Minister for the Future?

On Friday (May 19th) I convened Jersey’s first Nature Summit and in my introductory speech I referenced a quote that attracted quite a bit of attention. It came from the writer Kurt Vonnegut, who said in an interview towards the end of his life:

 “I’ll tell you one thing that no Cabinet has ever had is a Minister for the Future..”

He went on to talk about the failure of politicians to look after the interests of his grandchildren and great grandchildren. It’s a provocative thought. What he was saying in essence is that politics lives outside of time: we govern and make policy and develop our economy in a perpetual present or near present. We pay too little heed to lessons from the past, and we pay lip service to how our activities will play out in the future. Often that takes the form of not paying enough attention to the environmental cost of our current activities.

Yet we are embedded in nature, and for all our technological brilliance we remain intensely vulnerable to its destabilisation, whether that is through climate chaos, disease or soil erosion. The long term matters. In Jersey we have plenty of experience of this. Short term thinking led us to fill up the Waterfront with contaminated waste because it was the easiest, cheapest option at the time. Now future development plans depend on digging it all out again and finding somewhere else to put it. A huge cost was transferred from one generation to the next because we didn’t put the environment at the centre of our thinking.

If there’s one thing that as Minister for the Environment I try and carry with me it is that I should try and shoulder some of the responsibility for being the Minister for the Future. If the Environment Minister can’t fulfil this function, who can? But in truth it won’t work unless we all internalise the challenge of running our society for the long term. It’s another way of saying that we need economic development to be truly sustainable. David Attenborough’s definition of sustainability was “If you can’t keep doing it forever, it’s not sustainable”. We might quibble about “forever” (nothing is truly forever), but the sense is easy to understand.

There was some discussion at the Nature Summit about whether it was possible to have the kind of long term thinking that a “Minister for the Future” might imply, given short term electoral cycles. My take is that so long as we look after people’s immediate needs, then we create the space to at least have a conversation about the longer term. If people are struggling with putting food on the table, they’re unlikely to pay much heed to long term sustainability. There’s a clear link between tackling poverty and looking after the environment.

Interestingly, immediately after I finished speaking Kristina Moore (our Chief Minister) who had opened the Summit, messaged me with a link to a book which showed how one country – Wales – is attempting to put the wellbeing of future generations at the heart of policy making That could be something on which we could build in Jersey.

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