Dr Rupert Read, Reader in the School of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, has come up with a novel scheme for protecting the interests of future generations. He proposes the creation of a powerful group of “Guardians” who would have the power to veto legislation and even have the authority to initiate new laws and to work on studies about the needs of future generations.
On 10th January 2012 at the House of Commons Rupert launched his report with a debate and comments from MPs and others. There was great enthusiasm for constitutional change to counter parliament’s short-termism from the MPs attending: Caroline Lucas, Jon Cruddas, Norman Baker.
A central part of the Guardians idea is that this protective group of “Guardians of the Future” would be selected in a similar way to those doing jury service – they would be ordinary people selected by lot. This random selection (or “sortition”) originated at the start of democracy 2,500 years ago when ordinary Athenian citizens chose their democratic representatives this way. Such individuals, once chosen would be trained and then empowered to represent the interests of future people.
Several objections have been made to this particular proposal, one of which is made by Rupert Read himself – that it is unlikely to be adopted in the near term. However, interest in the idea shows that there is widespread concern that our democratic institutions are systematically promoting short term aspirations at the expense of future generations.
The report, published by the think tank “Green House”, is a very thoughtful paper and the result of much discussion between Rupert and mentors. It is available in full here:
The central idea of the Guardians proposal is that this new group would stand above both houses of parliament and have a veto over legislation that was against the interests of future generations and would be a counterweight to the current generation’s desire for instant gratification. It is intended to take up the challenge made by Edmund Burke who said, “[society is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Caroline Lucas, while expressing some concerns with this whole concept of Burke trying to “govern beyond the grave”, was enormously supportive of more long term thinking from those who are alive today. Caroline Lucas said that “parliament’s short-termism shocks me on a daily basis”.
In discussion about the “Guardians of the Future” paper, Chit Chong, a past Green Party environmental spokesman, said that the problem was not just preventing environmental damage but actually about restitution. He points out that so much damage has been done already that without restitution we are already enslaving future peoples. Chit defines slavery as forcing people to work extremely hard simply to survive and on that basis the consequence of massive environment degradation is future enslavement. He wants to change the language used about the future to reflect the “intergenerational oppression” that is currently being perpetrated.
Norman Baker, who was rushing away to work on the High Speed Rail project, was guardedly supportive of the Guardians proposal and he said, “it is a very short term view to say that we can’t afford to preserve the environment because we need jobs: that makes poor economic sense in the long term.”
Melanie Strickland of WildLaw UK raised a different issue, being concerned about the protection of other species and Rupert replied that this would be the sort of thing that the Guardians would be there to protect, but his impression is that the masses are more likely to take the future seriously if they think of their children and grandchildren.
Sandor Fulop, the Hungarian Ombudsman for future generations, sent a message to the “Guardians of the Future” discussion to say, “this is our only chance – we should not miss it.”