Jonathan Boston: Safeguarding long-term interests in a short-term world

We must take irreversibility seriously, says Jonathan Boston. Some harmful impacts, like the loss of species and unique ...

We must take irreversibility seriously, says Jonathan Boston. Some harmful impacts, like the loss of species and unique ecosystems, cannot be repaired. And many other harms, like the loss of soil and deteriorating water quality, can take decades or centuries to rectify.

OPINION: Al Gore, a former US vice-president, once said, "the future whispers while the present shouts".

This poetic image encapsulates one of the greatest challenges facing humanity: how do we protect our long-term interests in a short-term world? How can citizens ensure, for instance, that governments give adequate weight to the long-term consequences of their decisions, especially when a failure to act now may have serious, widespread and irreversible impacts?

There is no simple answer. Human beings tend to be impatient. We prefer things today rather than tomorrow. We underestimate and downplay long-term risks. We also display many attentional deficits: what is out of sight is typically out of mind. 

To compound matters, short electoral cycles focus the minds of politicians on immediate and urgent problems rather than those of the future. And future generations have no voice or vote. They cannot protect their interests except through those with voices and votes today.

Some people deny there is a problem. They argue that our living standards are rising and will continue to do so. Hence, future generations are bound to be better off. Accordingly, they will have the wealth and technologies to solve any problems that we inflict upon them.

But this is a heroic and irresponsible assumption. It takes a narrow view of wealth. It focuses on financial and manufactured capital, but ignores natural and social capital. To know whether our living standards are genuinely rising or falling and what the future might hold we need measures of our comprehensive wealth, ones which measure both financial and non-financial capital. But we currently lack such measures.

Furthermore, we must take irreversibility seriously. Some harmful impacts, like the loss of species and unique ecosystems, cannot be repaired. The damage is everlasting. And many other harms, like the loss of soil and deteriorating water quality, can take decades or centuries to rectify. There are no quick fixes.

In this regard, the recent OECD report on New Zealand's environmental performance is sobering. Our country's per capita greenhouse gas emissions are high. Our nitrogen balance deteriorated more rapidly between 1998 and 2009 than in any other OECD country. We have one of the world's highest species extinction rates. We are losing soil at around 10 times the average global rate. And our freshwater quality is scandalous. Unless we reverse recent trends, future citizens will face a less hospitable environment. Whatever their financial resources, they will confront a huge ecological debt.

How, then, can we bring the long-term into sharper short-term political focus? How can we ensure that governments take long-term risks and vulnerabilities seriously?

One option is through constitutional changes, such as extending the term of parliament. Another is to embed the future more firmly in the present. This means making our policy-making systems, public institutions and analytical frameworks more future-oriented. Here are four suggestions designed to achieve this goal.

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First, our existing public institutions that speak on behalf of future-oriented interests need strengthening. These include the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the Children's Commissioner. We should also create new institutions to represent future interests with weak or muted voices. One example would be to establish a high-level, independent, expert committee to advise the government on climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

Second, we should invest more in foresight, including early warning systems, horizon scanning, scenario analysis and technology assessment. Currently, we have no research centre dedicated to foresight issues, and no high-level foresight units in the public sector or parliament. These gaps would be relatively easy and cheap to overcome.

Third, we must improve our monitoring and reporting of policy outcomes, trends and risks. Governments should be legally obliged to report on the intergenerational implications of their major decisions, develop proper indices of intergenerational fairness, publish a national risk register, and produce periodic reports on their plans to tackle major intergenerational issues and long-term risks. 

In particular, governments should report regularly on creeping or slow-burner problems. These are problems which grow gradually but often produce cumulative, snowballing, non-linear and irreversible impacts. Because creeping problems become harder to alleviate over time, early intervention is essential to safeguard future interests. There are many examples, some local, others global – the growing obesity epidemic, declining levels of social trust, deteriorating freshwater quality, the increasing incidence of antimicrobial resistance, and rising sea levels.

Finally, we need better measures of societal progress. This must include more robust measures of trends in comprehensive wealth, both financial and non-financial. There is little point celebrating fiscal surpluses or declining public debt if our ecological and social deficits are growing and our capital stocks, in aggregate, are falling.

These reforms will not make the future "shout", but they will help our long-term interests to be better represented and heard.

Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington and author of a recent BWB Text, Safeguarding the Future.

 - The Dominion Post


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