Today, vast factory trawlers are vacuuming every living thing off the floor of the oceans. Toxic chemicals are being dumped in poor communities whose governments turn a blind eye. Millions of acres of irreplaceable primeval forest are purposely being burned every day, to make way for cattle ranches.
But tomorrow, there could be.
The World Future Council is calling for Ombudspersons for Future Generations. That mouthful of words means that guardians would be appointed at global, national and local levels whose job would be to safeguard environmental and social conditions by speaking up for future generations in all areas of policy-making. This could take the shape of a Parliamentary Commissioner, Guardian or Auditor, depending how it fits best into a nation’s governance structure. This person would facilitate coherence between the separate pillars of government to overcome single issue thinking, and hold government departments and private actors accountable if they do not deliver on sustainable development goals.
Such a post already exists in Hungary, filled by the redoubtable Sandor Fulop, who has managed to prevent the building of a large power plant in the Tokaj world heritage site and, responding to the complaints of community groups, saved thousands of hectares of green lands around large cities. The Israeli Knesset also appointed a judge as Commissioner for Future Generations. New Zealand established a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as an independent environmental ombudsperson, the Welsh Assembly recently appointed a Commissioner for Sustainable Futures.
There’s a distinct whiff here of power to the people, and this whiff is getting up the noses of some governments. Things are coming to a head before the Rio+20 Summit in June this year. The Summit will have as a major theme ‘Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development’. The Zero Draft - Rio's official outcome document -contains reference to a “High Commissioner or Ombudsperson for Future Generations to promote sustainable development”. However Japan and the G77 are currently trying to remove this concept from the draft. Why?
Their main concern is about more bureaucracy and a drain on existing limited resources. However the opposite may well prove to be the case, since an Ombudsperson would actually bring more coherence to policy making. Currently the policy-making pathway tends to be a time consuming zig-zag, a waste of resources and energy that can be avoided if integrated thinking and long-term expertise are used. An office with a small staff working in cooperation with existing institutions, agencies and stakeholders can prove to be a considerable cost saver.
Another concern is that an Ombudsperson might favour the future over the present. Given that we humans already live well beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, an environmentally restorative change is essential if livelihoods are to be maintained and cultivated. Working for future generations therefore means defining and implementing sustainable solutions today.
Concerns of the G77 can be re-assured by the fact that this initiative arises in part from the wisdom of traditional cultures that have survived for thousands of years. They have survived that long by using a moral authority or conscience keeper to ensure that the longer term view is taken into account in every decision made.
In most countries today, a week is a long time in politics. On retirement, great political leaders voice their regret that they had no time to think, no time to reflect on the consequences of their decisions. They bitterly regret the state of the world they are leaving to their grandchildren. The appointment of Guardians for the Future could not only alleviate the regrets of great leaders, they could be one steady voice to stand up for the rights of future generations.
The Op Ed ‘Guardians for the Future’, drafted and co-authored by Dr Scilla Elworthy, Ashok Khosla and Judge Weermantry was published 21st April in The Guardian online