Longterm thinking: The good ancestor

26th March 2021

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Matthew Harris

Roman Krznaric talks to Huw Morris about his latest book – a clarion call for long-term thinking to save the future

Jonas Salk, the virologist who led the team behind the first successful polio vaccine, asked ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ in 1977. Nearly 40 years later it inspired the philosopher Roman Krznaric to rethink the challenges confronting humans. His latest book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, asks how we can be good ancestors.

“Salk’s question crystallised a creeping dismay I had from looking at newspapers and websites for years and seeing so many people complain about short-termism and saying we need more long-term thinking,” he says. “But no one was really saying, ‘what is long-term thinking?’. Out of this, ‘are we being good ancestors?’ is the question we need to answer.”

Marshmallow, acorn

Krznaric argues that humankind has “clearly inherited extraordinary legacies from our common ancestors” – citing the agricultural revolution, medical discoveries and cities. However, there have also been destructive legacies. Slavery, colonialism and racism have led to inequalities. Economies are addicted to fossil fuels and endless growth, threatening the planet’s future.

Krznaric puts some figures on the scale of intergenerational injustice. “The 7.7 billion people alive today are just a tiny fraction of the estimated 100 billion people who have lived and died during the past 50,000 years. Both are vastly outnumbered by the nearly seven trillion people who will be born in the next 50,000 years.”

This means recognising two kinds of thinking: short-term versus long-term – as Krznaric puts it, ‘marshmallow brain’ versus ‘acorn brain’. Marshmallow brain, named after the Stanford University experiment that tested children’s ability to delay gratification, means “we talk about ourselves in the short-term. We are always clicking the ‘buy now’ button and swiping on our phones”. Acorn brain is the capacity to think beyond here and now.

“Many cultures have a story of growing trees you will never see in your lifetime”

Much of Krznaric’s thinking is inspired by indigenous attitudes towards stewardship, especially the Native American seventh generation principle – that today’s decisions should be sustainable in seven generations. “Many cultures have a story of planting seeds in the ground or growing trees you will never see in your lifetime. Anyone interested in sustainability has probably heard of a proverb along those lines, but it’s part of our neuroanatomy.”

Krznaric proposes six strategies for cultivating long-term thinking (see ‘Six ways to think long term’). Some will mean rethinking relationships with death, family and community, he argues, while others focus on collective plans stretching centuries ahead. All focus on humankind’s interdependence with nature.

Legacy mindset

His favourite strategy is the legacy mindset. He relates that 6% of people in the UK make a charitable bequest in their will, but this doubles to 12% if you simply ask them to leave such a bequest. Ask if they are passionate about a cause and it jumps to 17%. “These nudges aren’t how we transform societies or economies, but they are part of a story we need to tell ourselves about our capacity to think longer than we are told we can.”

Krznaric is the father of 12-year-old twins who could be living into their nineties at the turn of the next century, and this is partly what motivates him. “I don’t want them looking out at a world on fire,” he says. When he talked to people in power, he says, “the place of connection was the legacies they are going to leave. I say to them, imagine your grandchildren could easily be alive in the 22nd century. Your children, if they are young, will live most of their lives after 2050. What kind of world are you leaving for them? If you care about their lives then you have to care about all life, because your daughter, who might be alive in 2100, will be part of a web of human relationships but also a web of the living world – the air she breathes, the water she drinks.

“The legacy mindset is personal. It provides a bridge from something very abstract to ‘how do we create a sustainable world?’. Most of us need to feel it if we’re to keep up the energy of transforming things, whether inside a company or a government department, or as a community activist or directaction rebel.”

He is a fan of Future Design, a Japanese citizens assembly that gathers residents to discuss plans for their areas. Half of the group look at plans from the perspective of today’s residents, and the other half from the perspective of residents in 2060, wearing ceremonial robes to help their imaginations. The future group invariably advocates far more transformative and radical plans. Japan’s Ministry of Finance, numerous towns and cities, and corporates such as Fujitsu use the technique for sustainability planning.

“Whether they are discussing climate change or responding to a pandemic, automation or artifi cial intelligence, people come up with much more radical plans when they are dressed up in robes,” says Krznaric. “It’s bringing these voices into the room that aren’t normally there. What’s crucial is changing decision-making processes to embrace the long term. You can have all the Sustainable Development Goals in the world, but if your decision-making is still caught in short-term cycles such as the next election or the next headline, you are not going to get very far.”

Time rebels

Krznaric’s book offers many examples of “time rebels”. On behalf of 21 young people, campaign group Our Children’s Trust has fi led a landmark case against the US government for the legal right to a safe climate and atmosphere for current and future generations. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault looks even further ahead, housing millions of seeds in a rock bunker in the Arctic Circle that is designed to last 1,000 years. Krznaric also points to the biomimicry designer Janine Benyus, who suggests we learn from nature’s 3.8bn years of evolution.

“How is it that other species have learned to survive and thrive for 10,000 generations and more? It’s by taking care of the place that would take care of their off spring, by living within the ecosystem in which they’re embedded, by knowing not to foul the nest, which is what humans have been doing.”

The Good Ancestor: How to think long-term in a short-term world is published by Penguin, £10.99.

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

Six ways to think long term

  • Deep time humility: Looking beyond our lifetimes, recognising that our personal stories will barely register in the annals of cosmological time.
  • Legacy mindset: Will people of the future remember us well?
  • Intergenerational justice: What are our obligations to future generations?
  • Cathedral thinking: Otherwise known as the art of planning into the distant future, Krznaric says this “may be one of the greatest skills of our species and the clearest practical expression of our acorn brains”.
  • Holistic forecasting: Forecasting decades and centuries ahead, focusing on the big picture rather than narrow institutional and corporate interests.
  • Transcendent goal: Inspired by the ancient Greek concept of telos, an ultimate goal or purpose that acts as a compass for thoughts and actions into the distant future.

Image credit: iStock


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