The Iroquois Confederacy’s Great Law is said to include the principle of making decisions that take into account impacts on the seventh generation, which means thinking 140 to 175 years ahead. That is a far cry from our politicians, who can barely think past the next election, never mind our businesses and stock markets that are too often focused only on the next quarter.
As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, it seems a particularly good time to think about the next 150 years. Of course, we can’t predict that far ahead; imagine how much of today’s world we could have predicted in 1867. But there is no doubt that what we do today will have impacts at least 150 years into the future, and probably much further.
The largest impacts are likely to be the result of the global ecological changes we are causing because of our current destructive economic system and the underlying social and political values that drive it. Climate change, ocean acidification, resource depletion and species extinctions, all of which are underway, will have significant impacts on people living in 2167, unless we change our ways dramatically and swiftly.
The good news is that there are many examples already in place of governments that have taken steps to safeguard the future, and many ideas of stronger, better steps we could take. The bad news is that the B.C. and federal governments have taken none of those steps. So here are some ideas to get them started.
First, recognize the right to a healthy environment and include it in the Charter of Rights. Mooted at the First UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, it is included in the constitutions of 100 nations. David Boyd, who literally wrote the book on this issue in 2012, notes: “All told, 181 of the UN’s 193 member nations recognize that their citizens possess the right to live in a healthy environment.” Sadly, Canada is one of a dozen who do not.
Happily, the David Suzuki Foundation has a plan to change that. Their Blue Dot Campaign aims to get municipalities, then provinces, to recognize the right to a healthy environment. Only then would we try to change the charter. So far, more than 100,000 people and nearly 150 communities have signed on. The next B.C. government should commit to being the first province to recognize the right to a healthy environment in law.
Another step is to adopt the Earth Charter, which was formally launched in 2000. It is intended to “guide the transition toward a more just, sustainable and peaceful world.” There are 16 principles organized in four broad themes: Respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, non-violence and peace.
A campaign is underway in Victoria to have governments in the capital region endorse the Earth Charter (see victoriavoice.ca/earth_charter), joining more than 7,000 organizations worldwide that have done so, including local governments and international organizations. Again, this is something the next B.C. government should also endorse.
But we need to go further in ensuring that we act responsibly to protect future generations. For this, we could follow the example of Wales, which in 2015 adopted a Well-Being of Future Generations Act. The act recognizes that “sustainable development is about improving the way that we can achieve our economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being.”
The act places a legal duty on all public bodies, including ministers, to carry out sustainable development, including setting and publishing well-being objectives, which they must pursue. They are also required to publish annual progress reports and respond publicly to recommendations from the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Accountability is further ensured by requiring ministers to set national indicators and report publicly on progress.
Finally, the act requires ministers to publish a “future trends report” within 12 months of an election containing “predictions of likely future trends in social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales,” taking into account “the UN’s sustainable-development goals and the impact of climate change on Wales.”
Adopting such legislation both provincially and federally would be a suitable 150th-birthday present for Canada, and a commitment to protecting the well-being of the next seven generations.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.