Sunday, 5 February 2012

Parliamentary launch of my GreenHouse report on 'guardians for future generations': Transcript of my address there.

Transcript of Rupert Read's talk on 'Guardians for Future Generations', at Parliament, at the report launch, 10 Jan. 2012

 

 

Rupert Read:  Let me start by offering thanks to everyone who has made today possible, including, of course, my colleagues in Green House and in the Alliance of Future Generations. 

 

So, now I'm going to provide a fairly brief introduction to the report that I've written.  We'll then have a chance to discuss it.  I really want to just situate the report in relation to the reasons for it, primarily, and give you an idea of my thinking processes that led to it, and then I think you'll exactly see why I came up with the proposals that I did. 

 

So: what is the problem that this proposal is designed to address?  Well, the first and simplest way of putting it is that we have to find some way of addressing the chronic short-termism of our political culture and of our economics.  When we're thinking about things like the electoral cycle, let alone the news cycle, the economic cycle, quarterly reports: these are all things that incline people to incredibly short time horizons. So the idea in my report that we are launching today is an idea proposed to completely counterbalance those pressures for short-termism. 

 

But there is another basis on which one can think about the basis for this report, for this proposal, that's equally important: and that's in the concept of democracy—and that's actually where I start out.  One of the main things that I'm really wanting to do is to try to get people to reflect a little more on what we mean by democracy.  What is 'democracy'?  And for me the place to start with that question is etymology, with the origins of the word, and 'democracy' means, or is supposed to mean, 'the rule of the people' or 'the people governing'. 

 

So: the question we ought to ask ourselves is, "do the people govern in Britain today?"  And to ask that question, I think, is pretty quickly to answer it— of course they don't.  And that immediately suggests a whole raft of changes that probably many of us in this room are already signed up to, that are necessary.  For example, a reformed electoral system, a thoroughly reformed Upper House; slightly more radically: economic democracy, localisation, participatory democracy; these are all the kind of changes that would be needed to really make a country like Britain worthy of the name 'democratic', worthy of that word.  But there's a problem that remains, even after all of those reforms have perhaps been made in some wonderful future that we could just possibly imagine ten years or so from now.  And that would be that there would be some very substantial constituencies left out of it: because, I want to say, we ought to think about what it means to have a people governing.  In other words, who are the people who govern?  Now if the people are only the people who are alive today, if we're thinking of the people or of our society of consisting only of people who are alive today, then I think we're then, again, thinking in chronically short-termist ways.  We actually ought to think of 'the people' as something which is stretched over this huge, long temporal period, beginning in the past and going on indefinitely into the future.  And it's the future people that matter the most because, of course, there isn't a lot that we can do to harm people from the past.  They've had their time and, while we should respect their memory, we can't make their lives terrible or kill them before they're born or anything like that.  But we can do that to future people—we can do those things to future people—and the great danger, the terrible truth is that we are already doing those things to some future people right now.  So what I want to suggest is that we ought to find some way of including future people, future generations as yet unborn and born, in our democratic system.  And that's the basis, as I see it, of this very radical proposal that I'm making.

 

How would we do that?  So: you've got to think about how you would have some kind of equivalent of allowing future people to be able to vote.  Clearly, future people actually voting is no more possible than dogs voting.  It's in fact even less possible, because you could give a dog a choice of food sources and count them as 'voting' by which they chose or some such [[Laughter]]…well, you get the idea.  So: we have to give (future) people some kind of proxy equivalent of a vote.  And by the way, think about this this way, I would urge you: as long as we don't do completely the wrong thing by future people and prevent them from existing at all, there will over time be a very great many more of them than there are of us.  In other words, they would out-vote us every time.  So this equivalent of a proxy vote, I suggest, ought to be put in the form of a proxy veto.  If they (future people) got together they would be able to out-vote us every time.  So: a proxy veto to ensure the basic needs of future people.  That's how I've got to this concept.

 

How are you going to instantiate that?  Well, you need to have some group of people, which are able to represent the needs, the basic interests, of future people and exercise that proxy veto.  How are you going to select those people?  Well, of course, you could elect them but that would get into competition with our existing democratic institutions.  And there's no particular reason to think that an election is a good idea with regard to these representatives, because election is a way in which we, the present people, reflect our interests, desires, values etc., and it's not a way in which future people are naturally, as it were, getting represented or having their views, basic needs, etc., expressed.  We need to have some group of people who are designated as a group of people who suitable for exercising this proxy veto.  And so my suggestion is that the only sane way to pick those people, rather than by election, is by random selection—by the same principle that animates the jury system.  That is, of course, an intimate part of our democracy as we have it at the present time in so far as we do have it. 

 

So, that's the proposal: a super jury to reflect the basic needs and interests of future people; to be able to exercise a proxy veto on their behalf over legislation; to provide a test to ensure that whatever we do, whatever major steps we take in an institution such as this at Westminster in which we are tonight, is future-proofed.  And these people should be selected, as I say, like a jury, by random sortition, which by the way, of course, was exactly the mechanism—the main mechanism—for democracy to work in Athens, which is well-known as the 'birthplace of democracy'.  So there's no particular reason why democracy has to mean election; democracy can mean random selection, sortition.  It did in Athens, it could do again here and now, and it still animates our system through the jury system. 

 

So that's really it, that's my proposal: a super-jury to represent the fundamental interests of future people selected at random from any of us, so that nobody can say, "oh, it's just those posh people" or "it's just those people who have been appointed by the government" or "it's just those people who are rich or well-connected enough to be elected" or "it's just those pesky g/Greens" or anything like that.  All of us, any of us: whether we're young, whether we're old, whether we're educated, whether we're not, are equally qualified and equally ill-qualified to be in this position of having to try to connect with what future people really need and start to put it in to action.  These people, 'the super-jurors' would have a period of training, they would access to the very best of expertise to support them—everybody: scientists, philosophers, activists, etc., would want to try to advise and assist this super jury consisting of the 'guardians' of future generations. 

 

I think it could work.  I set out in the report in some detail how and why I think that.  I'm also hoping—we're also hoping—to open here a space for debate.  This is not the kind of proposal that is going to be brought in tomorrow.  Too often it seems to me, it seems to us at Green House, think tanks spend a lot of their time thinking "how can we propose something which will be looked upon by this government or, at most, the next government, as something which could plausibly be instituted right away".  And that stops them too often from thinking visionary thoughts, from really trying to change the agenda, from really trying to open up the debate.  That's very much what we're trying to do here.  If a proposal like this was brought in by this government or the next government, great.  But even if it isn't (and I doubt it will be; I think the march will be longer than that) the thing that we need to do right now, it seems to us, is urgently to open up the terrain of this kind of debate.  So: this is intended not just to be a proposal that will be brought in but also a proposal to open people's minds and to spark the debate.  Looking by the pages of the Guardian and the Telegraph it's already done that, and I hope to have more of it -- more, vigorous debate -- this evening.  Thanks for your time and your attention, and let's get the debate started…

 

 

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Transcript of Rupert Read's talk on 'Guardians for Future Generations', at Parliament, at the report launch, 10 Jan. 2012

 

 

Rupert Read:  Let me start by offering thanks to everyone who has made today possible, including, of course, my colleagues in Green House and in the Alliance of Future Generations. 

 

So, now I'm going to provide a fairly brief introduction to the report that I've written.  We'll then have a chance to discuss it.  I really want to just situate the report in relation to the reasons for it, primarily, and give you an idea of my thinking processes that led to it, and then I think you'll exactly see why I came up with the proposals that I did. 

 

So: what is the problem that this proposal is designed to address?  Well, the first and simplest way of putting it is that we have to find some way of addressing the chronic short-termism of our political culture and of our economics.  When we're thinking about things like the electoral cycle, let alone the news cycle, the economic cycle, quarterly reports: these are all things that incline people to incredibly short time horizons. So the idea in my report that we are launching today is an idea proposed to completely counterbalance those pressures for short-termism. 

 

But there is another basis on which one can think about the basis for this report, for this proposal, that's equally important: and that's in the concept of democracy—and that's actually where I start out.  One of the main things that I'm really wanting to do is to try to get people to reflect a little more on what we mean by democracy.  What is 'democracy'?  And for me the place to start with that question is etymology, with the origins of the word, and 'democracy' means, or is supposed to mean, 'the rule of the people' or 'the people governing'. 

 

So: the question we ought to ask ourselves is, "do the people govern in Britain today?"  And to ask that question, I think, is pretty quickly to answer it— of course they don't.  And that immediately suggests a whole raft of changes that probably many of us in this room are already signed up to, that are necessary.  For example, a reformed electoral system, a thoroughly reformed Upper House; slightly more radically: economic democracy, localisation, participatory democracy; these are all the kind of changes that would be needed to really make a country like Britain worthy of the name 'democratic', worthy of that word.  But there's a problem that remains, even after all of those reforms have perhaps been made in some wonderful future that we could just possibly imagine ten years or so from now.  And that would be that there would be some very substantial constituencies left out of it: because, I want to say, we ought to think about what it means to have a people governing.  In other words, who are the people who govern?  Now if the people are only the people who are alive today, if we're thinking of the people or of our society of consisting only of people who are alive today, then I think we're then, again, thinking in chronically short-termist ways.  We actually ought to think of 'the people' as something which is stretched over this huge, long temporal period, beginning in the past and going on indefinitely into the future.  And it's the future people that matter the most because, of course, there isn't a lot that we can do to harm people from the past.  They've had their time and, while we should respect their memory, we can't make their lives terrible or kill them before they're born or anything like that.  But we can do that to future people—we can do those things to future people—and the great danger, the terrible truth is that we are already doing those things to some future people right now.  So what I want to suggest is that we ought to find some way of including future people, future generations as yet unborn and born, in our democratic system.  And that's the basis, as I see it, of this very radical proposal that I'm making.

 

How would we do that?  So: you've got to think about how you would have some kind of equivalent of allowing future people to be able to vote.  Clearly, future people actually voting is no more possible than dogs voting.  It's in fact even less possible, because you could give a dog a choice of food sources and count them as 'voting' by which they chose or some such [[Laughter]]…well, you get the idea.  So: we have to give (future) people some kind of proxy equivalent of a vote.  And by the way, think about this this way, I would urge you: as long as we don't do completely the wrong thing by future people and prevent them from existing at all, there will over time be a very great many more of them than there are of us.  In other words, they would out-vote us every time.  So this equivalent of a proxy vote, I suggest, ought to be put in the form of a proxy veto.  If they (future people) got together they would be able to out-vote us every time.  So: a proxy veto to ensure the basic needs of future people.  That's how I've got to this concept.

 

How are you going to instantiate that?  Well, you need to have some group of people, which are able to represent the needs, the basic interests, of future people and exercise that proxy veto.  How are you going to select those people?  Well, of course, you could elect them but that would get into competition with our existing democratic institutions.  And there's no particular reason to think that an election is a good idea with regard to these representatives, because election is a way in which we, the present people, reflect our interests, desires, values etc., and it's not a way in which future people are naturally, as it were, getting represented or having their views, basic needs, etc., expressed.  We need to have some group of people who are designated as a group of people who suitable for exercising this proxy veto.  And so my suggestion is that the only sane way to pick those people, rather than by election, is by random selection—by the same principle that animates the jury system.  That is, of course, an intimate part of our democracy as we have it at the present time in so far as we do have it. 

 

So, that's the proposal: a super jury to reflect the basic needs and interests of future people; to be able to exercise a proxy veto on their behalf over legislation; to provide a test to ensure that whatever we do, whatever major steps we take in an institution such as this at Westminster in which we are tonight, is future-proofed.  And these people should be selected, as I say, like a jury, by random sortition, which by the way, of course, was exactly the mechanism—the main mechanism—for democracy to work in Athens, which is well-known as the 'birthplace of democracy'.  So there's no particular reason why democracy has to mean election; democracy can mean random selection, sortition.  It did in Athens, it could do again here and now, and it still animates our system through the jury system. 

 

So that's really it, that's my proposal: a super-jury to represent the fundamental interests of future people selected at random from any of us, so that nobody can say, "oh, it's just those posh people" or "it's just those people who have been appointed by the government" or "it's just those people who are rich or well-connected enough to be elected" or "it's just those pesky g/Greens" or anything like that.  All of us, any of us: whether we're young, whether we're old, whether we're educated, whether we're not, are equally qualified and equally ill-qualified to be in this position of having to try to connect with what future people really need and start to put it in to action.  These people, 'the super-jurors' would have a period of training, they would access to the very best of expertise to support them—everybody: scientists, philosophers, activists, etc., would want to try to advise and assist this super jury consisting of the 'guardians' of future generations. 

 

I think it could work.  I set out in the report in some detail how and why I think that.  I'm also hoping—we're also hoping—to open here a space for debate.  This is not the kind of proposal that is going to be brought in tomorrow.  Too often it seems to me, it seems to us at Green House, think tanks spend a lot of their time thinking "how can we propose something which will be looked upon by this government or, at most, the next government, as something which could plausibly be instituted right away".  And that stops them too often from thinking visionary thoughts, from really trying to change the agenda, from really trying to open up the debate.  That's very much what we're trying to do here.  If a proposal like this was brought in by this government or the next government, great.  But even if it isn't (and I doubt it will be; I think the march will be longer than that) the thing that we need to do right now, it seems to us, is urgently to open up the terrain of this kind of debate.  So: this is intended not just to be a proposal that will be brought in but also a proposal to open people's minds and to spark the debate.  Looking by the pages of the Guardian and the Telegraph it's already done that, and I hope to have more of it -- more, vigorous debate -- this evening.  Thanks for your time and your attention, and let's get the debate started…

 

 

30. 31. 32.