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What does ‘longtermism’ mean to you?

Wales is trying to create a nation of good ancestors, writes Future Generations commissioner Derek Walker. Its ‘leave no footprint’ Act is one thing the country is doing that the rest of the UK can learn from

Monday 20 November 2023 08:43 GMT
Let’s hand back a world our children will thank us for
Let’s hand back a world our children will thank us for (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It’s said that we don’t inherit the earth from our parents – we borrow it from our children.

In Wales, that’s a commitment written in law. We’re the only country in the world with a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – the first global legislation to enshrine the rights of current generations alongside people who haven’t been born yet.

What does it mean? A complete mindset shift for the whole nation. When politicians try to solve an urgent problem affecting people today, they have to do it in a way that doesn’t harm tomorrow.

So if you’re setting a new policy or building new housing, you’d better be confident it’s future-fit for trends coming our way in 100 years.

The Act has seven goals for living within our environmental limits in health, environmental resilience, communities, language and heritage, equality, Wales’ role in the world, and prosperity (note, we’re not talking GDP here – instead “prosperity” equals an innovative, productive and low carbon society with decent work).

The “how to get there” is a set of five “ways of working” – long-term, prevention, integration, collaboration and involvement – and there are 50 indicators to measure everything from air quality to skills, loneliness rates and life expectancy.

One of our big boasts is that cultural well-being gets equal prominence alongside social, environmental and economic well-being, recognising, for example, the value of a trip to watch local theatre in the park.

Supported by changemakers like actor Michael Sheen, the WFGA has given Cymru a new wow factor in international circles. When the law was passed, the UN announced “what Wales is doing today, the world will do tomorrow”.

But what difference has this legally-binding good ancestor test made to the people who already live here?

First off, it has saved Wales from a proposed £1.4bn new motorway that would have sliced through the Gwent Levels – a network of fertile fields and historic watercourses, home to a diverse range of rare plant and animal habitats.

Our office argued that pouring concrete on it was hardly going to help our goal of a more environmentally-resilient nation, nor would more cars help us become healthier – and our pledge to be “more equal” would have taken an early hit if we were filling the lungs of nearby families (many of whom didn’t own a car) with bucketloads of nitrogen oxides in the process.

Welsh government scrapped it, and the money is instead being invested in a public transport plan, while a new travel hierarchy puts cars at the bottom of the pecking order.

This future-focused approach has also led to a progressive new school curriculum where children are learning to be ethical, global citizens. Across the private sector, organisations not even covered by the law are clamouring to be a part of Wales’ wellbeing wealth mission.

Earlier this year, the people behind the country’s first community-owned, regenerative “ocean farm” used the Act to secure a 20-year license to farm sustainable seaweed for everything from cooking to beer and plastic takeaway box alternatives.

We have a way to go until this world-leading Act is working as well as it should be, though. This week, from a seaweed polytunnel at Câr-y-Môr, St David’s, I launched Cymru Can, a seven-year strategy for it to reach its full potential.

Futurist and author of The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric, posted on X that it’s the kind of long-term thinking we urgently need.

Now, Wales and the rest of the UK should learn lessons from the first nation thinking that bore this new direction.

Cymru can’t claim credit for recognising the crucial role of foresight. Every minister and public servant should be encouraged to make the Seventh Generation Principle second nature. Based on an ancient philosophy of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois), you imagine the generation coming after you in your words, work and actions, and remember the seventh generation who came before you.

As Roman Krznaric writes in his book, the Māori spiritual concept of whakapaka, sees a long, unbroken chain of humans standing arm in arm from the beginning of time to the end of eternity.

In Wales, we also have the story of Taliesin, deeply embedded in Welsh mythology for his supernatural gift of prophecy.

Cymru is still experiencing big challenges, like inequality, poverty and climate and nature emergencies.

We haven’t realised the full possibilities of our “leave no footprint” Act, but we’ll get there.

The world must reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change and systems collapse, while dealing with today’s injustices from famine to war and the increased harm to the already marginalised and most vulnerable.

Acting now is our only option. Let’s hand back a world our children will thank us for.

Derek Walker is the Future Generations commissioner for Wales

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