Headline: Giving future generations a say in policy and society

Actors from policymaking, science and civil society met at the IASS to explore issues around the representation of future generations in policy and society.
Actors from policymaking, science and civil society met at the IASS to explore issues around the representation of future generations in policy and society. IASS/Florian Sannwald

 "Future generations" have become an integral part of discussions about sustainability. This stems all the way back to the very definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report, but has gained new significance with the explosion of youth environmental movements we’ve seen in recent years. The general public seems to agree that future generations should be taken into account in political decision-making processes: More and more people are understanding that their children’s or their grandchildren’s lives are under threat because of our decisions and lack of action on environmental degradation, climate change, and other sustainability challenges.

There is much less agreement on what taking future generations into account can and should look like in concrete terms. This may be because there are different understandings of what should be available or preserved for the future: Should it be merely the existential foundations of life (as enshrined in the Basic Law) or is it our responsibility to ensure that future generations can lead a good life? Or is it in fact our responsibility to gift to future generations greater scope for action by ensuring that the consequences of today’s decisions can be undone in the future?

At present, there are different groups that advocate justice for future generations with different proposals and perspectives. On 26 September, actors from the fields of civil society (Stiftung für die Rechte zukünftiger Generationen, Scientists for future, Politics for Tomorrow, World Future Council), youth organisations (Demokratische Stimme der Jugend), scientific institutions (Hochschule für Philosophie München, Universität Lüneburg) and government (Umweltbundesamt, Landesamt für Umwelt Brandenburg, Bundesamt für kerntechnische Entsorgungssicherheit), met at IASS to discuss and initiate ideas together. Crucially, this workshop brought together groups that rarely have the opportunity to work together on ideas and the diversity of the workshop made for an enriching exchange and challenged everyone to think beyond their normal frameworks and ideas.

The participants’ diverse backgrounds enriched the discussions.
The participants’ diverse backgrounds enriched the discussions. IASS/Florian Sannwald

Who are future generations and how can they be given a voice?

Discussions at the outset of the workshop made it clear that the participants held diverse views on the definition of “future generations”: The positions ranged from "all generations existing in the near future – including just 5 minutes from now" to "all generations that do not yet have decision-making powers under our political system" to "all unborn generations". Precisely how future generations are defined shapes proposals for their representation: If future generations are understood as those who are not yet allowed to participate in decision-making (and thus young people who are not eligible to vote), their integration in decision-making processes is an obvious solution – the creation of a youth council would be one way to do this (an idea that is advocated by the Demokratischen Stimme der Jugend).

If, on the other hand, future generations are defined as all those who have not yet been born, the problem of representation arises: on the one hand, the principle of concern applies to them (because they are decisively affected by current decisions and should therefore also be represented) and, at the same time, the question arises as to how future generations can be included if they themselves cannot choose how their interests are being represented. Different approaches are conceivable: The establishment of a new institution with the sole purpose of reflecting upon and advocating for the interests of future generations and, for example, examining whether draft legislation would be harmful to future generations. Alternatively, advocacy for the concerns of future generations could be integrated into existing processes (e.g. through the adoption of criteria for the evaluation of decisions at all levels). The judiciary provides another means to represent and protect the interests of future generations through litigation to champion the rights of nature (this is the basic idea of the NGO Client Earth). Many people also argue that young people are better placed to represent future generations because they are closer to them. But this distinction between the younger and older generations of the present moment blurs the further into the future one looks, making it difficult to support the argument that young people are automatically better representatives of future generations.

The workshop specifically engaged with ideas at three levels:

  1. at the parliamentary level: the establishment of a Council for the Future that would be empowered to veto laws or decisions deemed harmful to future generations;
  2. at the administrative level: sustainability assessments could be developed based on both indicators and principles according to which laws should be reviewed;
  3. at societal level: future workshops could be held regularly at the local level to engage with local politics and governance, designing the future they’d like to see, and building a stronger connection between their present selves and the future.

Are the interests of present and future generations antagonistic?

The last example takes some important steps towards building a bridge over the often hard-drawn dividing line between people living today and those living in the future. Future generations are often talked about as something abstract, something that has nothing to do with us and this separation may even be a constraint. It is not uncommon for intra- and intergenerational justice to be played off against each other as if we cannot consider both at the same time and are too restrictive when we look after the interests of future people. In addition, a "we" that is too generalized obscures the fact that even the generations living today are by no means equally represented or respected in political decisions. In fact the interests of future people may overlap with those of people who are not or under-represented.

It may also be beneficial to realize that a just society that strives for the good of all would also provide a good basis for future generations. What is often perceived as a restriction in favour of future generations (e.g. phasing out fossil-based energy sources) usually delivers gains for people living today. In this sense, it is also important to consider which forms of participation can connect generations as this could be a way forward that brings the future into the present by joining rather than isolating the two.

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