By Valerie Andrews
I read Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-term Thinking in an apocalyptic mood, while California was burning and the coronavirus was cresting nationwide. The Oxford philosopher Krznaric says these two disasters were caused by our addiction to short-term thinking.
While rushing to buy up its own shares and boost their bottomline, PG&E failed to do the long-haul work of inspecting and maintaining its wires. And so, in 2018, a spark from a single fuse box destroyed the town of Paradise. Ever since, we have lived with rolling blackouts every fire season.
In 2018, the US government also disbanded the National Security Council’s pandemic unit, getting rid of people who might have helped us stop the spread of COVID-19.
The catastrophic impacts of this virus are a stark reminder, Krznaric argues, “that we should be thinking, planning and budgeting for multiple risks that lie on the horizon—not only the threat of further pandemics, but the climate crisis and unchecked technological developments.”
According to Krznaric, short-term thinking is killing us, bit by bit. Our political goals are hampered by a short election cycle, our news is limited to the latest opinion poll or tweet, our businesses are seeking quick returns on investment, and our financial markets crash in speculative bubbles. On the personal level, we’re sunk, too. We “overdose on fast food, rapid-fire texting,” and are constantly seduced by the “Buy Now” button that ratchets up our annual debt.
Just as worrisome is our rapid embrace of scientific innovation. Risk scholar Nick Bostrom describes this scenario where a new delivery system for anti-cancer drugs turns into a global threat. “Terrorists might get hold of self-replicating, bacterium-scale nanobots that get out of control and poison the atmosphere.”
In fact, many risk experts believe “there is around a one-in-six chance that humanity will not make it to the end of the century without catastrophic loss of life.”
That’s the bad news—and there’s plenty of it. But, thankfully, Krznaric has a way to change the outcome.
Consider virologist Jonas Salk’s response to the polio epidemic. In 1955, after years of painstaking experiments, Salk and his team developed a safe vaccine: “At the time, polio paralyzed or killed over half a million people worldwide each year. Salk was immediately hailed as a miracle worker. But he was not interested in fame and fortune.”
Salk never sought a patent for his vaccine. Through years of frustrating research, he kept asking himself, “Are we being good ancestors?”
This question resonated with Krznaric and his wife, the Oxford economist Kate Raworth, who are raising twins. These two academic superstars have been drawing on 40 years of systems modeling and risk research to create a better world for future generations.
Raworth has replaced the old Capitalist pyramid with assets concentrated at the top with a model called “Donut Economics” that shares the wealth around a communal circle.
Meanwhile, Krznaric is looking at ways to reshape the mind.
Our short-term orientation, he says, has done a lot of damage, allowing the haves to exploit the have-nots and large corporations to control our natural resources. “The moment has come, especially for those living in wealthy nations, to recognize a disturbing truth: that we have colonized the future,” he writes. “We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please.”
As an antidote, Krznaric refers us to the Clock of the Long Now—a mechanism designed to keep time for 10,000 years. The brainchild of Whole Earth Catalogue editor Stewart Brand, it calls our attention to Deep Time, and the ages before humans walked the earth.
There is much to be gained, too, from Native Americans who were fluent in long-term thinking and lived lightly on the land. The Iroquois, for example, considered how their decisions would impact the next seven generations, and a council of grandmothers vetted every major decision made by the leaders of the tribe.
Studies today show that grandparents—especially maternal grandmothers—are associated with reduced child mortality. Yet our notion of the extended family has changed. Too many children grow up without their elders—and without their more expansive sense of time.
The Acorn Brain
Drawing on insights from neurobiology, Krznaric proposes we start weaning ourselves off our “marshmallow brain” that’s addicted to short-term rewards and rely more on our “acorn brain” that’s capable of long-term planning.
Acorn thinking was a game-changer for the hunter-gatherers. “Around 12,000 years ago, in the early Neolithic period, one of our ancestors did something extraordinary,” Krznaric says. “Instead of eating a seed, she decided to save it to plant the next season. This moment—the beginning of the agricultural revolution—marks a turning point in the evolution of the human mind and is the symbolic birth of long-term thinking.”
The good news is that the capacity to think and plan over long timespans is hardwired in our brains and has produced some of our better moments in history: anti-slavery campaigns, advocates for women’s rights and economic justice.
A gentle realist, Krznaric also reminds us that long-term thinking comes to the fore when things look very dark:
How can we activate the superpower of long-range thinking?
Krznaric recommends an app called Deep Time Walk, a three-mile tour through the various stages of the planet’s evolution where the final eight inches represents the human experiment. This mesmerizing narrative mixes science and poetry to show how our own daily lives are rooted in natural processes that go back to the Big Bang.
Our Changing Concept of Time
Our early models of time, from the Sumerian calendar to astrological ephemera in Medieval manuscripts to Aboriginal maps of the Dream Time are all circular, reflecting organic cycles of decay and renewal. The notion of continual upward growth is fairly recent, however, and dates from 19th century theories of social evolution proposed by August Comte and Herbert Spencer.
Our modern obsession with progress has literally taken us “out of time” and threatens to destroy civilization as we know it. So how do we readjust? Krznaric says, with the help of a good philosopher:
Aristotle was convinced that each of us should have “some object for the good life to aim at…since not to have one’s life organized in view of some end is a mark of much folly.” The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche advised, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and founder of existential psychotherapy, believed that we find meaning by dedicating ourselves to what he called a “concrete assignment,” a future project or ideal that transcends the self.
Yes, we are creatures of habit, and our short-term addictive impulses are amplified by Facebook and our digital devices. But the good news is that children naturally spend far more time thinking about the future than the past, simply because there’s so much more time ahead of them. As Greta Thunberg suggests, we ought to view the young as the real stakeholders in our society, for they are the ones who will have to heal its wounds.
During this year’s fire alert, I packed a Go-Bag, putting a few essentials in my backpack: a rainproof parka, dried food, a flashlight, tent and cell phone charger. Lately, I wondered what to put in my intellectual Go-Bag—what ideas will helpful as our world is flooding, burning, falling apart. Krznaric’s new life story makes the cut, especially when he talks about our need for an internal compass:
“Wayfinding” was the secret of the great Melanesian navigators, who passed their knowledge of the tides and stars from one generation to the next, often in the form of song. Krznaric is calling us back to these traditions, reminding us that it is the human journey that counts, not our short-term obsession with profit, progress and celebrity.
“This is a struggle for the human mind,” Kznaric concludes. “Decolonize our minds and we will decolonize the future, liberating it from domination by the present tense.” Then we will have all the tools we need to live long and prosper.
Thinking Long and Smart
Here is a list of tools for long-term thinking, developed by governments, grade schools, and colleges. Each one helps us flex our mental muscles and see the world in a new way — no longer from the cramped perspective of short-term thinking and self-interest.
- In June 2017, just a week after Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, 279 US mayors—representing one in five Americans—defiantly pledged to uphold the agreement.
- Roots of Empathy has reached nearly one million children in countries ranging from Costa Rica to South Korea, using real babies to teach empathy in the classroom.
- In Scotland FutureLab has produced educational activities and games to help children explore preferred futures over the next 30 years, introducing the scenario planning in geography, English, and citizenship education classes.
- In Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation has created classroom materials for high school students on intergenerational rights.
- Futurist guru Jim Dator asks his students at the University of Hawaii to design an ideal governance system for a twenty-first century colony on Mars.
- The University of California at Berkeley has offered a design course on “Thinking Like a Good Ancestor: Finding Meaning in the Technology We Build.”
- The growing discipline of systems thinking, pioneered by Donella Meadows, is now taught in schools and universities worldwide. Online courses in Planetary Boundaries and Human Opportunities care offered by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
- And at the “DearTomorrow” website, you can write a letter to someone in 2050 (a child in your life or even your future self), pledging to take action on the climate crisis. Get started on your legacy right now.
Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher who writes about the power of ideas to change society. The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World (The Experiment, November 2020) has been described by U2’s The Edge as “the book our children’s children will thank us for reading.” His previous books, including Empathy, The Wonderbox and Carpe Diem Regained, have been published in more than 20 languages.
After growing up in Sydney and Hong Kong, Roman studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, where he gained his PhD in political sociology. He is founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and is currently a Research Fellow of the Long Now Foundation.