We would all love our economic and political systems to be less short-termist in approach, but how do we set about encouraging a more long-term ethos? Cultural thinker Roman Krznaric, author of The Good Ancestor, recommends five books to get us thinking about the long term, up to ten millennia in the future.
Tell me about long-term thinking and why you decided to write a book about it.
Firstly, I saw a conceptual emergency. There are lots of people talking about excessive focus on short-term thinking, and the need for longer-term thinking to solve problems such as the climate crisis, the threats from artificial intelligence, pandemics and wealth inequality. But very few people are really exploring long-term thinking systematically and asking the important questions. What are its components? How long is long-term? How do you get better at it? How do we embed it in our minds and in social institutions? I realised that I wanted to try and answer some of these questions.
The second thing had to do with my interest in empathy. I’ve been writing about empathy for over a decade, and I also founded an arts organisation called the Empathy Museum. My focus has been on how do we step into the shoes of people who are alive today but who may be living on the margins, whether in developing countries or in our own societies? Yet I’ve always struggled with the question of how you empathise with people through time: people who you cannot talk to, whose lives you can barely imagine. And so this book is partly an effort to explore that. How do we step into the shoes of future generations and make a moral and even a personal connection with them?
“I saw a conceptual emergency”
The third reason I wrote the book came to me in a moment of recognition. I realised that humankind has colonised the future. We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste. In the decade I spent as a political scientist researching and teaching democratic governance, it simply never occurred to me that future generations are disenfranchised in the same way that slaves and women were in the past. Yet that is the reality. I realised we need to embark on an anti-colonial, intergenerational liberation struggle to give those future generations a voice, rights, and a place in our public discourse.
On that last point, I guess you know The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery?
Yes, it’s a really important book, partly because it articulates the metaphor that we have colonised the future by consuming the natural wealth of future generations. Flannery, like me, is Australian, and the language of colonisation is very much in our upbringing. When the British colonised Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries they drew on a legal doctrine now known as terra nullius—the idea that the continent was ‘nobody’s land’ and that therefore they could take it despite the claims of indigenous people. We are now in an era not of terra nullius but of tempus nullius—nobody’s time. We treat the future as an uninhabited territory that we can pillage as we please.
You headline the third part of The Good Ancestor ‘Bring on the Time Rebellion.’ One hears it argued that authoritarian regimes are better than democracies at planning for the long term. Is there any truth to this idea?
The idea that we need benign dictators or enlightened despots to save us – especially from long-term ecological threats – is widely held. The belief is that democratic structures are irredeemably short-termist because of a design problem: electoral cycles. Politicians focus their attention on the next election, and can often barely see beyond the next opinion poll or tweet. At the same time politics is vulnerable to capture by corporations and other groups who are concerned with their near-term interests. So the assumption is that authoritarian regimes must be more effective. Look at China, look at Singapore!
One of the things I tried to do is examine the evidence for this. The book presents something called the Intergenerational Solidarity Index, a quantitative measure of long-term government performance that has been created by the interdisciplinary scientist Jamie McQuilkin. How do various countries perform on environmental measures, and in terms of investment in long-term health care and education that benefits future generations? And what you see is that democracies actually outperform authoritarian regimes by a very significant margin. There are exceptions—like China, like Singapore—but then think of all those authoritarian regimes that are poor performers on long-term public policy, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Russia, or many others.
Although democracies tend to score higher on the index than autocracies, a key point is that all those democracies could still perform more effectively. On the Intergenerational Solidarity Index a country like the UK comes 45th out of 122 countries. The US is even further down the list, and even high-performing countries like France could do a lot better in terms of extending the time horizons of government policy.
You write about what you call ‘design principles for deep democracy.’ Tell us something about these as you see them.
We need to inject long-term thinking into the DNA of democracy itself. A first step is to have ‘guardians of the future.’ These can be political appointees with a focus on long-term public policy. In Wales, for example, there is a Future Generations Commissioner whose job is to monitor legislation for its impact on people thirty years from now. This is a good start, but as Sophie Howe, the current Commissioner acknowledges, the position lacks power. So I think we need to go further.
One approach is to have Citizens’ Assemblies that focus on long-term issues, such as the management of nuclear waste, embedded into our democratic processes. Because all the evidence shows that Citizens’ Assemblies taken from random selections of a diverse range of people are much better at long-term policy focus than our current myopic politicians.
“We treat the future as an uninhabited territory that we can pillage as we please”
In Japan, there’s a wonderful citizen-based initiative called the Future Design Movement which is all about long-term city planning. They split up people into two groups to make plans for their towns and cities. The first group are told they are residents from the present day, and they make plans about health care and education and so on. The second group are given ceremonial kimonos to wear and told to imagine themselves as residents from the year 2060, thinking ahead to the perspectives of people four decades from now. This second group tend to come up with much more radical proposals in areas such as the environment, employment, healthcare and education.
So, these are the kinds of democratic design changes we need today, especially because representative democracy is dying. We’ve got the rise of far-right populism, the decline of political trust and of traditional parties. We urgently need to do something to revamp the democratic model. These kinds of changes are amongst the most effective ways to do it, and they have long-term benefits.
Let’s come on to your book choices on long-term thinking. You start with science fiction and the work of Kim Stanley Robinson.
Science fiction has been at the forefront of long-term thinking in Western culture for at least a century. It goes back to the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Before that, dystopian or utopian novels were typically set in a distant place, like the island in More’s Utopia, not a distant tomorrow. H.G. Wells blew that away in The Time Machine by setting his story thousands of years in the future. And then came Olaf Stapledon with books like Last and First Men, which tells the history of humankind over a two billion year timespan. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series also extended our time horizons thousands of years into the future. And for me one of the most important writers in this tradition is Kim Stanley Robinson. I consider him the greatest contemporary long-term thinker in SF. He is grappling with the kinds of topics I’m trying to grapple with in my book, such as how do we think long-term about biodiversity loss, the climate crisis, artificial intelligence and so on? Over the last couple of years I’ve read more books by Kim Stanley Robinson than by any other writer.
And why have you chosen Aurora?
At first sight it’s a classic generation starship story, but it is actually the best exploration of ecological economics and its importance that I’ve ever read. You have a giant spacecraft travelling for 200 years with 2000 people on board to colonise a distant planet. The spacecraft has 24 biomes in it—so there’s a desert, a savannah, a wet tropical zone and so on—and the people are living and dying for several generations, trying to survive in a closed system. They’re trying not to use more resources than they can produce and regenerate on their farms and spaceship, and not to create more waste than they can deal with. In other words, it’s about trying to keep the system in balance. That is the essence of ecological economics as expressed by people like Herman Daly in the 1970s.
Aurora looks like it’s a book about space, but it’s really a depiction of the dilemmas we face on Earth—about how to survive on the only planet we know that can sustain human life. I’m sorry to give a spoiler, but this is exactly what the people on the spaceship realise: upon reaching their destination, they realise that humankind cannot survive in a place it has not evolved to adapt to, and so they decide to come back to Earth.
“Science fiction has been at the forefront of long-term thinking in Western culture for at least a century”
And that’s the trick of Kim Stanley Robinson. What looks like SF is in fact contemporary political analysis. He is telling us that if we want to survive and thrive for the long term as a species, we need to live within the carrying capacity of the planet. We need to follow the rules of ecological economics, and not be obsessed with unending GDP growth.
Reading the book made me think about mountain climbing. If you want to climb Everest and stay alive the first and most important thing is to make sure your base camp is in good order and can continue to support you if things go wrong. People like Elon Musk say, ‘let’s go to Mars!’. But actually, before we go to Mars, let’s work out how to look after our base camp—planet Earth. Once we’ve learned how to do that, go on all the trips to Mars that you like.
Next on your list of books about long-term thinking is Stewart Brand’s The Clock of the Long Now. I had heard of the clock itself as a thing that is being built, but I didn’t know about the book.
Brand wrote it in 1999. It came out of his Long Now Foundation which has at its core the idea of expanding our time horizons. For Brand and the Foundation, ‘long-term’ means 10,000 years in the future. One of their main projects is the clock you mentioned. And yes, it is an actual clock being built inside a mountain in the Texas desert as we speak. It is being designed to last 10,000 years, but it’s probably going to be a decade or more before it’s finished because the engineering to make it stay accurate for 10 millennia is very challenging. When you go to visit the clock you will hike through the desert and walk up steps cut into the mountain which each represent a million years of geological time. And the clock itself will be like a secular altarpiece for a civilisation that embraces long-term thinking.
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One of the reasons that Brand’s book is important is because it’s very different from many of the books about futurology and forecasting that had been around since at least the 1960s, when people like Herman Kahn were writing books on scenario planning for things like thermonuclear war. Brand is saying, ‘look, I’m not interested in predicting the future; rather, we need to care about the future, we need to expand our time horizons.’ His book is the first I know to explicitly explore what long-term thinking really is, or could be. He takes it as a concept and pulls it apart to examine it. That’s a real intellectual shift in the history of long-term thinking. And he does it so well: he’s an amazing, pithy prose stylist.
I think the phrase ‘long now’ actually originates with the musician Brian Eno?
Yes. It was in Stewart Brand’s book that I first came across Brian Eno’s concept of the long now. Later, I went back to read Eno’s original essay, “The Big Here and Long Now.” It was absolutely electrifying for me, and it’s been on my desk for the last three years as I’ve been working on this book. Eno coined the phrase in 1979, so he was way ahead of the curve—although there is an interesting precursor in an essay that H.G. Wells wrote back in 1902 called “The Discovery of the Future.”
Eno’s point is that our sense of ‘now’ is getting shorter and shorter and if we are going to connect with future generations and deal with crises like weapons proliferation and our destruction of the living world we need a longer sense of now. He says we’re not very good at empathising with future generations and challenges us to do better.
I’ve heard criticism of the 10,000 year clock—that, for example, the involvement of Jeff Bezos makes it a vanity project.
There is undoubtedly a tension in the project, in that the principal funder is the person who’s basically responsible for inventing the ‘Buy Now’ button—the essence of our culture of instant consumer gratification, short-term desires and rewards. But I don’t think it’s a vanity project, actually. Yes, it’s true that the Clock of the Long Now is not as practical as the Svalbard Seed Vault, which is protecting plant biodiversity with millions of seeds from 6000 species and is designed to last for at least a millennium. But I think that, like great sites of pilgrimage in the past such as the cathedrals of mediaeval Europe, there is value in cultural objects and symbolic artworks.
Let’s turn to Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Why did you choose a book about happiness, which is a fleeting, short-term thing, I suppose.
I don’t believe in the pursuit of happiness, and in my books I try never to mention that word. What I find most valuable in Daniel Gilbert’s book is the first part, where he writes about the comparatively new subject of ‘prospective psychology.’ The key idea is that what makes humans unique is our highly-developed capacity to think about the future.
We tend to see ourselves as not unlike rats, creatures driven by the short-term reward centres in our brains. But what Gilbert does fantastically well is to argue that, actually, humans are better at long-term thinking than almost any other animal. A chimpanzee may strip off the leaves from a branch to make a tool to poke into a termite hole, but that chimp will never make a dozen of those tools and put them aside for next week. Yet this is exactly what humans do.
So although we’re familiar with what I call the ‘marshmallow brain’, which focuses our attention on short-term rewards and makes it hard to resist treats for any length of time, there is also what I like to think of as the ‘acorn brain,’ which focuses our attention on long-term thinking, planning and strategising. We do plant seeds for posterity. That is how people built the pyramids, or the Great Wall of China. It’s how Joseph Bazalgette built the sewers of Victorian London.
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Humans clearly have an extraordinary capacity to think long-term. We just don’t focus on it a lot and the message of Gilbert’s book for me is that we need to tell a new story about human nature. In the same way that, over the last 30 years, there’s been a shift in our understanding of human nature to acknowledge that we’re not just driven by individual egoism but are also cooperative and empathic creatures, so there’s another narrative which needs to be challenged. We’re not just short term marshmallow-snatchers; we are long term acorn planters! We’ve got this long-term part of our brain in our frontal lobe, particularly in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex of our brains. We’ve got to learn how to switch this thing on and use it!
Number four on your list of books about long-term thinking is Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.
My background in political science was all about linear, causal thinking, and the discovery of systems thinking was absolutely mind-blowing for me. Meadows’s book is the best comprehensive primer on it. It’s not a particularly easy book to read but it’s essential.
I think every child should be learning systems thinking—about feedback loops, tipping points and exponential functions—because it’s fundamental to so many things. It helps us understand how the human body works—how our body controls its temperature, for example: when we get too hot we sweat, when we get too cold we shiver.
It also enables us to better understand our economies and ecology. Thinking in Systems raises some really basic questions like how do you create an economic system which is self-regulating and can sustain itself over the long term? Well, the answers are in things like the circular economy movement and Doughnut Economics. It also raises questions about political systems: there’s a failure of feedback, I realised. We’re not getting the politicians we need for long-term thinking because we don’t get any feedback information from future generations. That’s part of the design failure I mentioned before. Systems thinking helps you see that.
One the other things about Donella Meadows’s book that I particularly love is the section about leverage points. What does it take to change a system? She argues that the best way is not by tinkering with, say, the tax rates or subsidies or regulations and standards. Rather, the main level you want to influence is the level of paradigm change. Now you could get a similar message from reading Thomas Kuhn or Karl Mannheim or Pierre Bourdieu, who all recognised the importance of worldviews and the ways they shape society, but I think Donella Meadows gets this point across really well and clearly.
“I think every child should be learning systems thinking”
So when it comes to the question I want to tackle—the pathological short-termism of our economic systems and political systems—we need new ideas to help reconfigure our worldviews. We need long-term thinking itself to become a matter of public discussion and public debate: it needs to enter the ‘ethnosphere’—a word coined by the anthropologist Wade Davis to describe the swirl of ideas, beliefs, myths and attitudes that prevail in society. I expand on this in the chapter on culture in The Good Ancestor. We need to reinvent the ‘ethnosphere’, which constitutes the cultural air that we breathe.
Another thing regarding Donella Meadows and leverage points. If you’re going to change a system you need to change its goal. There are plenty of people in the corporate world interested in the long view: how do you create companies that prosper for decades and beyond? As a former head of Goldman Sachs once said, ‘we’re greedy, but long-term greedy not short-term greedy’. That’s long-term thinking of a kind, but it is not the kind I promote in my book, because the goal for almost all companies remains profits and growth and maximizing shareholder value. For me, however, the ultimate goal should be to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. That’s ecological economics again – learning to live within the biocapacity of the living world. It’s a fundamental telos or goal to guide long-term thinking for the welfare of future generations, the universal strangers of the future.
Tell us about the final book on your list of long-term thinking books, A New Reality by Jonas and Jonathan Salk.
Jonas Salk was the great immunologist who developed the first polio vaccine in 1955. But later, in the 1970s, he came to believe deeply that we humans need to expand our time horizons if we’re going to deal with the problems of our age. He said that the great question for our civilisation over the next century is this: are we being good ancestors? That’s where the title of my book comes from.
The focus of A New Reality, which he co-wrote with his son Jonathan (and which was published in an updated edition in 2018) is on the most profound shape of the modern social sciences: the S, or sigmoid curve. The whole book is just page after page of sigmoid curves. Salk’s point is a very simple but profound one, which is that almost everything in human and natural systems follows this curve, whether it’s the growth of cancer cells in your body, your children’s feet or the growth of a forest. All these things have an accelerating growth rate to start with, but then they hit an inflection point at which growth starts to slow down and then evens off and then maybe declines. Salk points out this is what happens to whole civilisations too.
“We’re not just short-term marshmallow-snatchers; we are long-term acorn planters!”
Salk argues that we need to understand where we are on the curve. He splits it into two parts, what he calls Epoch A, which is the lower, accelerating part, and Epoch B, which is the upper, decelerating part—the top of the S, as it were. He says that for the last few thousand years we’ve been in Epoch A: our population has been growing and we’ve been using more and more resources, but the earth has basically been able to absorb our impact. However, as we now approach ten billion people and the ecological impacts of our fossil-fuel economies become pervasive, the Earth can no longer sustain our civilisation as we have built it to date. We have to shift our focus from the individualism and short-term growth of Epoch A to the more collective values and long-range thinking appropriate for Epoch B.
Salk was an immunologist, as you mentioned. What do you think he would have made of the COVID-19 crisis?
He would say, ‘yes, of course we need to find a vaccine and focus on confronting the immediate threat of the virus. But actually, if we hope to deal with the long-term crises we are going to face over the next century – whether from future pandemics or technological threats or ecological breakdown – we will to need to make a profound shift as a species towards forging a more cooperative society based on long-term thinking.’ He was interested in the idea of cultural evolution (what he called ‘metabiological evolution’) and recognised that the next stage in our evolution as a species would be towards developing new values and institutions that embody ideals such as long-term thinking, interdependence and balance, rather than growth. In fact, his son Jonathan made pretty much this point in a recent article about his father’s likely response to COVID-19.
We’re having this conversation virtually while in lockdown. How is the situation affecting what you’re thinking and feeling?
I think the value of thinking long is becoming apparent in several ways. First, it’s clear that those countries which have been dealing most effectively with the virus have been ones that have had long-term planning for pandemics in place. South Korea and Taiwan are good examples. By contrast you’ve got the United States, where in 2018 Trump dissolved the National Security Council’s pandemic response unit. So we know that there’s an obvious kind of long-term thinking that matters at times like this.
Second, it’s becoming clearer that this is not the only crisis we’re going to face, and if we are going to tackle these future ones, from climate risks to technological risks, we need to be thinking long, beyond the ups and downs of the stock market, beyond the next quarterly report and the next election. We need to be thinking, planning and budgeting decades ahead, beyond our own lifetimes.
Third, the current situation makes me think a lot about the nature of crises. Crises are opportunities for change. As Milton Friedman said, only a crisis – real or perceived – produces real change. I don’t agree with Friedman on most things, but he’s right about this. Remember, though, that at any moment of crisis you can go in a number of directions. Out of the depression of the 1930s, some countries moved in the direction of social democracy whereas others went towards fascism. We are at an analogous moment in history, and we need to ask, ‘are we going to move towards more authoritarianism, or is this a moment for grassroots organizing, mutual aid and democratic renewal?’ Similarly, ‘are we going to simply reproduce and bolster the existing economic system of growth-addicted market capitalism, or are we going to shift in a more transformative direction towards a regenerative economy based on some kind of Green New Deal?’
Something else Milton Friedman said was people’s response to a crisis depends on the ideas that are lying around. What I would like to see is that the ideas of long-term thinking are the ones that are picked up as we move beyond this crisis—ideas like citizen assemblies and legal rights for future generations, circular economies, all these things which are part of the emerging movement of time rebels committed to the interests and welfare of tomorrow’s generations. We have a chance to do that now.
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