In sustainability we often talk about life-cycles of buildings, products and anything physical that we make. A life-cycle assessment will include thinking about what happens to the product once it is no longer in use, be that how the materials will be decommissioned and disposed of, recycled, or re-used and renewed. We recognise that physical things have use-by-dates and we plan accordingly.
What if we took the same approach to rules and regulations? From the way we make laws for society, to the way we choose the rules that we personally live by, thinking ahead to the time when that rule will no longer be useful to us will give us a deeper understanding of why it exists now and how to best apply it. It will also help us recognise the assumptions that makes the rule valid for now, and to recognise when the time comes to discard that rule or law in favour of something new.
We had a rule (well, more of a habit) of going to the toilet before leaving anywhere in London! (Your parents might have enforced something similar when you were eight!) In a big city, one is never sure if one will get stuck underground on public transport for an hour, become lost repeatedly, or find distraction in exciting goings on. It’s somewhat prudent to visit the water closet when one is not guaranteed of being able to find another, should one be in need.
And so, the rule became: go to loo before venturing outside.
Like all habits (and in the end, many rules become habits simply because we forget why we made them in the first place) this one had a good chance of sticking around. Visiting the bathroom quickly becomes part of the comforting routine of departure, such that when in a new city, one follows the same routine of going to the loo before venturing outside – not because one is actually at risk of not finding ablutions when one needs them urgently, but because one feels comfortable doing what one is used to.
Rewind a year or four to the moment when friend-in-big-city said, “Ooh, must visit loo before I go. Might get stuck on the tube.” In that moment we are very aware of why we are bringing this new law to existence, and there is also an implied prediction that when getting stuck on the tube is no longer a possibility, the Loo Law can be discarded.
Imagine if we did the same thing to even bigger and more important things.
“You must clean your room” might be an ethic you want to instil in your child around care of property, or it might be to keep you sane. You can think forward to the moment when the child shows care and concern for other rooms in the house as a time when you might relax the room-cleaning regulation. Or when you yourself are less stressed with work as the era when mess is more acceptable chez vous.
Compulsory bike helmet use, as a societal-level example, helps to reduce the number of injuries and deaths from people moving around on two wheels. A heap of carefully considered judgements make this choice right for now: the evidence says the risk of injury is high and research demonstrates helmets as a very good way of reducing that risk.
What if we then asked, “How long will this law be valid?” We would have to ask, “When will the risk of injury to be lower?” and, “When will helmets no longer be the most appropriate means for reducing that risk?”
This prediction of how long the law will be valid gives us some insight into our assumptions and values. Values about minimising injury, reducing the cost to the state, and also our assumptions about how cities and roads are designed and used.
We can do the same thing with occupational health and safety, with office procedures, rules about how long one works in a day or when lunchbreaks are allowed. It could be applied to who parks where, pub closing times, immigration law, building codes.
Whenever we are about to enforce something, we ask, “Why does this need to be compulsory and until when?”
A cradle-to-cradle approach to law-making. Understand what gives birth to this new rule, and think forward to the time when that rule will be old and grey and ready to be laid to rest.
What might things look like in a post-Loo Law era?