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How to give future humans a voice in government

Sophie Howe, the future generations commissioner of Wales, is part of a growing movement to safeguard humanity’s long-term interests.

Sophie Howe, the future generations commissioner of Wales, says a big part of her job is “calling out the madness” in government.
Matthew Horwood

Sophie Howe has a truly unusual job. As the future generations commissioner of Wales, it’s her task to call out policymakers when they’re on the verge of making a decision that might harm people in the long run. It’s a job that exists because Wales in 2015 passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which sets out long-term goals and obligates public institutions to work toward them.

It’s part of a growing, global movement to protect future generations. Sweden introduced a Ministry of the Future in 2014, Scotland decided to appoint a future generations commissioner in 2021, and the United Arab Emirates made a similar commitment to future generations.

In a recent UN report, “Our Common Agenda,” Secretary-General António Guterres set out a series of recommendations on protecting the people of the future. He called for the appointment of a UN special envoy for future generations, as well as a Declaration for Future Generations, which would commit member states to creating their own governance mechanisms for safeguarding long-term well-being.

Howe regularly offers input to other governments and the UN about the best way to shepherd forward this movement, since she’s one of the few people who actually has concrete experience putting it into practice. We discussed what she’s learned in her six years as future generations commissioner, how she handles potential trade-offs between the interests of present and future people, and how she can represent people who haven’t even been born yet.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sigal Samuel

What’s a typical day like for you? How exactly do you go about ensuring that government bodies think about the long-term impact of their decisions?

Sophie Howe

The law sets out our long-term well-being goals, and all our public institutions have these duties to work towards achieving those goals. So my job is to monitor and assess how well they’re doing that. And then also to provide advice and support to help them do that.

I look at a lot of evidence about future trends and scenarios, and try to work out what are the big issues that future generations face that the government should be taking action on now. I put forward research on things like, what do we need to do not just to deal with inequality now, but what are the future trends and scenarios that could exacerbate inequality — and how do we need to be acting now to stop that? I take that sort of evidence to government.

And then there’s a lot of me calling out the madness, which is posing these questions: Why are you doing that? Can you explain to me how you’ve applied the interests of future generations to that decision?

Sigal Samuel

Has your calling-out actually led to policy change?

Sophie Howe

One example where my recommendations made a significant impact was with all these changes to our transport policy, starting with the canceling of this big road that was going to be built in Wales. It was going to use all of the government’s borrowing capacity to build this stretch of motorway. I intervened and asked them to demonstrate to me how that was aligned with the Future Generations Act and with the goal of a more equal Wales. You say that you’re a government focused on tackling poverty and yet 25 percent of the lowest-income families in this region don’t own a car, so why are you spending all the borrowing capacity on a scheme which does not benefit them?

Calling out the madness and saying this is a terrible idea and the Welsh government needs to explain themselves — that was really effective. Not only did they cancel that road-building program, we then completely reformed the whole transport strategy for the whole of Wales, and we’ve shifted our infrastructure spending.

Sigal Samuel

When you think about your work for future generations, how are you thinking about your aim? Is it to maximize the potential range of opportunities for future generations, which could mean trying to maximize economic growth? Or is it to ensure that the present world remains intact for them, which could mean environmental conservation? If it’s both, what do you do when there are trade-offs?

Sophie Howe

The seven well-being goals in the Future Generations Act set out the vision for the Wales that we want, and it was devised in conversation with the citizens of Wales. It says that where there are those conflicts, find the things that make the biggest positive contribution across all the goals.

So in that example of the road — if your primary mission is to improve the economy, then perhaps building a big road might be a good short-term solution. However, I don’t just have a duty to improve the economy. I have a duty to improve all of these pillars of well-being. We’re looking to improve health, to address socioeconomic disadvantage, to have ecological resilience… So the mission is to do the best we can across all of our long-term goals [when aggregated].

Sigal Samuel

I’m glad you said that the vision was devised in conversation with the citizens of Wales, because I was going to ask: How can you be sure you’re devising the right vision for future generations, when you can’t ask future people what they value most because they haven’t been born yet? Is there a concern that whoever gets to be the representative of future generations will bring their own biases and assumptions to shaping that vision?

Sophie Howe

Yes, that is an issue. So, we posed the question: What is the Wales you want to leave behind to your children and grandchildren and future generations to come? And we held a national conversation with the citizens of Wales. There were about 10,000 people engaged in that conversation, and it was everything from town hall meetings to young farmers’ societies to online platforms. All of that was brought together to form the goals that people wanted.

So whilst, yes, it’s a valid criticism to ask what if that was the wrong vision, I would say that at least we’ve got something we’re working towards. With the rest of the world’s system of governance, things might change from one political term to the next, and we don’t really know what we’re aiming towards.

Sigal Samuel

Right. One obvious thing that seems to entrench short-term thinking is our political structure, like the fact that we have these two- and four-year election cycles which are going to incentivize politicians to just cater to the interests of voters alive today. To what degree do you think we need totally new political structures or forms of governance?

Sophie Howe

It’s really tricky, isn’t it? We could have a commission rather than a commissioner, or it could be some sort of infrastructure speaking out on behalf of future generations versus the democratically elected politicians who are working on the here and now.

I suppose you could go further than we’ve gone in Wales and give rights to future generations. Like the case in Australia recently where young people have challenged the government around its investment in fossil fuels, saying that the government is compromising their futures. If a Future Generations Act gave specific rights to future individuals, maybe that sort of [government investment] could be legally challenged in the courts, and you could actually intervene to stop particular decisions.

Sigal Samuel

This general legal approach does seem to be getting more popular. In 2015, a group of young Americans filed the Juliana v. United States case, arguing that the government’s failure to confront climate change will have serious effects on them and future generations, and that that constitutes a violation of their rights. We’ve seen similar cases in Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany.

But I’ve been noticing that among people who talk about safeguarding future generations or the long-term future, there’s a big disconnect. When some people talk about the long term, they’re thinking 50 years from now, and other people are thinking 1 million years from now. What are your thoughts on the broader longtermism movement that’s associated with effective altruism, which tends to think about ensuring the very far future of humanity?

Sophie Howe

In our case, we’re generally talking about planning with the next 25 years in mind, which is obviously nowhere near the millions of years that some people are talking about. But considering that the public sector often works from year to year, that’s quite an achievement for them. And you have to bring it back to something people can understand, because the further you go into the future, the more disconnected people become — and also, the less valid any of your scenarios and assumptions are.

Sigal Samuel

Because you’re just not sure what the future holds and you can’t predict the outcomes of your decisions?

Sophie Howe

Yes. If we could just get people to think to the next generation or the generation beyond that, that would be significant progress… I would say it’s a stepping stone.

Sigal Samuel

One more question. Do you like your job or is it frustrating?

Sophie Howe

I absolutely love it. I tear my hair out regularly and feel utterly frustrated. And I wish that progress was faster. But that’s why I invest so much time in the more global movement around [long-term thinking] as well. Because I think if that becomes the norm across the world, that is when it becomes potentially transformational.