New World Same Humans #39

We have colonised the future. Now, it's time to give it back.

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What do we owe future generations? That’s the short, yet vastly complex, question at the heart of this week’s New World Same Humans.

An increasingly influential idea holds that for centuries, those of us in the Global North have been stealing – value, resources, and peace – from the future. And that now, it’s time to start giving it back.

Before we start, a reminder that this week saw the launch of the NWSH Slack community! A few days in, we’ve already assembled an amazing group from all over the world. Find out more, and get a link to join, at the end of this email.

But first comes this week’s essay, which is called Decolonising the Future.


📥 Fast Download: Decolonising The Future

💸 Even corporate America says it’s time for capitalism 2.0. In September, the Long-Term Stock Exchange (LTSE) opened for trading in US. To list, companies must tie executive pay to long term metrics that include impact on employees, society and the planet. The LTSE taps into an emerging consensus on the need to reform capitalism.

The deeper problem is our relationship with what lies ahead. The consensus around capitalism is informed by an underlying idea. That is, that we in the affluent world have a damaging addiction to the short-term. The problem goes deeper that capitalism. In liberal democracies, politicians are incentivised to think to the next election and not much further.

⚙️ The Global North has colonised the future. Since the industrial revolution affluent nations have colonised and exploited new geographical frontiers. Now, some argue that the Global North’s relationship with the future is best understood in the same way. We’ve treated the future as another frontier; one from which we can extract value, and burden with damages.

😱 Imagine if future generations could colonise us. What if our descendants 200 years from now mastered the technology needed for travel back in time, and used it to come to our world? Would they despise us for knowingly ruining the planet, and their lives? Would they claim the moral right, in consequence, to colonise our world of 2020?

🙈 We’re acting against a basic moral intuition. That thought experiment is really a way to make tangible the question: what do we owe future generations? Some moral philosophers struggle with the idea that we can be tied morally to people who don’t exist. But the idea that we have a moral obligation to future generations is one widely shared, even if it is hard to explain.

🥕 We need to design new incentives. The Long-Term Stock Exchange seeks to establish new incentives when it comes to capitalism. Can we do the same for democracy? Some are floating an intriguing idea. That is, the replacement of elected representatives with randomly selected citizen councils. With no need to worry about elections, councillors would be free to follow their moral intuitions when it comes to what we owe the future.

Is this the age for direct democracy? It feels unlikely that citizen councils will replace elected representatives any time soon. On the other hand, liberal democracy is enduring a turbulent time right now, so maybe change is coming. What we need is a system that allows us to fully inhabit a powerfully felt moral imperative: that this world is not ours, rather, we are only passing through it. And, as such, we have a moral obligation to future generations to tread as lightly as possible.


💸 Even corporate America says it’s time for capitalism 2.0

Last month, capitalism quietly took a big step forward. Or, at least, that’s how we may come to see it in time.

In September the Long-Term Stock Exchange (LTSE) opened for trading in US. It’s the invention of Eric Ries, a US entrepreneur most famous as the author of The Lean Startup; Ries first floated the idea for the LTSE in that book.

To list on the new exchange, companies must meet five standards in relation to their long-term impact, including tying executive pay to long term metrics. The idea is to incentivise CEOs and investors to consider the long view. What’s more, the LTSE wants that thinking to extend beyond shareholder value; companies who list on the exchange must also establish metrics around their employees, society, and the planet.

In this way, the LTSE taps into an emerging consensus around the need to reform capitalism. Last year, the influential Business Roundtable group – which includes megacorps such as GM, Johnson & Johnson and Apple – launched a new mission statement, in which it said businesses must seek profits and positive impact. To be clear, that’s the apex predators of corporate America saying: there’s more to life than shareholder value. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum, not renowned as a bastion of radical thinking, started talking about ‘stakeholder capitalism’.

Ries hopes the LTSE will eventually dethrone its cousin the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and become the primary US stock market. ‘If we’re going to have a capitalism 2.0’ he says, ‘it’s going to need a capital market to be listed on.’


The deeper problem is our relationship with what lies ahead

The emerging consensus around capitalism, though, is ultimately informed by an underlying and increasingly influential idea. That is, that we in the affluent world are addicted to the short-term. And that this addiction is at the heart of much that is wrong with our system.

In business, our short-termism manifests as an inability among corporate leaders to think beyond the next quarterly earnings report. But the problem runs beyond capitalism, too.

As the scientists and existential risk expert Martin Rees has pointed out, when it comes to dealing with long term shared challenges – including those that pose a threat to the survival our species – liberal democracies are bedevilled by a massive flaw. Our politicians are incentivised to think to the next election, and not much further. In consequence, policies likely to prove unpopular or painful today but positive in the long term – such as, say, raising taxes on carbon – tend to get postponed to a tomorrow that never comes.


⚙️ The Global North has colonised the future

It’s common to observe that the Global North was built on an extractive relationship to the physical environment.

Since the industrial revolution, affluent nations have relentlessly sought out and colonised new frontiers, consumed the resources they found, and generated waste products with little regard for their damages.

Now, some argue that the Global North’s relationship to the future is best understood in the same way. For hundreds of years we’ve treated the future as another frontier; one from which we can extract value, and burden with damages, with no regard for the future generations who will be its inhabitants.

We have, in short, colonised the future. And now it’s time to start giving it back.


😱 Imagine if future generations could colonise us

Up until recently, it’s been easy enough to push all this out of our collective consciousness. But no longer. Because now, in the form of human-made global heating, we face a collective challenge that can’t be ignored. And if we don’t change the path we’re on, our descendants – in just two or three generation’s time – will face catastrophe.

For the last few years, I’ve been haunted by a kind of science-fiction-inflected thought experiment. Imagine that in the middle of the English countryside, a giant floating light appears. Then the light parts in the middle like a curtain, and hundreds of people begin to emerge. The hundreds turn into thousands, and then millions.

These people are from the future. They have mastered the technology necessary for travel back in time. And they are here to take refuge from the world in which they live. A world two hundred years hence, and one made unliveable by global heating.

They despise us for leaving them a ruined planet, and an unliveable home. So they have decided to take ours.


🙈 We’re acting against a basic moral intuition

Sure, my weird thought experiment is unlikely to be realised. It’s really a way of making tangible questions around intergenerational justice. The experiment helps us ask: what we would do differently if the people of 200 years hence could reach through time to make our lives worse, the way we can do – and are doing – with them?

In other words: what do we owe future generations?

Some philosophers are troubled by the idea of a moral obligation to future generations. How, they ask, can such an obligation exist between us and people who do not exist?

Such scruples, though, are rarely found among the wider public, who time and again strongly approve of sentiments that express a moral obligation to those yet to be born. Politicians in advanced democracies even invoke such obligations often. Here in the UK, for example, our Prime Minister has said we ‘owe it to future generations’ to build a better society in the wake of the pandemic.

The idea that we are tied ethically to those yet to be born is a moral intuition that is widely shared, even if it is hard to explain. So it’s not that we don’t care about our descendants. And it’s not as though we don’t know how to minimise many of the harms we’re doing them.

It’s just that change is hard.


🥕 We need to design new incentives

To decolonize the future, then, we need new incentives, which push us to change. That’s exactly what the Long-Term Stock Exchange seeks to establish when it comes to the way we do capitalism.

But what about the even broader picture? The challenge posed by global heating demands we rewire our democracies away from the election cycle, and around the long view. Can it be done?

In a recent book called The Good Ancestor, philosopher Roman Krznaric wonders on these questions. And he floats an intriguing solution. We should consider a return to the kind of direct democracy practised in ancient Athens.

That means replacing our system of elected representatives with one based on randomly selected citizen councils. People would serve on the council in the same way they do jury service, and once their term was finished they’d go back to their lives. With no need to worry about the next election, the councillors would be free to follow their moral intuitions when it comes to future generations. Proponents of the idea say meaningful action on climate change and other long term challenges would follow.

Now, some are experimenting with this in practise. In Japan, the economist Professor Tatsuyoshi Saijo is the creator of a new policymaking movement called Future Design. He has been holding citizen assemblies in municipalities across Japan in which some participants play the role of ‘the citizens of 2060’.

Evidence is growing, says Professor Saijo, that such councils result in a different kind of decision making when it comes to the long term future. He points to one Future Design council in Yahaba, Iwate Prefecture, which saw residents reverse a decision to cut water rates – and agree instead to put them up – in order to help protect the water supply for future generations.


Is this the age for direct democracy?

If you think it’s unlikely that a citizen council will replace your elected government any time soon, that’s more than understandable.

On the other hand, Professor Saijo’s Future Design method opens a path for such councils to work alongside traditional government.

Meanwhile, keep your mind open. After all, in 2020 and for a host of reasons, representative liberal democracy is enduring a turbulent time. I think that fuelling much of that turbulence is a growing crisis when it comes to the very idea of representation. In the age of Twitter and Instagram, and when any last vestige of deference to traditional social elites has long since died, the idea that a few important people get to speak on behalf of all the rest of us is becoming harder for many to accept. We are becoming, then, representative democracies that can’t stand the idea of representation.

Seen in that context, the idea that direct democracy might make a comeback doesn’t seem so outlandish. Either way, it’s clear we must cultivate in our democracies a new ability to take the long view of our shared future. And that when it comes to this challenge, we are the answer we seek. What we need, then, is a system that does not inhibit that answer.

One, that is, that does not suffocate a near-universal and powerfully felt moral imperative. That this world is not ours; rather, we are only passing through it. And, as such, we have a moral obligation to future generations to tread lightly.


The future is now

Thanks for reading this instalment.

When it comes to New World Same Humans, this week the future finally arrived. I mean, of course, the arrival of the long-promised NWSH Slack Group!

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Your membership of our community is valued. I’ll be back on Wednesday; until then, be well.

David.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.