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Opinion: Longtermism - what is it and why should we embrace it in legislation?

Marc Ó Cathasaigh of the Green Party says legislators should always consider future generations.

Marc Ó Cathasaigh

ANYONE WHO’S EVER woken up with a hangover knows a little about stealing happiness from the future.

That might seem a silly example, but it’s a real and tangible way to illustrate a tension between how we live our lives in the present and what we would hope our lives will be in the future.

Another real-world example a lot of people might relate to is: I’d like to get fit – I know it would help me feel better in myself, reduce my risk of illness and improve my general health and life expectancy. But will that affect my food choices today? Honestly, not as much as it should do.

And to broaden it beyond just myself, how about my children? Do I make ample provision for their futures in my day-to-day decision-making? I think, by and large, parents do think about these things – it’s an area where altruism makes sense to us, and we often forego niceties today to plan and provide for our children’s future.

But can I step that a generation forward? I haven’t met my grandchildren yet – I hope to have them someday, but they’re quite a few years away yet. Can my decisions today affect their life prospects? And if they can, does that influence my decision-making?

Thinking beyond ourselves

This kind of thinking can be extrapolated to form a philosophical school of thinking called Longtermism. Like most kinds of philosophical thinking, it can get pretty complicated pretty quickly, and it can be problematic in some of its most extreme conclusions. But put simply, as the American journalist and analyst Erza Klein has done, it can be encapsulated in three sentences:

Future people count. There could be a lot of them. And we can make their lives better.

The issue of climate change brings this kind of thinking into sharp focus. How will future generations regard us and judge us, when they look at the climate consequences we are locking into their future worlds? The carbon emissions I create today will still be in the atmosphere hundreds of years from now, trapping heat, intensifying droughts and heatwaves and raising sea levels.

The same applies to our treatment of the natural world. The curlew’s call is becoming rarer and rarer around Tramore where I live, my sons have never heard the cuckoo and I’ve never heard the Corncrake. Future skies, future rivers and future oceans will be quieter and emptier places unless we radically change what we’re doing today, and future generations will be immeasurably the poorer for it.

What message we pass on

I suspect future generations will look back on us, aghast. But our democracy, and by extension our state, struggles to take account of this kind of long-term thinking, and for two main reasons that I can see:

First, let’s take a look at that first sentence, future people count. In a literal sense, in our democracy, they don’t.

Future people can’t speak, can’t advocate and crucially, can’t vote. In fact, people under 18 – the future generation we can actually meet and know – can’t vote. Any election strategy aimed at people who can’t vote is doomed to failure – in the strict electoral sense, these people don’t count.

And yet morally and ethically, we can feel that’s not true. They must count, they must matter, but our political system fails to capture that.

And in the second challenge is that we, all of us, sometimes make decisions in the short-term that may not line up with our long-term interests, be that in terms of our pension provision or around opening the second bottle of wine.

In the next budget, in the next election, all parties will be trying to point to the impact on you, right now, in your pocket or your life. Very few will be pointing to things 10 years ahead, much less 100 years from now.

So. our democracy tends to create conditions that reward promises and decisions within a short time horizon. This makes planning for the long term and for future generations extremely challenging.

Building consensus

Yet, in fact, thinking ahead is one way to create constructive debate and political consensus. Because while we might all disagree on the actions that need to be taken in the here-and-now to deal with the challenges and crises of today, if we all sat down together to plan for an Ireland 50 years from now, I think we’d have a lot in common across the political spectrum.

We’d all hope for a safe and prosperous society, a healthy biosphere and a climate-secure environment. Once you have the end goal in mind, you can work backwards to lay out the steps needed to arrive at that goal.

A few countries have begun to take steps toward incorporating more long-term thinking into their decision-making processes. The Finnish Parliament, for example, has a Committee for the Future, which operates along the lines of our Oireachtas Committees here. Its mission ‘is to generate dialogue with the government on major future problems and opportunities.’

As part of that work it receives and comments on the Finnish Government’s Future Report so that parliament ‘can recognise important political themes at such an early stage that different alternatives and policy lines are still completely open and under development.’ Interestingly, this committee also considers Finland’s responsibility to implement the Sustainable Development Goals under Agenda 2030.

The Welsh have gone a step further by creating a Future Generations Commissioner, an independent, well-resourced office with teeth and with the stated goal to ‘promote the sustainable development principle, in particular, to act as a guardian of the ability of future generations to meet their needs and encourage public bodies to take greater account of the long-term impact of the things they do.’ The work of this office is underpinned by a ground-breaking piece of legislation, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

Would this work here?

I believe an approach of this kind could be hugely beneficial for our own politics here in Ireland. For that reason, I am bringing forward my own legislation, The Commission for Future Generations Bill, in this Dáil term to establish a timebound commission to report back to government on the potential for a future-oriented approach to inform and shape our policy-making and to recommend the legislative changes and structures that would put that approach on a firm footing.

Because I do believe that future people count, even if I can’t meet them, know them, or hear them. And I do believe young people count, even if they won’t count in the ballot box at the next election or the election after. And I do believe that the choices we make in the here and now must balance the needs of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

And in doing so, in applying longer-term thinking to all we do, it’s my belief that we can create a more consensus-driven politics that will lead to better outcomes both for this generation and the ones to come.

Marc Ó Cathasaigh is a Green Party TD representing Waterford. He is the Green Party Spokesperson on Social Protection and the vice-chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands.

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