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Sending letters to the year 2200

Cat Tully writes: Last week, I and a group of other global Fellows at the Salzburg Global Seminar published a Recommendation setting out a new project idea: that people from across the globe should sit down and write letters to their grandchildren’s grandchildren, living in 2200.

The idea was the result of a futures lab convened by SOIF for Salzburg Global Seminar, bringing together inspiring young policymakers from across the globe, from Denmark to Japan, and aiming to encourage the authors — be they leading decision-makers or ordinary citizens — to think through their hopes and fears for future generations and examine more closely how their own actions will shape the world in which their descendants live.

The letters will — we hope — be collated and published, but more important in many ways is the writing process, which in itself will encourage the letters’ authors to think — and as a result, act — for the long-term. When facing the crises, questions and injustices of our age, writing letters down through the generations helps us think in an immediate and personal sense of the view from posterity — and can sharpen our moral judgement.

With Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN this week, it’s clear that urgent questions of intergenerational fairness are rising up the agenda. This is forcing the adult generations to ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves. Are our decisions and our actions jeopardising the lives and the life chances of future generations? Are we privileging the interests of those alive and in power today over those of the young and the yet-to-be-born? There is an increasing recognition that decision-makers today — and all of us, at the individual level — need to start factoring in the interests of future generations far more systematically.

The proposed Salzburg project builds on a distinguished tradition of writing letters to the young or to future generations as a medium for thinking about the long-term future and the implications of our actions today. They act as a valuable imaginative exercise — and a corrective to the individualism and presentism of our age.

John Maynard Keynes. Image: Wikimedis Commons

Keynes’ essay on Economic Possibilities for my Grandchildren, written in 1930 right at the depths of the Depression, looked beyond the immediate to imagine a world where “the strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes”. The sense of perspective resonates.

Other more recent writers have found the format fruitful too: in his new book, Letters to a Young Muslim, Omar Saif Ghobash, currently the UAE’s ambassador to Russia, writes with his two teenaged sons in mind about individual moral responsibility and the interpretation of Islam. And Jeremy Lent asks, in a powerful recent post on his Patterns of Meaning blog, whether readers “want to look your grandchildren in the eyes” when they ask what we did at the time of climate emergency.

But the global climate emergency movement is just the most visible — and long overdue — example of the current pushback by younger generations, and those who represent the unborn, to ensure their voice is heard. SOIF has been proud to work with the Gulbenkian Foundation on their toolkit for policymakers to assess the intergenerational impacts of new policies.

Alternative methods for measuring the intergenerational impacts of proposed policies include Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’, which insists on a much broader definition of economic good and harm than is traditionally applied. It has a focus on better preserving valued assets for future generations. Meanwhile, in Wales the protection of the interests of future generations has been made a policy priority — resulting in the Wales Future Generations Act and the appointment of Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe, dubbed the “voice of the unborn”, to hold government to account and ensure that policies build in consideration of the long-term impacts from the outset.

Thinking of future generations in concrete and specific terms helps us make more responsible, future-minded decisions today, on both a personal and political level. Writing to them makes that relationship suddenly immediate. It drives home both how fast the intervening decades will flash by — and how meaningful are the ties of cause and effect, responsibility and care, that bind one generation to their ancestors and their descendants.

Thinking in terms of ancestry and successors has often been alien to western individualist thinking; but it expands our sense of responsibility and, ultimately, of purpose. It makes us better stewards of the future.



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School Of International Futures (SOIF)

School Of International Futures (SOIF)

Not for profit practice using #StrategicForesight to help policy-makers, business leaders & communities make change for the better.