Institutionalizing concern for future generations


in Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

Within political and bureaucratic processes, nobody really speaks for future generations. In the area of the environment, there may be some voters, politicians, environmental non-governmental organizations (eNGOs), and bureaucrats who are concerned about the effects of current policies and behaviours on future generations. What is lacking is an organized mechanism through which those concerns can be made influential. At present, near-term concerns have an overwhelming grip on political influence. This is because of election cycles, as well as the willingness of almost everybody to delay pain and difficult decisions.

The question, then, is whether any political or bureaucratic mechanism could help shift the balance of influence towards those who are not yet here to express their preferences. Most depressingly, we could conclude that only extreme prosperity puts people in a position where they are willing to make small sacrifices for the benefit of future others. Arguably, Norway’s stabilization fund is an example of this. Most optimistically, it could be argued that all that is necessary is to provide clear information on the future consequences of present actions, and people will make changes voluntarily. Between those views is a perspective that focuses on building institutions that think for the long term. Doing so is certainly challenging, since such organizations must be shielded from year-to-year demands in order to function. That challenge is made even more acute by the necessity that, if any such organization is to be effective, some organization that currently exists and operates will need to cede some power to the new body.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 18, 2009 at 3:08 pm

All we can really do is educate people and hope they will opt to behave in a decent way.

There is really no alternative – democratic or otherwise.

Peter March 26, 2009 at 8:21 am

I agree, this is one problem with democracy. I realize this might be hopelessly vague, but there is an emerging field in economics that is trying to developed a model that includes the interests of future citizens. I think the idea was to incentivize future oriented actions and write a form of intergenerational balance sheet into the account rules. I ran into a very brief mention of it in The Cash Nexus. I’m sorry, but I am too lazy to flip through 400 pages to find its actual name.

Milan March 26, 2009 at 8:35 am

Norway’s oil fund is an example of institutionalized concern for future generations. As I understand it, the idea is to compensate future generations for the fact that Norway’s oil will likely be depleted by the time they are alive.

. May 26, 2011 at 11:49 pm

Save resource money for the future? Nah, says Alberta
From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, May. 25, 2011 2:00AM EDT

Dead on arrival. Such is the fate that awaits the report from a blue-ribbon panel on Alberta’s future.

So radical is the report, from a group who are the antithesis of radicals, that it has no chance of being accepted by the bulk of Albertans. Why? Because the report, in essence, requires short-term pain for long-term gain, a recipe for political defeat almost anywhere.

No one in Alberta politics with a hope of forming a government would dare offer that option to a public accustomed for decades to using natural resources revenues to pay for today’s expenses while saving almost nothing for tomorrow.

Albertans don’t tax themselves adequately to pay for the services they demand and use. Instead, governments present budgets – whether in surplus, balance or deficit – that use revenues from natural resources to pay for about 30 per cent of the services.

Long gone is former premier Peter Lougheed’s grand plan to build a huge Heritage Fund with resource rents, the interest from which could be used to invest in the diversification of Alberta’s economy. Since he departed, governments have largely ignored the fund. Indeed, the province’s energy minister, asked about Norway’s multi-hundred-billion-dollar savings and investment fund from oil revenues sniffed that Alberta had nothing whatsoever to learn from Norway.

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