books sustainability

Book review – #FutureGen: lessons from a small country, by Jane Davidson

In 2015, Wales passed a piece of legislation called the Future Generations Act, making them the first country in the world to write responsibility for future generations into law. It didn’t make many ripples in Westminster at the time, but it’s been admired around the world for the scope of its ambition. Several countries are considering similar acts and there is real interest in studying the Welsh model, leading its chief architect, Jane Davidson, to write a book about it: #FutureGen – Lessons from a Small Country.

Davidson grew up in Africa, and trained and worked as a teacher. She found her way into politics in the newly devolved Welsh parliament, eventually serving as the Labour minister for education and then for the environment and sustainability. She was instrumental in several Welsh environmental initiatives, including the country’s admirable record on recycling, and several attempts to embed sustainability at the heart of government.

The book helpfully explains these attempts and why they didn’t quite work, showing how the machinery of government works and the limits of top-down leadership. The Future Generations Act was necessary because too many other sustainability measures hadn’t made a difference. This new attempt combined social, cultural and environmental goals in one vision. It found new language for them, rejecting the word ‘sustainability’ itself for example, in favour of distinctively Welsh formulations. A major national conversation, including young people, delivered a vision for the ‘Wales we want’ – and that then informed the act.

Davidson also details the mechanisms for holding politicians to account, and the role of the commissioner that oversees it. With five years since the act passed, she also looks at whether it has worked or not.

While #FutureGen is ostensibly a book about the Future Generations Act, it also tells Davidson’s story, and it is in some ways the story of the Welsh parliament finding its feet and identifying their unique role as a devolved power.

Davidson recognises that it’s “difficult to know how to make the Act itself exciting to the reader”, and there’s no real way around that, but I found lots of exciting ideas in the book nonetheless. The act is one part of a broader vision that includes a formal definition of wealth for Wales – one that includes thriving within limits. I loved the fact that this was an inclusive and consultative project, rather than government deciding things from above. The ‘environmental narratives project’ that accompanied the act is worth a separate post in itself, an exercise in translating the language of sustainability into terms that resonate with a particular culture. And out of this broad consultation comes a law that serves to define Wales and what it stands for in the 21st century.

The act isn’t perfect. It “lacks teeth” as one critic puts it, and it’s too soon to tell how genuinely effective it is. More philosophically, it seeks to “maximise wellbeing” and while that’s better than maximising economic growth, I do have some questions about the idea of maximising anything. Nature seeks sufficiency and balance. As you will know if you’ve ever been to an all-you-can-eat buffet, the point of optimal satisfaction actually comes well before one has crammed the maximum amount of food into one’s body. I wonder if ‘maxiumum wellbeing’ is a stepping stone towards a more mature, more nuanced vision of human flourishing for those future generations to work out for themselves.

The book itself isn’t perfect either. It closes out with a collection of ideas from notable Welsh citizens, then an endnote, a postscript, a ‘last word’ and two appendices, as if it doesn’t quite know how to wrap up. Still, #FutureGen is more engaging and useful than a book about legislating for sustainability in a regional government has any right to be, and that is to Davidson’s immense credit.

As Jane Davidson says, small countries can be test-beds for interesting ideas. “Wales is small enough to innovate, yet big enough to matter” she writes, and I look forward to other countries following where Wales has blazed a trail.

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