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A voice for unborn generations

The Netherlands is one of the strongest democracies in the world, and yet there is a huge flaw in our democracy: the vast majority of the Dutch population is not represented and has no voice at all. Who are these people? Future generations.

The well-being of the current generation must not be at the expense of future generations

Staande foto van Eva Rovers
Image: Hans Reitzema

The majority of democratic decisions that we take today have the greatest impact on people who cannot have any say on them. Decisions on the location of new homes, for example. Do we build in low-lying parts of the country, or in places where, even in a hundred years’ time, people can keep their feet (and houses) dry? Or decisions about the health sector: do we make major investments now that prevent ‘double ageing’ (the situation that we face, where not only are there more older people, but they are also living longer) disrupting our society over several decades or do we postpone this?

Clearly, this democratic failing doesn’t just apply to the Netherlands. That’s why the United Nations is drawing up a ‘Declaration on Future Generations’, which will (hopefully) be signed by all members in the autumn during the UN ‘Summit of the Future’. This declaration is based on the idea of intergenerational justice. The wellbeing of the current generation must not be at the expense of future generations (and vice versa). Despite all the fine promises, unborn generations are still barely protected, says the UN.

Short-sighted democracy
Why do even the strongest democracies pay so little attention to the rights of future generations? Two of the main reasons lie at the heart of contemporary democracies: elections and a strong belief in market forces. Elections force politicians into a race in which short-term political interests (obtaining as many votes as possible) take priority over shared long-term interests. Or in the words of Barack Obama: One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away. There are countless examples of this. It has been know since the 1970s that fossil fuels lead to dangerous global warming, but adequate legislation to counter this was not drawn up. So climate change became a climate crisis. In spite of years of warnings from the World Health Organisation, countries made virtually no preparations for a pandemic, so COVID-19 became a global health crisis. This tendency to postpone problems is reinforced by the belief in market forces that has been dominant in Western democracies for the last forty years. As a result, private parties, through intensive lobbying (and in the Netherlands through the ‘polder’ (consensus) model), have significant influence over democratic decision-making. They succeed, for example, in delaying or preventing disagreeable policies with the argument that measures would be detrimental to their operations and therefore to the economy — in the short term, of course.

Democracies can appoint guardians of the future

Eva Rovers, staand op een schommel

Guardians of the future
This short-sightedness, however, is not a law of nature. Democracies can take the long term into account, by appointing ‘guardians of the future’, for example. As far back as 1993, for example, the Finnish parliament set up a ‘Committee for the Future’, which evaluates policy proposals and technological developments for their long-term impact. And, in 2016, the Welsh government created a ‘Commissioner for Future Generations’, who advises government bodies and checks that new policy is consistent with the interests of future generations of Welsh people. An important feature of these kinds of roles is that they function in an integrated way, across what are often segregated ministries. The main weakness is that, as things stand, they have little authority. Moreover, if democracies want to take more account of the future, not only must they make democratic institutions more future aware, but they must also trust their citizens. Because, in spite of the popular belief that citizens mainly consider their own interests and people are ‘naturally’ focused on the short term, in practice that does not seem to be the case.

The forward-looking perspective of a citizens’ assembly
The practice can be seen in ever more countries and municipalities: politicians enlisting the help of citizens to tackle complex long-term issues. For example, among others, France, Scotland, Denmark, Spain and Luxembourg organised a national citizens’ assembly on climate policy. These citizens’ assemblies comprise of around a hundred and fifty citizens who constitute a reflection of society. People cannot put themselves forward for a citizens’ assembly, they are invited through a weighted lottery. This lottery produces a group of people from all over the country, with all possible ages, levels of education and opinion. These individuals meet for a minimum of five days to discuss the topic among themselves and with experts. This discussion is not a debate but rather a dialogue, in which people try to understand rather than persuade each other. Although dialogues can get quite heated, with this form of communication, people seem to be very good at looking beyond cultural or political differences, beyond personal interests and … beyond their own generation. Within a few months, these citizens come up with feasible, constructive recommendations that take the future into account. For the time being, in the Netherlands, citizens’ assemblies only take place at local level. A recent example is the municipality of Borsele, where residents have defined the conditions for the construction of a new nuclear power station through a citizens’ assembly. A remarkable recommendation: don’t build temporary accommodation for the people who will be working on building the power station for the next fifteen years, build a sustainable neighbourhood and, in the future, give young residents of Borsele priority to the homes in it. That way, the residents immediately also found a solution to the future housing shortage. The municipality will use these recommendations as a point of departure in the negotiations with Central Government. Globally, citizens’ assemblies are demonstrating that citizens are the key to a less short-sighted democracy. Citizens don’t need to win any elections and appear to value shared interests more than market forces. This regularly leads to choices that go against their own interests or wishes — such as paying more tax (Scotland) or a lower maximum speed (France) — but which benefit future generations.

The Seven Generations principle of the Iroquois people: what is the right thing to do, according to the seven generations that came before them and the seven generations that will come after them

Blauwe sneakers met op de achtergrond Eva Rovers

The wisdom of seven generations
And this impact of citizens’ assemblies can be strengthened further. Japanese economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo (University of Osaka) has developed Future Design, a method of decision-making that increases people’s ‘futurability’. He was inspired by the Seven Generations principle of the Iroquois people. When making important decisions, these native North Americans consider what is the right thing to do, according to the seven generations that came before them and the seven generations that will come after them. Future Design allows people not only to consider future interests, it also allows them to speak on behalf of others from the future. An example is the town of Yahaba, which wanted to produce an urban development plan up to the year 2060. Saijo organised five meetings with residents from all over the town. They were divided into a ‘present group’ and a ‘future group’, which were not different from each other in any way, other than the fact that those in the second group wore a yellow kimono. This symbolised that they were representing the residents of 2060. During the first meetings the groups only talked to each other about the development of the town and drew up a list of policy measures. The ‘present group’ developed measures that mainly took into account the needs and limitations that they knew from the present-day. These were mainly measures that would improve existing systems, and they gave the highest priority to measures that would have an immediate impact. The future group, on the other hand, formulated a more creative and innovation vision, which specifically took into account the quality of life in 2060. These residents took socio-economic and democratic changes into account in their measures, whereas the present group hardly considered this. The future group also prioritised measures that set to work on long-term problems at an early stage but without forgetting the interests of current generations.

The future-focused society
A democracy that cares about future generations calls for a future-focused society. We can all exercise this ‘futurability’, it’s not difficult to do. Put a pair of children’s shoes on your desk as a symbol of unborn generations. Not only will they remind you to step into their shoes from time to time, they will also be sure to spark a conversation about the wellbeing of those future children with anyone who comes over to your desk.

About Eva Rovers

Alumna Eva Rovers studied art history in Utrecht and obtained a PhD from the University of Groningen. She is director of the citizens’ assemblies organisation Bureau Burgerberaad and an author of non-fiction books. As an expert in the field of democratic renewal, she regularly appears in the media, and at conferences and festivals such as Lowlands and Brainwash.