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Can Humans Stop Being Selfish Long Enough to Prevent the Apocalypse?

We asked an expert if it's possible to cure political myopia to protect the world for future generations.

(image via Flickr)

Climate change, increasing inequality, acidifying oceans, unaffordable housing, and a disappearing superannuation fund—if you're a millennial in 2017 it's easy to see apocalypse on the horizon. It's also easy to feel a swell of resentment upon realisation that many of these problems are part of a bill that was, in large part, racked up by previous governments and generations.

New Zealand policy expert and Director of the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies Jonathan Boston has spent the most last decade or so working on climate change and child poverty. Over that time he's realised that they—along with many of the biggest problems we're facing—have the common feature of demanding action now to avoid disaster in a few decades' time. He's also observed that humans are often less than successful at doing that. Over and over again, we go for policies that front-load benefits—tax cuts anyone?—while backloading the costs—like, say, a climate apocalypse or housing crisis. 

Boston has written a new book, Safeguarding the Future, which looks at the concept of 'anticipatory governance' and restructuring politics to value longer-term outcomes. We asked him about the book, what to do next and whether there's any hope for humanity.

VICE: Hi Jonathan. You've been working in public policy for years. At what point did this idea of anticipatory governance come up—what prompted you to write a book on it?
Jonathan Boston: In the last ten years especially, I've worked mostly around climate change and poverty, and one of the features of both is that we need to invest early to minimise long–term harm and to enjoy long–term benefits. And in both areas, many governments around the world, including New Zealand, have been very reluctant to make those early investments to minimise long-term harm. So more recently I've been working on this issue of how do we incentivise democratic political systems to safeguard the future? How do we ensure governments give adequate weight to citizens' long–term interests and future generations?

The concept of anticipatory governance probably entered academic discourse around a decade ago, so it's a relatively new concept. But the basic idea goes back probably to the dawn of civilisation.

Right. And what are the challenges that stop governments or populations making decisions now to protect the future?
Well, there's two kinds of policy problems where governments often struggle to make headway. These are creeping problems that emerge very gradually and are often imperceptible. They go unnoticed, and have very few focusing events during their early development. So they don't attract much public attention or political attention, they lack the sort of vivid, dramatic unmistakable signs that disaster is on the way. Many environmental problems are creeping: climate change, deteriorating water quality, increasing noise pollution, acidification of the oceans, so on. There are also plenty of non-environmental issues— for example, rising obesity rates, population ageing, and many others. These are policy problems that if you don't address them early they can generate very, very large costs in the future—and indeed sometimes the damage that is done is irreversible. 

The second kind of problem is where governments need to invest early in order to prevent damage in the future or ensure benefits in the future. Issues like reducing child poverty: if you don't invest properly in young children then you set in train a whole series of events that will damage the life-course of individuals caught up in poverty, and that will have damaging social and economic consequences for the wider society.

"We need to be mindful that it's really only in the last 150 years that humanity has been able to do that kind of enormous, irreversible harm to the planet.

I'm also interested in, is there a cultural element to this?  Are some cultures, say indigenous or more collectivist cultures, stronger at anticipatory models of governance than others, or is this a universal problem, that humans aren't very good at this?
Well, I think it's a universal problem. It is true that some indigenous cultures have very strong norms about protecting future generations and and well established principles or mottos that give voice to that. But you have to remember that most indigenous cultures, until quite recently, weren't able to do the sort of harm to the environment and to their futures that western civilisation since the industrial revolution has been able to do. We need to be mindful that it's really only in the last 150 years that humanity has been able to do that kind of enormous, irreversible harm to the planet. It is true that ancient civilisations could cut down trees and create deserts, but they couldn't so readily acidify the oceans and use nuclear weapons to bring on a nuclear winter and so on. So I think we need to be careful not to romanticise what indigenous cultures of the past may or may not have done or thought. 

Having said, that there's some evidence political trust is related to other aspects of a society's culture, in particular how egalitarian that culture is in terms of income and wealth distribution. The more unequal a society is, the more divided it tends to be, and the more difficult it is for governments to negotiate long term bargains. 

Can you talk to me a little more about that, how some of our political structures may not be well-formed to address longer term problems?
Well if you have an electoral system with a short parliamentary term, a three year parliamentary term, obviously that creates a set of political incentives which are going to drive politician to focus very much on short term considerations. If you have a longer parliamentary term, maybe five years, you'll ease the pressure a little bit on that political short termism, although even five years is short, from the point of view of some of the long-term issues we face. And I for one would not favour terms longer than five years because you reduce political accountability. 

"I feel a lot of dread about the coming decades. I do not want to deny that.

So say with the climate change example, it's an enormous problem, it probably requires global cooperation. What kind of political environments do you think we need to create in order to address it?
Well my personal feeling is that on climate change, we need a multi–party agreement and an agreement on the basic long term goal we need to achieve, and then the kind of strategy we need to adopt in order to achieve that goal. At the moment we haven't got agreement on that goal. The goal we're going to have to achieve is relatively straightforward: we are going to have to decarbonise the New Zealand economy. 

Unfortunately for a variety of reasons governments have not been willing to involve or contemplate a serious integrated multi–party agreement, embodied in legislation. A number of other countries have been successful in this regard, and there's no reason in my view why we couldn't do this in NZ. But there needs to be the political will to do so—which means agreeing this is an intergenerational problem, it's an extremely serious problem, we have to address it with urgency in a collaborative manner, and create policy that will stick.

But if the issue is political will—how do you create that in an environment where the actions you're taking would probably lose your votes?
It's not easy. But there're several ingredients. One is political leadership: leadership that understands what is at stake and is committed to protecting long term interests. And if political leaders don't understand what is at stake or value the future we have a very fundamental problem. The over thing is having a community vigorously engaged in policy issues and able to put pressure on government to act.

"In respect of climate change, humanity is going to be faced with some extremely damaging, widespread, and in some cases irreversible impacts.

Looking at some of the examples you list—ageing populations, environmental destruction, climate change—it's easy to feel a little apocalyptic. Having studied this, how hopeful are you that people can rise to the challenge?
[Long pause] I'm a realist in this context. In respect of climate change, humanity is going to be faced with some extremely damaging, widespread, and in some cases irreversible impacts. These will have profound consequences for future generations, and in my view, much of what will happen in the future is now locked in. No matter what we do in the next decade or two, some very bad things are going to happen. Having said that, I am confident there is a series of very significant technological changes occurring that will enable the global community to decarbonise the global economy at a fairly rapid rate. And I'm also confident that as more and more people see the damage that they are inflicting on the planet, that governments will be under more and more pressure to take ever more serious steps to respond. 

But tragically, climate change is a classic creeping problem, where it's very easy to deny the magnitude of the problem in its early days because it's not very evident, seems so far away, and there's contested views about the seriousness and so on. We have some very big challenges ahead, and we still have a situation where there are political leaders in denial. We have a new president of the United States who appears not to accept the basic science around climate change. He's appointed a person to head his environmental protection agency who does not accept the basic science. This is tragic, and it will have consequences. 

Speaking here from a faith position—because I am a Christian—I believe God has placed us in a world where we are responsible, and where we have the capacity to do great harm and great evil. And I do not believe we will be rescued from that evil: we will face the consequences, and the consequences will be very grim. But I do have hope—that ultimately we will come through, and ultimately be able to create a better future. 

But I feel a lot of dread about the coming decades. I do not want to deny that—the implications on multiple fronts, the acidification of the oceans, the loss of coral, the impact of sea level rise, the loss of rainforests and massive loss of species: these are going to have huge and profound consequences and many of these consequences are essentially locked in.

Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World, is published by BWB Texts, and will be launched on March 23.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.