All over the world, climate change, environmental destruction, financial crises, and the widening gap between rich and poor are spreading insecurity and fear. Common sense suggests that these challenges are too big for one country to handle alone and too structural in nature to ignore where our expertise needs an update. We are the first generations whose decisions will determine for good or ill the future of human life on this planet, and we seem stuck in a way of thinking that is obsolete in a globalized world of growing populations. We remain mired in institutional stalemates that inhibit farsighted action, and are trapped by the fear of losing individual material wealth, a fear that jeopardizes any spirit of common action.

All this even though we have been aware for decades that the trajectory of human development needs to change: In 1983, the UN General Assembly established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) to investigate what seemed a collision course between concerns for the global environment and the needs of development. The final 1987 report, Our Common Future, is so clear in its analysis and vision that looking at our governments and economies today can prompt screams of frustration about our ignorance and inertia. This report called for a world political transformation based on the concept of sustainable development, so that the parallel problems of environmental degradation and development could be addressed in an integrated way. The report’s analysis and recommendations were clear: “We have tried to show how human survival and well-being could depend on success in elevating sustainable development to a global ethic.” Sustainable development was defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1

In the resulting world conference, the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development, intergenerational equity was highlighted as a key principle. More than 190 states recognized that, although present generations can and do steward the earth’s resources to further their own development needs, they should not do this in a way that will foreclose the needs or rights of future generations. We must take into account the long-term impact of our activities, sustaining the earth’s resource base and the global environment for the benefit of those who will come after us. The states agreed on an action plan, called Agenda 21, concerning how to make sustainable development a reality.

Even before 1992, and following thereafter, the plight of future generations had become the subject of ethical study and debates among scholars. Notable initiatives were the Future Generations Program of the Foundation for International Studies at the University of Malta, supported by UNESCO, and the Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, in Kyoto, Japan, founded by Katsuhiko Yazaki of Japan and Tae-Chang Kim of Korea. Both produced conferences and essay volumes in the 1990s.2–8 The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations in Germany also raises awareness and engages politically through conferences and publications in German and English, among them the peer-reviewed Intergenerational Justice Review.9-12

Yet, over 20 years after the first global sustainability summit, we have to admit failure in implementing effective policy. Targets for climate change mitigation, biodiversity, ocean protection, poverty eradication, health, and social equity are continuously missed. This, even despite ever-better scientific measures telling us that the pressure to act is increasing tremendously.

So, why are we not changing our trajectory? One paragraph from Our Common Future is highly relevant:

“The integrated and interdependent nature of the new challenges and issues contrasts sharply with the nature of the institutions that exist today. These institutions tend to be independent, fragmented, and working to relatively narrow mandates with closed decision processes. Those responsible for managing natural resources and protecting the environment are institutionally separated from those responsible for managing the economy. The real world of interlocked economic and ecological systems will not change; the policies and institutions concerned must.”1

Looking at our policies and political institutions today, 23 years after this report, brings four challenges to mind:

  1. The short-term orientation of representative democracies that have election cycles of three to five years means that the interests of current lobbyists and voters easily trump future concerns. Our Common Future noted that we live on the credit of the future “because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote, they have no political or financial power.”1
  2. Despite calls for integrated policies, decision making continues to be split between and within governing bodies, resulting in policy incoherence or unambitious and stalled agreements. Each single-issue department seeks to deliver on its own targets rather than identifying where long-term trends create convergence. In worst cases, agencies compete with each other over limited budgets and are lobbied strategically by single-issue groups.
  3. Focus on GDP as a measure of welfare and on societies as made up of individual consumers cripples the concept of “progress” by which policy performance is measured. The well-being of societies depends on many factors, as indicated by at least two efforts: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Global Project on Measuring Progress and the independent Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.13,14 But so far, endeavors to broaden the data set and evidence base upon which progress is measured remain marginalized.
  4. The excessive focus on individualist notions of freedom and well-being leaves many people fearful in times when big problems overwhelm personal responsibility. We lack a compelling vision of what life in the future could look like, something that the Reflection Group, commenting on the future of Europe in 2030, called “a new common purpose defined by the needs of the current age.”15

So, what needs to change to make change happen? Bringing future generations to the negotiating table could be a solution. It is time to pierce the alienating technocratic jargon around sustainability and think about our decisions from the point of view of children in 2050. It is their quality of life that should be the benchmark when debating environmental protection, youth unemployment, sustainable pension systems, the level of public debt, and so on. Some of us will still be alive to play with these children, and we have never had more knowledge and ability to ensure that that play takes place in a better world. Scholars like Janna Thompson and those of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School have discussed several ways of incorporating intergenerational justice into our political systems.16,17 What follows here is a discussion of how we might use guardians for future generations.


Tess Croner/Solutions
The Glenorchy area of New Zealand’s South Island in July 2008.

Giving a real person the right to speak up for future interests grants a voice in decision making to everyone whose well-being and rights will be affected. Such guardians would function as temporal checks and balances in the structural short-term orientation of our democratic institutions. They could be directly approachable by civil society (like ombudspersons), so that concerns about long-term impacts of political decisions would be filtered straight into the system. If such a watchdog had a mandate to access all information in all governmental departments, he or she could minimize the risk of policy incoherence, of economic goals trumping resource regulation, instead initiating early cross-issue exchanges and thereby improving policymaking effectiveness.

Building on sustainability assessment mechanisms (if in place), the guardians would actively engage with different departments to help decision makers understand the effects of their particular decisions on the living conditions of future people, avoiding significant future adverse effects that would cost much more to clean up than to prevent. Over time, the guardian’s office would become a center of integrated and long-term well-being expertise that could inform broader political goals, indicators, and targets beyond GDP.

Keeping our common future in view and analyzing how single decisions might support or harm that future can help nurture a new common purpose: enabling the children of 2050 to lead happy lives. Shifting our focus from individual bargaining power and winning zero-sum games to the well-being of my children and your children could trigger collective responsibility: in the mid-1990s, before the Internet made it easy to gather signatures, more than nine million people in 106 countries signed the Cousteau Society’s petition calling for a Bill of Rights for future generations, which led to UNESCO’s 1997 “Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations towards Future Generations.”18

Does this sound like fantasy? Several countries around the world have created guardians for the long term, even to the point of giving them the mandate to engage in the legislative process, as the following examples demonstrate.19

A Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (New Zealand)

In New Zealand, the first watchdog to oversee the implementation of environmental goals was appointed in the midst of the country’s environmental administrative reform in the 1980s. The parliamentary commissioner for the environment (PCE) has an auditing function with a view of preserving ecosystems and improving environmental governance.20 The PCE was empowered by the Environmental Act 1986, which established the commissioner’s role as an independent environmental ombudsperson with a five-year mandate. The commissioner’s authority includes (1) investigating “the effectiveness of environmental planning and management carried out by public authorities”; (2) investigating “any matter in respect of which, in the Commissioner’s opinion, the environment may be or has been adversely affected”; (3) reviewing “the system of agencies and processes established by the Government to manage the allocation, use, and preservation of natural and physical resources”; and (4) if requested by the House of the Representatives, inquiring on matters that have a significant environmental impact.21

The PCE’s reviews and investigations are launched mainly at the commissioner’s discretion or as a result of citizen or civil association complaints. The PCE and the commissioner’s staff have reviewed and investigated matters related to lignite, emissions trading schemes, national policy statements, and national environmental standards for efficient environmental management, water allocation, and business.22 Thus, the New Zealand commissioner plays an active role in preventing or remedying environmental harms that result from governmental or private activities and that, in turn, have a direct impact on the rights of future generations.

Additionally, the PCE and staff experts have incorporated issues such as social and economic rights in their research and reports, creating latitude to move beyond environmental issues in relation to the protection of future generations.22 The PCE has been commended by world-renowned M?ori indigenous leaders for a willingness to solicit and respect the views and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

One weakness and strength of the PCE office is that, under the authorizing legislation, the emphasis is on the commissioner’s discretion, which means that a great deal depends on the actual individual who occupies the PCE position and on the advice of that person’s staff. Depending on who is appointed to the role, the commissioner may or may not actively advocate for the rights of future generations. Morgan Williams especially, as commissioner from 1997 to 2007, emphasized sustainability education and engagement with business so as to avoid having environmental concerns perceived as a “lefty issue.”23 Many of Williams’ reports were commended as visionary and timely, and the importance of an independent office is widely recognized. There have been and still are proposals to change the PCE into the Office for Sustainable Development, as the idea of an agency that can mainstream sustainability is gaining support.23

A National Commission for Future Generations (Israel)

In March 2001, the Knesset—Israel’s parliament—established a Commission for Future Generations.24,25 The commission operated with a five-year mandate (through 2006) as a unit of the Knesset that sought to defend the needs and the rights of future generations, with specific focus on the creation of “a dimension of the future that would be included in the primary and secondary legislation of the State of Israel.”24

The commission’s scope included natural resources, education, health, technology, law, development, demography, and any other matter of special concern to future generations as determined by the Israeli Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.24,25 The commission had the authority to (1) voice opinions on bills, secondary legislation, and regulations of interest to future generations; (2) provide the Knesset with recommendations on any issue the commissioner considered relevant to the rights of future generations; (3) demand any information from institutions “subject to inspection by the State Comptroller” (i.e., ministries, state corporations, local authorities, etc.); and (4) request from a parliamentary committee “reasonable time” to collect data and prepare an evaluation regarding certain bills or secondary legislation with particular relevance to future generations.24

Given this mandate, the commission might best be described as an advisory or consultative organ restricted to the legislative work of the Israeli parliament, with little legal authority to propose bills, carry out inquiries, or adjudicate disputes. In practice, however, the commissioner could claim the right to issue an informed opinion, even when the Knesset was bound by law to make a decision within a given time frame or to otherwise postpone the decision. This amounted to the commission having informal veto power, similar to what a filibuster in the U.S. Congress can achieve.25

Despite this somewhat reactive and primarily consultative role, the Commission for Future Generations was a significant avant-garde initiative, the first explicit representation of future generations in a government. It challenged business as usual in a troubled region and was a voice for future generations in policymaking across environmental, economic, and social concerns. Especially through the visionary approach of Commissioner Shlomo Shoham, it provided opinions and analyses with a commendably systemic and integrative perspective.26 However, either this visionary approach or the commission’s conduct of affairs resulted in the Knesset not appointing a new commissioner after Shoham’s first term ended in 2006. Whether or not to abolish the overarching law is currently being debated.

A Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations (Hungary)

An additional model, which is different from commissioners who report to environment ministers or auditor generals, involves establishing an ombudsperson to actively defend the rights of future generations. In 2008, as part of an overarching statute that created an ombudsperson for civil rights, the Hungarian government also created the parliamentary commissioner for future generations. The commissioner has the same status as a special ombudsperson as a matter of law,26 and his or her task is “to ensure the protection of the fundamental right to [a] healthy environment.”27 Potential candidates must be lawyers, have extensive experience with environmental law, and meet a strict set of personal characteristics as well as stringent guidelines that preclude conflicts of interest.27

Once selected, the commissioner is required to monitor legislative developments and proposals at the state level to ensure that they will not pose a severe or irreversible threat to the environment. This includes providing opinions to members of Parliament as well as to other entities that seek to take actions affecting the environment. The commissioner may conduct investigations, and his or her role is not limited to the national government but includes the ability to review the actions of and to assist municipal and other local governments. In terms of sanctions, after an investigation the commissioner can order that an action be stopped or modified and can bring a case to court if deemed necessary.27 Thus, the commissioner has broad jurisdiction and guidelines for investigations, as well as the ability to investigate and sanction public institutions. Thus the position has a significant degree of independence.

Also, through the function of an ombudsperson, frequent exchanges with citizens about their concerns ensure broad acceptance of the commissioner’s role in civil society. As a matter of fact, a primary goal of the first parliamentary commissioner, Sándor Fülöp, has been to provide civil society with legal support in developing sustainable projects and solutions. Similar to the New Zealand example, the commissioner’s mandate primarily focuses on environmental concerns, although cultural heritage is another issue explicitly mentioned. The important difference is that the Hungarian commissioner directly defends the rights of our descendants. Future generations are at the forefront of the position’s mandated advocacy and investigative powers. Yet, in comparison to the Israeli mandate, there are limits to the commissioner’s jurisdiction, especially when it comes to the social and economic concerns of future generations.

Given the fate of the Israeli commission, a strong asset in the Hungarian case is that the authorizing statute makes removal of the parliamentary commissioner difficult without cause. The weak spot remains financial: the commissioner’s budget is carved out of the general parliamentary budget.

Characteristics of a Powerful Guardian

If a guardian for future generations is to become a strong mechanism of temporal checks and balances, such an office should have the following characteristics:

  1. It should be independent, according to the logic of the division of powers. A guardian should not also hold another governmental post, such as in a parliamentary committee. Ideally, the guardian’s office will also be legally independent. Of the examples discussed, the Hungarian commissioner enjoys the most independence, even though the commissioner’s budget depends on the decisions of Parliament.
  2. The guardian’s office should be effective; its decisions should be legally binding. The Hungarian commissioner is the only such guardian discussed who has legally binding tools. The Israeli commission enjoyed de facto veto power through the delivery of statements in a tactical way, but this power was risky to use because it could destroy the trust-based cooperation between deputies and the commission. Another issue regarding effectiveness involves the size of the office: in New Zealand, the staff was increased from 10 to 20 people over the years; the commission in Israel was comprised of 6 persons as defined in the law; and the Hungarian office employs 35 people.
  3. The guardian’s office should be transparent to increase trust; it needs a clear and direct mandate and should report regularly about its results. While the commissioners in all of the above examples provide regular reports, the Hungarian commissioner has the most direct mandate for their independent distribution. The influence of the New Zealand and Israeli commissioners’ opinions depends on the activity of a third, either executive or legislative, body or their successful cooperation with the media.
  4. The guardian’s office should be legitimate; it should enjoy large public support. The New Zealand and Israeli offices were established top-down. However, the New Zealand commissioner’s office made an effort to maintain good relationships with all stakeholders in the investigated cases, and the results of the work in Israel were communicated widely through good relationships with the media.27 The Hungarian commissioner’s office was established through a grassroots initiative by a civil-society organization called Védegylet (Protect the Future).28
  5. The guardian’s office should have access to information; it needs extensive authority to request whatever files seem relevant. The mandate of the Hungarian commissioner is most generous in this sense.
  6. Finally, the guardian’s office should be accessible for integrative assessments; that is, it should allow for institutionalized and inclusive input. In New Zealand and Hungary, but not in Israel, the ombudsperson’s mandate ensures direct access for citizens through petitions. Both offices are reported to follow a strong grassroots engagement strategy in their work.

Reviewing the three examples, we become aware that every legal and cultural setting will lead to a different mandate for a guardian for future generations, depending on the fundamental rights and duties of citizens or overarching political goals. In New Zealand and Hungary, the mandates are limited to the protection of the environment and cultural heritage; the Israeli commissioner, on the other hand, oversaw 12 policy areas and was therefore closer to a holistic protection of living conditions for our descendants, similar to UNESCO’s declaration concerning future generations.

A civil-society coalition is just starting to promote a guardian to protect the aims of the European Union as defined in the Lisbon Treaty (similar to a constitution in its legal status). Article 3 lists three aims: “to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples.”29 The objectives to reach these aims range across areas such as economics, security, and culture, and they could provide the framework for deciding which policy decisions need to be scrutinized for their impact on the well-being of future peoples. Thus, an EU-level guardian with the mandate to speak up in the name of future generations would directly support EU commitments regarding sustainable development, would improve the coherence and efficacy of European policies drafted in single-issue departments, and would give teeth to the principle of intergenerational solidarity. Yet, expectations about the impact of such guardians should remain realistic: the comparably long history of New Zealand’s parliamentary commissioner for the environment reveals the challenges faced by a visionary institution of 10–20 persons operating in an institutional setup as described above.23

Guardians of our Future as Promoters of a New Worldview

The New Zealand, Israeli, and Hungarian commissioners increasingly acknowledge that the goal to protect future generations can only be achieved through a strong sustainability perspective that integrates single-issue concerns. They all report successfully pushing the envelope in terms of what their ascribed mandates should cover and which methodologies would best fulfill them. Yet, work that is too visionary may turn the tables to the detriment of the entire institution, as seems the case with the Israeli commissioner for future generations. Established in 2001, the position was only filled for one five-year term, and thereafter the Knesset has debated its abolition.


Tess Croner/Solutions
A scene from Abel Tasman National Park’s famous Coast Track. The park is located on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island.

In the Israeli case, the former commissioner Shoham had been a strong advocate not only for implementation of agreements but for an entirely new concept of thinking that he calls “future intelligence.” Building on the work of David Passig in future studies and of Daniel Goleman in social intelligence, this approach expands the concept of intelligence beyond the individual capacity to process certain information effectively. Passig combines systems research with behavioral science,30 and Goleman emphasizes the ability to perceive the best for both sides in a relationship.31 Shoham extends this ability to the whole of humanity, with the earth as its home. Future intelligence therefore comprises “the human and social ability required to fashion and implement a desirable future for humanity, for the planet’s biological diversity and for the world.”26

The vote to abolish the commission has not yet passed, and the Israeli public had always supported its work. Shoham himself gave this assessment:

“While it cannot be said that the Commission brought about all the hoped-for change in consciousness within the Knesset, at the same time, the Commission represents a spirited human attempt. In its originality of concept in calling the Commission to life, the Knesset showed courage. And in our success in influencing legislation and bringing a new concept into the legislative realm, we see an unprecedented event.”26

This new concept challenges the ideas of justice that dominate rational individualist frameworks and the principle of reciprocity between individuals living in the same community, at the same time. From this point of view, self-interested individuals agree to “contracts” by which they live together, and a just outcome is mostly defined as meeting the criterion of “no net transfers”—no contracting partner is putting in more than any other. Such reciprocity can be direct between individuals or groups or indirect, for example through public education systems where the older generation pays for the younger’s education because, in their own youth, they received the same benefit from the generation before them.32 The basic notion is that of individual benefit calculation, even in the more recent work of liberal scholars who define self interest to include the desire for moral integrity. An interesting debate between scholars on this topic can be found in the Intergenerational Justice Review.10

Systemic worldviews, on the other hand, are much closer to Shoham’s idea of future intelligence, for they focus on the “other” or the “whole” of relationships. Hans Jonas is probably the most prominent advocate of a systemic justice view, which informs his advocacy for the rights of future generations. He defines a generational categorical imperative that can be summarized as follows: “act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life!”33

One important concept concerning justice toward future generations, then, is that of common heritage, where the focus is not on the distribution of property but on access to common resources. Along with enjoying access is the notion of trusteeship, meaning the protection of the common heritage as the property of humankind as a whole. The worldview behind this is not one of individuals making contracts reflecting their given interests, but one in which “a person is constituted by its relations and has no other existence than as a creative synthesis of these relations.”34 Thus, the acts of every individual are necessarily social and relational and the focus is on interdependence across space and time alike.

Edith Brown Weiss may be one of the most important advocates for future generations and was highly influential in the drafting of UNESCO’s “Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations towards Future Generations.” She summarizes this viewpoint as follows:

“In all that we do, we inherently represent not only ourselves but past and future generations. We represent past generations, even while trying to obliterate the past, because we embody what they passed on to us. We represent future generations because the decisions we make today affect the well-being of all persons who come after us and the integrity and robustness of the planet they will inherit.”35

Weiss derives three substantive intergenerational responsibilities from this: diversity, quality, and access. The diversity of the natural and cultural resource base must be conserved so that the options available to future generations for solving their problems and satisfying their own values are not unduly restricted. The quality of the earth should become no worse. And each generation should provide its members with equitable rights of access to the legacy of past generations and should conserve this access for future generations.35

This view on justice is (1) very much in line with the strong definition of sustainable development as originally defined in 1987 and (2) very different from the jurisprudence in most modern legal systems that only acknowledges justice claims between identifiable, currently living individuals. Thus, we should update our institutions to include the active promotion of long-term systemic thinking, the integration of dispersed single issues, and an update on what “progress” means. An updated institution will also need a new vision and common purpose that informs judgments about the just allocation of opportunities and the responsibilities to maintain them. Using empathy for the children of 2050 to build this new view of justice may ease a transition from an individual to a more relational perspective.

Future Justice Starts Today

The pioneering solutions described above are evidence that we may actually have learned something in the last two decades. Yet, many of the successes of guardian work actually depend on the individual selected for the job, and that person’s capacity for leadership, communication, and for engaging with diverse discourses and mindsets. We should never be naïve about the potential resistance or even antagonism of existing institutions whose approaches, agendas, and influence may be criticized or narrowed by a guardian for future generations. Building understanding of what is at stake and encouraging individuals to trust in joint action have proven crucial, as has the strategic issuing of information to orchestrate consensus. We need to ratchet up these initiatives, put more resources into them, and give them teeth if the implementation gap is to be closed. Shoham rightly points out that “as long as policies are analyzed in the currency of money and power, environmental organizations will be at a disadvantage. That is, until the change in awareness so essential to our world arrives, and we come to hear the voices of environmentalists and sustainable thinkers in all sectors.”26

Such a change in awareness is what the World Future Council is promoting and developing with its partners. We call this vision “future justice.” Future justice because we create fair conditions for future generations by reworking policies to reflect new knowledge on the state of the planet and human well-being. Future justice because the dignity and rights of all humans of all generations inform what deserves to be called “progress.” Preserving our world and its life should become a core function of our economies. The intactness of our ecosystems is just as relevant for future generations as the intactness of our social relations. Protecting the rights of future generations therefore starts today: the current destruction of nature is affecting the livelihoods of the world’s poorest people and will likely cause increasing suffering and conflict in the future. Violence is destroying the social fabric of communities and the trust needed to work toward peaceful, sustainable well-being for all humans. Thus, rebalancing our societies so that children in 2050 can enjoy happy lives will benefit current generations tremendously. For transformative change to be possible, we sometimes need marginalized peoples to speak out, in a loud voice, against the status quo. The guardians for future generations, representing the children of 2050, can be that voice.


I would like to thank Morgan Williams, Shlomo Shoham, and Sándor Fülöp for their generous sharing of materials and insight and Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, Peter Roderick, and Malte Arhelger for our in-depth discussions. Also, the Solutions editorial team and the reviewers Jim Dator, Janna Thompson, and Carolyn Raffensberger have provided terrific support and very helpful feedback.


Maja Göpel

Maja is currently based in Brussels where she serves as Director Future Justice with the World Future Council, developing and promoting new thinking and policy solutions that help create fair living conditions...

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