Long live long termism!
Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz will speak at Ouishare Fest 2021, an in-person festival that will take place in Paris from June 23-25 and will address the world’s biggest issues in the economic, technological and political fields through the lens concept of “time”. Interested ? More information on our website here !
The Long Now foundation's goal is to foster long-term thinking. Why?
Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz: Long-term thinking is important because there are certain things that only become apparent at longer timescales. Think about asteroids: the odds of a serious impact happening during your lifetime is almost zero. So you might conclude that you don’t need to worry about it because it’s only a concern at timescales far beyond your own lifetime. The situation is similar with climate change, antibiotic resistance, space exploration, and so on. But at the scale of civilization, those things really matter, which is why our foundation stewards projects, programs, and conversations that invite people to think long-term in a way that they don’t on a daily basis. So we want people to start thinking more broadly about civilization in the same way we might think broadly about our own life when making big decisions. How do I want to live? What am I going to work on? What matters the most?
Learning how to last matters because sometimes the things we need to do will take 200 years.
But long-term thinking is also important because it enables us to endeavor toward great things we could not do otherwise. Think of the world's infrastructure, buildings, highways, bridges or cathedrals. It took multiple generations to build a cathedral, sometimes under terrible conditions, and for many people, for their entire lifetime, there was no cathedral, despite all the resources being invested toward building it. Similar projects run up against similar challenges even today, some appear to do better than others. Oxford University has been operating for around a thousand years, for example. How does an organization achieve this kind of continuity? What foundational governance and management principles are needed for this to be possible? How does an institution keep everyone aligned over the span of hundreds of years?
The Long Now Foundation runs a specific programme to understand long-lived organizations such as Oxford University but also Palmolive and Dupont. Is long term thinking conservative?
N. B.: I wouldn’t suggest that simply existing for a long period of time is intrinsically good. Things that never change tend to get sclerotic. Not everything has to last forever. But the reason we care about institutions that last, the reason we want to better understand that phenomenon, is that there are things in the world that we will need to do that will take more than one lifetime to complete. If we really want to tackle climate change or solve world hunger we will need more than four years, the election cycle, and probably more than 80 years, a lifetime cycle. Learning how to last matters because sometimes the things we need to do will take 200 years.
Does that mean that short term is not relevant for you?
N. B.: It’s more a question of harmony. If you were conducting a symphony and the flutes were too quiet, you might encourage them to get louder, to create a nicer sound in the orchestra, right? Well, it is the same for us. We are not anti-short term. We are not saying that the only thing that matters is the 10.000-year timescale. Short term is relevant: after all, if I don't pay my rent on a monthly time scale, people will get upset, and if I don't hydrate frequently enough, I won’t feel good… But while our culture has gotten very good at emphasizing the short term, we can't say the same about the long term. That element calls out for more encouragement.
Some people think we don’t have much time ahead of us. They fear a great collapse. What’s your opinion?
N. B.: Indeed there are a lot of compelling stories in our culture that argue we are on the last pages of the book of civilization, maybe even the last paragraph. This is only one kind of story, though. We prefer to situate the present moment in the middle of a 20.000-year-long narrative where there are 10.000 years behind and ahead of us. We are the inheritors of 10.000 years of culture, science, art and technology. And then, looking forward, we are the ancestors of the 400 generations ahead. The question this narrative raises is: how are we deploying everything we have inherited in a way that serves the future? This long-term story situates us in the central role of the hero. And it is this 20.000-year time period—a present moment inclusive of the next and the last 10.000 years—that we call ‘the long now.’
Collaboration and diversity are so important for the discourse around long-term thinking. It is not about adherence to a settled method.
Instead of trying to be a “hero”, isn’t long term thinking about being more humble, preventing ourselves from acting too much and devastating our environment?
N. B.: This is an important question. Of course there are plenty of people who say that humans are something like a disease, destroying our mother earth, that sort of thing. But that discourse always raises the famous question asked by Hamlet, to be or not to be. And I think for The Long Now Foundation the answer is clearly ‘to be.’ ‘To be’ requires that we continually discover how to persevere through challenges. We are forever adapting ourselves to our environment, and our environment to ourselves. And it’s always a high-wire act.
If you were to travel back in time and talk with someone living during the Cold War they would have a hard time believing that we made it to the year 2020 without a nuclear apocalypse coming to pass. The odds of us not using nuclear weapons in the next half-century were very slim-seeming from that vantage point. In a certain sense, I think that existing in the shadow of this kind of existential dread is simply part of what it is to be a civilization. Our ultimate safety is never guaranteed. We are always under threat of demise, non-existence, collapse. It’s a reason to appreciate what is present here and now, and to work for that presence to continue into the future.
How do you deal with the diversity of reactions that long term thinking generates inside people?
N. B.: Our work aims to bring together as many perspectives as possible, regardless of whether they converge or diverge from our own personal perspectives. I’ve noticed that for some people, thinking long-term generates a kind of humility, and for others it is a cause for even more ambition. What you discover inside yourself when you think long-term will be unique to you. Which is why collaboration and diversity are so important for the discourse around long-term thinking. Long-term thinking is not about adherence to a settled method. Different people will notice different things worth attending to on these longer timescales. The best thing we can do is assemble our own limited individual perspectives into a more collaborative and complete whole. The more people involved in the conversation around long-term thinking, the better.
Special thanks to Francesca Pick who helped us to edit this interview.
Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz is the Director of Development at The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as a center of gravity for long-term projects and long-term thinkers around the world. He has a background in systems engineering and philosophy—with a special interest in aesthetics, hermeneutics, and phenomenology.