almost common sense. And if we manage to do that, then maybe one day there will be future generations that are grateful to us. Who knows, maybe this day may even be remembered a long time after virtually all of the bits of technocratic tinkering that the large majority of think tanks have as their bread and butter are long forgotten. . .