Written evidence submitted by Dr Rupert
Read, University of East Anglia |
- Proposes the creation of a set of "Guardians of
the basic needs of future generations", with strong legal
powers to prevent and undo government action that can be shown
(respectively) to undermine the basic needs of future people or
to act against the dictates of a precautionary approach to the
needs of future people.
- Sets out in outline form possible constitutional
and institutional mechanisms for the Guardians.
- Outlines how the Guardians would be a superior
option to the SDC, to various proposed weak successors to the
SDC, and to a do-nothing option.
- Explains how this proposal, if enacted, would
without doubt make this "the greenest government ever",
and a world leader in sustainable development.
I am Reader in Philosophy at the University of East
Anglia (Norwich). I work with colleagues in Environmental Science
at UEA, and my current research is for a book entitled
"A new covenant with all beings".
The climax of this book-in-progress is presentation of my proposal
for a new institutional mechanism that should secure the welfare
of future generations. This mechanism is "Guardians of the
basic needs of future generations".
The idea of guardians for future generations has
a long philosophical pedigree, going back to some extent as far
as Plato. The idea in its modern form has been fairly widely investigated
in the last 50 years, notably by legal philosopher Christopher
Stone in his influential book, "Should trees have standing"?
My innovation is (1) to tailor this idea to the contemporary British
context, and (2) to radicalise the idea such that these Guardians
have real powers to achieve the ends for which they are created.
The Sustainable Development Commission has been abolished;
radical reform of the House of Lords is being planned. Now is
the perfect time to think boldly about what the shape of governance
should be, in the 21st century. Now is a time for thinking, moreover,
about governance for the future: For Britain, Europe, and
the world, are under ecological threat as never before, and the
need to plan for the needs of future generations are therefore
greater than they have ever been.
I propose to "think the unthinkable" and
the needful at this time, to respond to this context. My
starting-point is democracy. The people ought to rule. But this
oughtn't to mean: only people who are able to vote. The young
ought to have a voice, too; and, more crucially, people
who as yet do not even exist. (See my
work on future people [e.g. "On future people", forthcoming
in THINK; and my Open Democracy piece, here:
The challenge, if we are to have a meaningful democracy at a time
when we need to be more aware than ever of the needs of future
people, is to provide as authentic a possible representation of
their voice. What would they say, if they could; what do we hear,
if we listen closely enough to them? What is our responsibility
to our children, and how we can ensure that it is built into our
The framework of "deliberative democracy"
has much to offer, in this connection. [See the oeuvre of James
Fishkin et al] The need is to find a way of helping people alive
now to enter into the "mind-set" of future people, to
determine based on science and ethics what their needs would/will
be. This requires real reflection and deliberation, well-informed
by the best of evidence.
In order for the needs of future people to be met,
and for us as a people to rise to a sufficient standard of care
for them (to enable them to be sustained, and moreover to flourish),
it will in my view be insufficient to establish oaths, or
some general duty, or an ombudsman function, or just another quango,
such as an "Office for Future Generations". All these
might well be of some use; but, for future people to be taken
care of, for there to be some reasonable chance that we will do
enough for them, more is needed.
I propose therefore that there be created guardians
with veto powers against any new law that threatens the basic
needs of future people (Such guardians
should have various other powers too, such as to initiate
legislation, and to act as ombudsmen: see below.). In terms
law, my view would be that the
Guardians could function as advocates/ombudsmen etc. on anything
to do with the basic needs/interests of future people;
if then for instance a judicial review of an existing law or of
a government administrative decision were being sought, the Guardians
opinion would presumably be strongly taken into consideration.
Furthermore, I would argue that, if appealed to, the
Guardians should be able
to strike down existing laws, but only
where they can show that
the precautionary principle would oppose the proposed action/law
in question. The precautionary principle,
if properly applied, would stand against many things, including
profligate use of "natural resources"; but this is a
more stringent requirement than in the case of new laws, where
there would "only" be the need for Guardians to show
that the proposed law would undermine the basic needs of future
The guardians will in effect constrain decisions
made elsewhere in the governmental and political system, and help
to guarantee that those decisions are being made thoughtfully
enough with regard to the needs of future people.
The guardians could simply be coincident with
a reformed upper House, an upper House given a special responsibility
to exercise general care for future people (incorporated into
an oath taken by the members of the House). For reasons already
intimated above, this would in my view be very unlikely to achieve
the requisite result.
Alternatively, the guardians could be a sub-set of
the members of the reformed upper House, given a special responsibility
to exercise general care for future people, and thus democratically
to side-constrain the rest of the democratic infrastructure. This
idea is more promising. The guardians would then be very roughly
analogous to the Law Lords / Supreme Court, able to strike down
new legislation if it did not meet the basic needs of future
people, or stood in the way of those needs, and able on appeal to
strike down existing legislation if it did not satisfy the demands
of the precautionary principle.
The creation of the guardians would be particularly
likely to be an effective instrument if the guardians were selected
via deliberative-democratic procedures, such as by lot, and supported
by a "civil service" of facilitators and experts, including
of course legal experts (The Guardians would have strong
rights - potentially up to and including supoena-style-rights,
to call any further experts that they wished to hear from, to
help them in their deliberations). The guardians would be
a vital part of our democratic structures, a special part of the
upper House - whether or not the remainder of the upper House
were selected by patronage, by election via proportional representation,
or by a more generalised deliberative democratic procedure (as
in for instance Keith Sutherland's "A people's parliament").
(There is a case for selecting the guardians randomly
from the entirety of the population, as with jury service, but
perhaps with a younger starting-age. Children, perhaps children
aged thirteen or over, have a lot to tell us about the future,
and a strong empathetic bond with future people. Again, this is
a bold proposal: but this is I believe a time and an occasion
the guardians could be a whole different body, super-ordinate
to a reformed upper House, somewhat similar to the United States
Supreme Court in their constitutional status (though with greater
democratic legitimacy, because of their kinship to juries in terms
of their selection-method). This too could work.
My view is that the boldest and most useful way to
replace the SDC, to be a part of a House-of-Lords-reform-package,
and to provide a guarantee for future people that is currently
entirely absent, is to instigate a new institution, a new level
of governance, so that Britain can lead the world in taking care
of the future: via Guardians for the basic needs of future generations.
To answer then most of the questions you are asking
in this inquiry:
How can mechanisms to ensure the sustainability
of Government operations, procurement and policy-making be improved
and further embedded and mainstreamed across Government departments?
Answer: The investigation or institution of an office
of "Guardians for the basic needs of future generations"
would be the most powerful possible way in which to ensure such
sustainability. For the very existence of the Guardians would
mean that account would be taken of what they would say, at every
level of major decision-making. (Furthermore, the Guardians' explicit
opinion would presumably be sought on major budgetary proposals,
on Green Papers, etc.)
How can governance arrangements for sustainable
development in Government be improved, and how can sustainability
reporting by Government departments be made more transparent and
Answer: The Guardians' existence would not fully
address this desideratum. But it would contribute to it, in that
the Guardians would (somewhat like the SDC used to) comment when
requested to (and of their own volition) on numerous such matters.
Was the SDC successful in fulfilling its remit?
Which aspects of its work have reached a natural end, or are otherwise
of less importance, and which remain of particular continuing
Answer: What is in my view most important is that
sustainability becomes a requirement,
and not simply a desirable thing. The SDC made a positive contribution
in many fields, but it was not taken seriously as a part of government.
It did not have to be listened to. The Guardians would have
to be listened to.
How, without the assistance of the SDC, will the
Government be able to demonstrate that it is "the greenest
Answer: If the Government were to announce that it
were investigating setting up Guardians for the basic needs of
future generations, this would send out the most powerful possible
signal that it is serious about being the greenest ever. For this
would be a major institutional change, with potentially dramatic
consequences, and would at times make some of the Government's
own policies (e.g. support for road-building projects) more difficult
to achieve. Thus the Government would be making clear that it
is not half-hearted but really means that it will put a green
thread centrally in everything that it will do. For, if it did
not, the Guardians, would strike the relevant legislation down.
Dr. Rupert Read, Reader
in Philosophy, University of East Anglia, Norwich.
13 October 2010