Politicians in a democracy are supposed to represent their constituents. Which is what makes Sophie Howe’s position so unusual. As the future generations commissioner for Wales, it’s her task to call out policymakers when they’re on the verge of making a decision that might harm people in the long run — including people of the future who haven’t yet been born.
It’s a job that exists because Wales in 2015 passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which sets out long-term goals — like addressing socioeconomic disadvantage or ecological resilience — and obligates public institutions to work toward them. Howe monitors and assesses whether they’re succeeding. When they’re failing, she says, her role is “calling out the madness.”
Her work has led to real policy change. When the Welsh government proposed to spend enormous sums of money to build a huge new road, she intervened and asked them to demonstrate how that was aligned with the goal of a more equal Wales. The government says it’s focused on tackling poverty and yet 25 percent of the lowest-income families in the region don’t own a car, she argued, so why blow the government’s borrowing capacity on a scheme that doesn’t benefit them?
“That was really effective,” she recounted to me. “Not only did they cancel that road-building program, we then completely reformed the whole transport strategy for the whole of Wales, and we’ve shifted our infrastructure spending.”
Howe has been in this role for six years now, but she sees herself as more than just a public servant for Wales. She’s part of a growing, global movement to focus more on protecting future generations, and she regularly offers input to other governments and the United Nations about the best way to shepherd forward that movement.
She participates in some of the same high-level discussions where you’ll find longtermist philosophers guided by the tenets of effective altruism. But rather than trying to shape what humanity will look like millions of years from now, she tries to get the government to think 25 years ahead. She is pragmatic, and also unique in that she actually shapes policy in a future-focused way, bringing concrete experience to a field that can often feel abstract.
As for how she feels about her job, she said, “I absolutely love it. I tear my hair out regularly and feel utterly frustrated. And I wish that progress was faster. But that’s why I invest so much time in the more global movement around [long-term thinking] as well. Because I think if that becomes the norm across the world, that is when it becomes potentially transformational.”
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