Giving our future a face: We need guardians for long-term well-being

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

New ways of thinking are needed to tackle short-termism and secure our future well-being, writes Dr. Maja Göpel, director of the Future Justice department at the World Future Council, in an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV.

The following op-ed was authored exclusively for EURACTIV by Dr. Maja Göpel, director of the Future Justice department at the World Future Council.

"Have you recently been worried about our future? I have. Are you stunned by the lack of vision, consistency and determination of our political answers to what seems to be the biggest crises that humanity has ever faced? I am. All over the world climate change, the destruction of the environment, the financial crisis and the widening gap between rich and poor are spreading insecurity and fear. We are the first generations whose decisions will determine for good or bad the future of human life on this planet.

It seems common sense that these challenges are too big for us to not work together, and too structural in nature for us to not honestly assess where our expertise needs an update. Bold cooperation and leadership are needed to drive the evolution of our societies into a 2050 where children lead happy lives.

We have seen the need for a change in the trajectory of human development coming for decades now – the sustainability discourse started in the 1970s and the European declarations have since been full of commitments. The Amsterdam Council in 1997 called sustainability an "overarching policy goal," the preamble of the Charter of Fundamental Rights mentions obligations to future generations, and there is no reason to believe that the Lisbon Treaty's aim to promote "the well-being of its peoples" refers to the present generation only.

Yet, we continue to miss almost all of the targets on climate change; biodiversity, poverty eradication, social equity, etc. – while ever better scientific measures tell us that the pressure to act is increasing tremendously. So why are we not changing the trajectory? Four obstacles in particular spring to mind:

1. The short-termism inscribed into representative democracies with election cycles of 4-5 years means that present lobbyists' and voters' interests easily trump future concerns. The Brundtland report 'Our Common Future' noted as early as 1987 that we live on credit of the future "because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote, they have no political or financial power".

2. A narrow political goal set spearheaded by Gross Domestic Product and a view of societies as cohorts of individual consumers cripples the concept of 'progress' by which policy performance is measured. The well-being of societies depends on many other factors, as brought to the centre of attention by the 'Beyond GDP' initiative in the EU, the Global Project of the OECD and the Stiglitz Commission convened by President Sarkozy.

But so far, endeavours to broaden the data set and evidence base for policymaking for the well-being of citizens remain marginalised.

3. Despite all calls for integrated policies that would tackle social, environmental and economic issues in synergy, European decision-making is split. Each Directorate-General seeks to deliver on single-issue targets rather than identifying where long-term trends create interest convergence.

In the worst cases, DGs act in competition with each other, addressed strategically by single-issue lobby groups, and the results are policy incoherence, or unambitious and procrastinated agreements.

4. A lack of a compelling vision regarding what life in the EU in the future could look like leads to the absence of 'a new common purpose defined by the needs of the current age' (report of the Reflection Group on the Future of Europe 2030, presented to the Council in May 2010).

So what needs to change to make change happen? I believe that bringing future generations to the negotiating table could be a solution. It is time to pierce the alienating technocratic jargon around sustainability and think about our decisions from the point of view of children in 2050.

This Guardian office could include a centre of long-term wellbeing expertise within the Commission and would help EU decision-makers understand the comparative effect of decisions on present and on future generations. This would minimise the risk of their decisions having significant future adverse effects whilst establishing a publicly approachable person, a face representing future generations.

Elected by the European Parliament, the Guardian would have investigative, consultative and advocacy functions, improving coherence and efficacy of European policies drafted in single-issue Directorates.

The Hungarian government, for example, created a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations with a similar mandate in 2008. The commissioner acts upon exchange with citizens or starts his or her own investigations, conducts studies to build the knowledge base on long-term concerns and presents them to parliament. He or she has access to materials from all departments in the policy formation phase and can therefore improve coherence internally and with international commitments.

On the European level, such a Guardian could be created under Article 352 of the Treaty. This article encourages adoption of appropriate measures if necessary 'to attain one of the objectives set out in the Treaties, [when] the Treaties have not provided the necessary powers'.

All policy decisions in these fields should also be scrutinised regarding their impact on future peoples' well-being and rights. But under the conditions described above, even willing individuals will find long-term policymaking to be an almost impossible task. Thus, the argument stands: political responsibility means creating a new institution to overcome identified barriers to agreed common goals.

Two initiatives are currently under way that could provide the foundations for this: First, a new budget line for an inter-institutional task-force on future trends has just been agreed. Second, a pilot project for research and comparison of different solutions for temporal checks and balances and intergenerational equity in the EU will be decided next week.

I hope they find widespread support and the EU and its member states kick-start courageous development of a new common purpose. The vision behind this could be Future Justice or Intergenerational Fairness.

Future justice because the dignity and rights of all humans of all generations inform 'progress' and preserving of our world becomes a core function of our economies. Future justice because we create fair conditions for future generations by reworking policies to reflect new knowledge on the state of the planet and human wellbeing.  Future justice starts today: re-balancing our societies towards well-being for all includes current generations, and even today many start feeling the closing in on opportunities."

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