“Fueled by prayer and bone broth, Lyla is an unlikely candidate who reveals a new vision for leadership, urging us to “think seven generations ahead.”
Though the climate crisis is often seen as a crisis of matter and physicality, it is also a crisis of time and perspective. Modern global capitalism is underpinned by the neoliberal ideology, which operates as if it is trapped in a never-ending present excluded from the ramifications of the past and the future.
But the way we live our lives and who we live them for is brought into stark focus by the ticking clock of climate breakdown. Learning from indigenous concepts and non-western philosophies that prioritise loving future peoples and living in ways that benefit everyone is a key method to help us achieve climate justice.
It is important to foreground this topic by saying that the climate crisis is here now and Future Generations Thinking is just as important to people living on the front lines of the climate crisis today as it is for those who come after us. Future Generations Thinking is not just another euphemistic way to view the climate crisis as a far off, future threat to economically and geographically shielded western countries. It is a targeted ideology that aims to find real, practical solutions to revolutionise how we live to service the future of people living today and secure the rights of future generations.
Lyla’s 7 day fast was representative of the Seventh Generation Principle, an indigenous ideology that urges the current generation of humans to live and work for the benefit of people seven generations in the future. The Seventh Generation Principle was first written in The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy — a native north American society — in 1142 to 1500 AD. For the Haudenosaunee, whose society was one of the world’s first democracies, law, society and nature are equal partners and each plays an important role in sustaining life.
This sort of really long term thinking can be hard to comprehend to those who live in a modern, western society. The immediacy of our fast-moving lifestyle distorts how we interact with nature, future generations and other processes that operate on the scale of ‘deep time’ — John McPhee’s term for geological time occurring over centuries and millennia. We rarely have any incentive to think on this elongated time scale as none of our current societal framework rewards people for considering questions like how their great great grandchild will have access to clean water.
The future is assumed as some guaranteed fact — an inalienable right that humanity’s actions cannot change. Indeed most electoral cycles last for either 4 or 5 years, meaning governments are incentivised to make policies that boost the economy in the short term to help them stay in power, removing their capacity to truly plan for the future. Our electoral systems also fail to adequately represent the interests of everyone under the age of 18, leaving them disenfranchised from the decision making processes that organise society and decide their futures.
Western society and the environmental movement can learn from many aspects of Future Generations Thinking, from its commitment to creating practical solutions for sustainable societies to how it takes pieces of ideology from sustainable, indigenous societies throughout global history and collages them into a new way of thinking. In this way Future Generations Thinking becomes an amalgamation of the best human thought throughout history, using the wisdom of our collective experience to create real solutions for the future. We can see this in action with the adoption of indigenous land regeneration techniques in western movements for regenerative agriculture and global movements against desertification.
The practical side of Future Generations Thinking looks at sustainable development and governance, searching to establish global legal principles such that current policies and actions are less focused on the immediate and more on the very long term. The climate crisis doesn’t see borders or nations and therefore demands international and global policy unity in order to deal with the the many long term challenges it will bring. International unity is being fostered by the climate justice movement’s global focus and, in particular, what the ecologist John Bellamy Foster calls ‘species consciousness’: an increasing sense of universalist identification with humanity and other species. In our increasingly globalised world, where individuals living thousands of miles away are connected in seconds via the internet, it has never been easier to relate to other people. The environmental movement is taking advantage of this more and more through coalitions and solidarity that stretches beyond borders to help pressure politicians to build the same type of unity on the policy.
Policy unity can come from international organisations at the government level. The EU’s emissions trading scheme ensures that businesses in countries across the EU have to report and reduce their emissions over time - strengthening international commitments to a long term emissions reduction policy. However critics of the scheme have pointed out its willingness to allocate emissions allowances for high-emitting sectors and failures to meet its emissions goals. As international consensus is difficult to achieve, especially as the election system cycles out willing governments for obstructive regimes, international bodies like the EU and the UN are important institutions of future thinking policy making.
Legislative progress in this area is slow but there have been some victories. The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which was introduced in 2015, requires all 44 public bodies in Wales to work towards seven goals:
• A globally responsible Wales
• A prosperous Wales
• A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh Language
• A resilient Wales
• A healthier Wales
• A more equal Wales
• A Wales of cohesive communities
The sustainable development principle requires public bodies to work collaboratively, and listen to what people say. This has led to revised local wellbeing plans where poor public transport is seen as fuelling poverty in the long term. The post of Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, currently occupied by Sophie Howe, was subsequently created to hold the Welsh government and public bodies to account on sustainable development principles. The Commissioner has statutory powers and is independent of government. She has “name and shame” powers to challenge unsustainable practices as she did in 2019, when she worked with civil society to get the Welsh government to reject a planned motorway being built on grounds of both cost and the environment.
There are other ways to shift policy to focus on securing our future. New Zealand has added a wellbeing budget which aims to entrench mental health, indigenous community investment and climate policies in the long term economic planning of a country - leaving behind the obsession with GDP in favour of creating a happier, more sustainable country. Putting in place structures and budgets which look towards the wellbeing of a society acts as a safety net for people in the present whilst helping to guide us to create a kinder society for future generations.
Law is another key avenue for achieving long term change. From the recent Dutch court ruling that Shell must cut its emissions by 2030 to attempts to enshrine the rights of indigenous peoples in law, the law is able to hold short-termist governments to account and protect future-focused principles. Legal charities such as Client Earth have the power to challenge governments on issues — such as when they took the UK government to court on air pollution and won — and their commitment to establishing legal precedents that help ensure the long term safety of future peoples in law is another key part of living with future generations in mind.
Thinking seven generations or more into the future is critical when deciding which sustainable solutions we should pursue to combat the climate crisis. Capitalism has its own vision of what a ‘sustainable’ future looks like but it uses the same fundamental extractivist, racist, worker oppressions that the current system uses. For example, using electric cars and upgrading recycling capacity are capitalism’s idea of a more sustainable version of the current system. However, displacement and pollution from lithium mining and the failure to acknowledge that most plastic simply can’t be recycled means that these measures are short term fixes that leave problems for future generations to deal with. Long term sustainable solutions to those problems, like setting up cheap, electric public transport systems and introducing smart design and circular economy principles that design waste out of the production cycle, differentiate themselves as the truly sustainable alternatives of the long term future.
Creating non-governmental, citizen-led groups that hold real lobbying power to represent future interests without the constraints of the electoral system is an essential part of future generations thinking. Citizens assemblies and other public bodies should become instruments of democracy that allow people to represent the interests of future generations. Once these bodies have the power they need to affect change, we need to work to connect them around the world and shape an international agenda that benefits the future and the present.
We must use the guiding policy principles in the Institute for Sustainable Development’s paper ‘Our Responsibility to The Seventh Generation: Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development’ to conserve the indigenous cultures that have fostered the ideology and techniques by ensuring:
1. The protection for the traditional/indigenous way of life
2. Documentation, promotion and protection of traditional knowledge and practices
3. Healing programs that ensure the health and wellbeing of current and future societies
4. A decolonised, indigenous-led education system for the survival of indigenous culture and knowledge
5. Economic self-reliance for indigenous communities through sustainable development that doesn’t breed dependency
6. The development of a communication capacity to protect and promote traditional knowledge
Read more about the guiding policy advice for establishing seven generations principles that help indigenous communities gain independence and spread their knowledge to western countries in the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s report “Our Responsibility to The Seventh Generation: Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development”
We can have an impact on the future today by changing consumer trends. Use the MacArthur Foundation’s guide to the circular economy to understand how we can make consumption more sustainable then find companies that use circular economy logic or rental options to ensure your consumption doesn’t hurt future generations.
Take Namati’s Legal Empowerment Leadership course and help protect the rights of the indigenous communities leading the way in future generations thinking.
Start up a campaign to build future generations thinking into the curriculum. Education is a huge part of being able to conceptualise the future and then discern which policies and initiatives are sustainable and viable to benefit future people and societies. From discussions around how to think about future policies to artistic challenges like drawing future cities, young people can get accustomed to thinking in the very long term to help them create a sustainable world for future generations.