A modern day covenant with future generations

 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that was with you” says God to Noah in the story in Genesis 9. It’s a promise made to humans and to the natural world, and “for all generations to come.”

It’s not the only such covenant in the Bible. Divine promises run through future generations. The wisdom of scripture encourages us to make good decisions that consider and include those that come after us. That’s quite a counter-cultural notion in a world that prizes short-term gain and the time-bound promises of the electoral cycle. 

What does that kind of decision making look like today? There was an intriguing example in 2015, when Wales passed a piece of legislation called the Future Generations Act. It made them the first country in the world to write responsibility for future generations into law.

It didn’t make many ripples in Westminster, which was busy at the time with the general election. But it hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere, and a number of countries have been studying the bill and considering something similar.

The devolved government of Wales had made various attempts to embed sustainability into governance, not always successfully. The Future Generations Act was designed to put it right at the center of government, combining social, cultural and environmental goals in one vision. It found new language for them, rejecting the word ‘sustainability’ in favour of distinctively Welsh formulations. And it was not imposed as a top-down measure. The act was preceded by a national conversation, including young people, which delivered its findings in a document called the ‘Wales we want’.

That vision then informed the act, translating people’s hopes for the country into a series of well-being goals. They included equality and health, thriving and distinct Welsh culture. It also recognised the need to be a good global neighbour.

Perhaps most radically, the Act defines what prosperity will mean for Wales. Far from a blunt definition of wealth as economic growth, the law defines a prosperous Wales like this:

“An innovative, productive and low carbon society which recognises the limits of the global environment and therefore uses resources efficiently and proportionately (including acting on climate change); and which develops a skilled and well-educated population in an economy which generates wealth and provides employment opportunities, allowing people to take advantage of the wealth generated through securing decent work.”

That definition includes productivity and generating wealth, but it also talks about using resources proportionately. It mentions natural limits. It is wealth that includes, and that creates quality jobs. It is specifically low carbon – a rich society that destroys the biosphere in the process cannot consider itself well off.

As it pursues these well-being goals, every public decision making body has to consider present citizens and future ones. They “must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Those words will be familiar to scholars of sustainability, as they echo the language of the Brundtland Commission’s famous report in 1987. But perhaps the bill echoes a deeper wisdom too, one that calls us to steward the land and its wealth for those who come after us.


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