Reading into the future this Christmas

Future generations will thank those of today's leaders who take a longer-term view of the many challenges we face, says Camilla Toulmin. 

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Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
23 December 2013
Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ninth anniversary of which is on Boxing Day. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia (Creative Commons

Aceh, Indonesia, in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ninth anniversary of which is on Boxing Day. (Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, AustraliaCC BY 2.0)

For those of us who are lucky enough to have a break from Christmas to the New Year, it's a wonderful chance to combine spending time with friends and family, and finding time to read and reflect.

Christmas is, of course, all about the birth of a child who represented a new beginning, a source of hope for the oppressed, someone to right the many wrongs of the world. It's a narrative in which a spirited youth strove to triumph with a fresh message of peace and goodwill.

The parallel with today's world is stark. The children of 2013 and those as yet unborn face immense challenges that have been set in motion by the short-sightedness of earlier generations. Yet when young people around the world clamour for action on climate change and other issues, rarely do those in power pay them more than lip-service.

This intergenerational inequity is the focus of something I will be re-reading over the Christmas break: "Now for the Long Term" — the final report [pdf] of the Oxford Martin School's Commission on Future Generations. It urges leaders to adopt shared values and oversee radical shifts in politics and business to ensure that today's challenges do not overwhelm later generations.

I wish I had been a fly on the wall at some of the meetings. Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organization, must have had a hard job chairing the commission's stellar collection of thinkers, whose bright minds and varied interests would have generated far too much for a single report to handle.

Time counts

While the report's great strength is its connection with a broad range of issues and ideas, this breadth detracts from the needed focus on time, and the multiple barriers and biases which mean that most people — and especially politicians —avoid long-term thinking and action.

Time presents many a conundrum. Why do we tend to take the short-term option? And what might be the tools and tactics for getting longer-term thinking into daily practice? This needs to happen at all levels — individual, organisational, government and societal — if we are to ensure prosperity for all in the face of climate change and other long-term threats.

The report does make one important distinction in terms of time. On the one hand are rapid events such as natural disasters and conflicts, which demand immediate responses. On the other hand are longer term, less visible processes — such as climatic change, desertification and environmental degradation.

These not only deplete our soils, biodiversity and water, but also tear holes in the social fabric, which needs the warp and weft of trust, infrastructure and co-operation to hold people together in times of trouble. While the immediate may capture attention, the long term needs continued investment.

Rewarding vision

The report identifies recent developments that encourage the short over the longer term. These include the 24/7 rolling news cycle, the rise of social media, quarterly corporate reporting, and short electoral cycles, which punish politicians taking a longer-term stance. The political system comes under scrutiny for its over-representation of current interests with well-funded lobbies, which drown out the long-term priorities. But the question the report leaves largely unanswered is, how to reward behaviour that privileges long-term vision and choices?

What tactics might we adopt consciously to limit our use of key resources? In fisheries, for instance, this might include imposing time limits on fishing, or forcing use of larger mesh nets, restricting the number of boats, and only allowing small-scale fisher fleets. We need to apply such thinking to forests and farms and so much more besides.

Lacking leaders

In an era in which the "consumer rules" what chance is there for self-restraint, a practice many traditional societies have known? Few if any people speak for the long term. The report notes some parliaments have set up committees for future generations, which put government policy through the lens of its consequences for the future. But the document says little about what difference, if any, such moves have made.

As the early part of the report makes clear, the rapid pace of change over the last 50-100 years shows no signs of slowing. Institutions are critical to how society deals with change, yet the huge value of our institutional structures runs the risk of being ignored because they're invisible. Everyone focuses on policy, and almost no-one on delivery and implementation.

The Oxford Martin School's Commission on Future Generations' report "Now for the Long Term"

Meanwhile, no serious global measures have been put forward to cope with how we manage a single planet. This was horribly evident at last year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit. We’ve got ourselves stuck with the 200 or so national jurisdictions that currently map the people and territories of our world, yet so many things – both good and bad – ignore borders.

The G8 and G20 offer some means to cut through the decision-making process but at the expense of legitimacy. And few strong decisions have as yet come from the G20, despite some promising noises on tax havens. The Commission also recommends making progress at the climate talks by grouping 20 governments wanting to take the lead, along with 30 big corporates, and 40 major cities. This sounds sensible as a means of making progress by creating some critical mass at the negotiations – but it would be good to get some big civil society organisations in the mix as well.

I recommend this report. It's a good read, with much to engage your interest. A stronger focus on how to bridge some of the tricky politics would have been good, as would a toolkit for addressing short termism in all walks of life.

The power to change the world, to right wrongs, to protect the weak and preserve the environmental systems upon which we all depend, lies not in the hands of the next generation but in those of today's leaders. Problems will only intensify for future generations unless those in power today spend the Christmas break reflecting on how they wish to be remembered. Finding time to read the Now for the Long Term would be time well spent.

Camilla Toulmin is director of IIED ([email protected])