The Perfect Enemy | Perspective | Want politics to be better? Focus on future generations.
September 29, 2022

Perspective | Want politics to be better? Focus on future generations.

Perspective | Want politics to be better? Focus on future generations.  The Washington Post

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In 2015, the residents of Yahaba, a rural town in northern Japan, faced a choice. The town’s water infrastructure was decaying, but rebuilding it would be expensive and would probably require raising taxes. The residents had been unable to reach a decision. In a bid to break the deadlock, they gathered together to attempt a bold new experiment in political imagination.

The residents began the meeting by discussing their present-day priorities: keeping taxes manageable while maintaining a clean and affordable water supply. Next came something more unusual: They donned ceremonial yellow robes and underwent a kind of “mental time travel.” Together, they imagined that they were Yahaba residents from the year 2060, facing a water sustainability crisis brought on by their ancestors’ failure to properly invest in infrastructure. Struck by the vividness of this vision, Yahaba’s residents reached a consensus: They would raise the water tax rate by 6 percent, enough to future-proof the supply.

Japan’s Future Design workshops, now a worldwide phenomenon, always yield the same lesson: Made to see our decisions through the eyes of our descendants, we can and do extend the horizon of policymaking, thinking beyond the next few political terms. Yet most governments don’t institutionalize the perspective of future generations.

It’s easy to think of humanity’s future as a bloodless abstraction, but future people will live lives just as real as our own. Right now, none of these people have a say in the decisions we make that shape their world. The present generation rules like a clumsy despot over the generations to come. Our shortcomings on particular issues that imperil the future share this common cause: that future generations receive almost no consideration in our political decision-making. We should fix that.

The struggle to document covid-19 for future generations

Climate change gives a stark example of the need to consider future people. Carbon dioxide’s average atmospheric life span is in the tens of thousands of years. When the damage accumulates over many succeeding generations, we will have had plenty of advance warning.

Political shortsightedness goes far beyond climate change. One hope amid the devastation of the pandemic was that governments would at last meaningfully invest in pandemic preparedness. This has not happened.

Eventually, our unseriousness about pandemics will prove ruinous. We could see the coronavirus again, or worse, an engineered pathogen with greater infectiousness and lethality. And that’s not for want of promising strategies: We could bolster our international institutions for rapidly mobilizing a joint response. We could stockpile advanced personal protective equipment or invest in a global early-detection network for finding pandemic-potential pathogens in wastewater.

But we could also think toward the even longer term and protect future generations by institutionalizing their perspective in government. This won’t be easy. We can’t literally give them the vote or hear their voices. So we have to get creative. We will have to represent the interests of future generations like a parent looking after an infant who cannot yet make decisions about her future. We can start with our moral and political culture. Future people have little role in today’s public discourse and attitudes. That needs to change: We need to foster widespread public concern for our descendants.

In the case of climate change, this shift in thinking is already underway. Where governments have implemented environmental reform, it’s owing to sustained conversation and advocacy across the world — kindled in the 1960s in books like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” up to today’s “Fridays for Future” youth protests led by Greta Thunberg. Environmentalists have championed ideas such as sustainability and rights for future generations, and shown us how the consequences of our actions, such as carbon emissions and species extinctions, will affect not just the present generation but many to come.

But beyond climate change, we lack a focused movement united around future generations. We almost never discuss, in sober terms, the extinction-level threats that could put our entire future at risk. And we rarely dare to look beyond the next few centuries to consider the fate of humanity across the fullness of time.

A movement for future generations could begin by championing the use of forecasting in political decision-making. In one major experiment conducted with U.S. intelligence agencies, subject-matter experts performed no better than chance on multiple-choice questions about the outcomes of major world events. But other people — known as “superforecasters” — reliably outperformed the crowd. The superforecasters often didn’t have impressive expert credentials; they included a retired pipe installer, a filmmaker and a former dancer. What they did have in common was a set of principles and techniques: eschewing vagueness in favor of quantitative estimates, extrapolating from general trends, paying attention to “base rates” and the “outside view.” Owing to these skills, public forecasting sites such as Metaculus — mostly frequented by forecasting hobbyists — were about a month ahead of the curve on predicting that the coronavirus outbreak would turn into a pandemic. Governments could create a forecasting agency staffed by people trained in these skills, delivering quantitative forecasts to other departments. Foresight in politics is a rare art; we could turn it into a science.

Kids are living with the climate catastrophe. That doesn’t mean they believe in it.

Other concrete reforms could further help us care for future generations. Since emerging technologies are likely to shape the lives of those generations, we should ensure that our decision-makers understand them. In the United States, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment played this role for more than 20 years, producing more than 750 nonpartisan reports on topics such as medical innovations and space tech. In 1995, however, it was defunded. Today, major tech-related policy decisions in the United States are often shockingly ill-informed. That’s especially worrying given that we’re witnessing enormous changes — and potentially very dangerous ones — in fields such as AI and synthetic biology. But the solution is close to hand: We can revive expert advisory boards for consequential technologies.

We also need to make it someone’s job to represent the interests of future generations so that they cannot be ignored in political decisions. Could we scale up the Future Design experiments of Yahaba to the level of a country? Introduce a permanent citizens’ assembly for the future? A novel legislative chamber?

We’re not putting forward these suggestions with confidence. Any such proposals would need to be handled with enormous care. Proxy representation can easily be co-opted by lobbyists and special-interest groups. And bureaucratic complexity has real costs. California’s environmental impact assessments, for instance, require proposed building projects to meet environmental standards. It’s a noble idea — but this requirement can slow the construction of affordable housing, leaving an ever-larger number of people homeless or paying inflated rent. California’s homeless population is up roughly 40 percent since just 2015, making it the state with the largest homeless population and double the per population national average. If we’re not careful, creating a well-intentioned bill or office for future generations could easily make things worse, becoming yet another tool for parties to pursue their short-term interests, justified through opaque and partisan claims about the needs of future generations.

But the right response isn’t to throw up our hands and ignore future generations altogether. We need thoughtful institutional experimentation, undertaken in a spirit of humility, incrementalism and exploration. As the residents of Yahaba realized, it’s time for a politics of the long term.