When politicians make decisions, they’re expected to represent the interests of their local constituents: the lawyers of Leeds, the schoolchildren of Surrey, the creative-types of Cardiff. School has long taught us that this – how well governments represent such diverse interests – is how democracy works.
But as university students coming to age in a world where threats like intelligent robot takeover, globally-spread pandemics, or unstoppable nuclear proliferation are no longer just silly stuff of science fiction, we wonder: who, in the political community, is listening to the scientific community?
Who is advocating for the human rights of children of the 22nd century?
Who is there to represent the interests of ‘generations not yet born’?
That’s why we recently mobilized academics, industry leaders, MPs and Peers to form a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Future Generations. Launched last week in Westminster, the APPG aims to combat “political short-termism”, and focus on extreme technological risks affecting the long-long term.
Part of our battle comes from what we’ve witnessed in our lifetime: the costly consequences of short-term policy-making, like the recent political pitfalls concerning the NHS, pensions, or austerity. It’s perhaps no surprise that Britain’s next generation of eligible voters claim to deeply distrust the government.
And while some politicians are beginning to respond to these shortcomings– actively addressing the consequences of fossil fuels, workplace automation, and air pollution, their scope spans a mid-term timeframe of 20 to 30 years, while the risks like likely to manifest in 100 years are effectively ignored. We need to challenge this.
Critics might think such political attention to the long long-term is unnecessary, especially when 2017 was named “a year in crisis” for all of its “demanding humanitarian emergencies.” And after all, they might reason, why should current generations care about future generations, if past generations never cared about us?
According to Cambridge astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, the stakes for the future are much higher, as he outlines in his 2014 TED Talk “Can we prevent the end of the world?”
“This century is the first where one species, ours, has the planet’s future in its hands…it’s now not just the nuclear threat; in our interconnected world, network breakdowns can cascade globally; air travel can spread pandemics worldwide within days; and social media can spread panic and rumor literally at the speed of light.”
Our APPG’s inaugural report, written by students Natalie Jones, Tom Ryan, and Mark O’Brien, echoes this point, arguing this generation is inherently different “due to a combination of fast economic growth and unprecedented scientific advancement and technological development.” The report also suggests Britain is long overdue for a formal group for future generations, citing examples of existing Futures bodies in Finland, Hungary, Wales, Scotland, Israel and Singapore.
Though our vision for a UK version has finally come to fruition under the leadership of coordinators Tildy Stokes and Natalie Jones, we have roadblocks to consider; the very nature of U.K politics – frequent election cycles, volatile party leadership structures, and the un-ignorable influence of money and corporate interests –, still make Parliament a complex terrain for thinking constructively about the long long-term.
But we hope that the new APPG on Future Generations, and the politicians behind it, are a step in the right direction. We hope that these APPG members ―from Labour’s Daniel Zeichner and the Green’s Caroline Lucas to Conservative’s Heidi Allen and Lucy Frazer ― will collectively drive political discourse forward, and acknowledge how life in the 22nd century will be undoubtedly affected by decisions made in the 21st.
While older generations might have fought for the representation of all living citizens, it’s on the current generation to take democracy one step further: to represent generations not yet born.