Think long term, act short term
This interview was made in preparation for Ouishare Fest 2021, which 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”.
Your book The Good Ancestor invites us to decolonize our future. Why do you consider human beings as time colonizers?
Roman Krznaric : We treat our future like an uninhabited territory. We dump our technological risks and environmental damage there. So we are actually colonizing it, just like the British colonized Australia drawing on the doctrine of « terra nullius ». They pretended it was an empty land, even though it was full of indigenous people. I think this doctrine is now extended to « tempus nullius » : we ignore the future of billions of people to be born. Look at Brexit : the majority of people over 65 voted in favour while the majority below 30 voted against. But who is going to live under the consequences of this decision? This is active colonization from past generations over future ones. Today, 4 years after the referendum, people who just turned 18 would be allowed to vote, but they did not have that right in 2016. On the contrary, many people died in the meantime and would not be able to vote today. It is 4 years worth of people that we ignored ; it is colonial! It implies that we need intergenerational liberation struggles like decolonization struggles that happened in the mid 20th century.
But how do you deal with current issues? How do you articulate long term stakes for generations of people to be born with the very pressing ones for people living today?
R. K. : I don't see an ultimate conflict between old and young people. In the end, we all need to live in a sustainable world. Of course, there are issues about Brexit, the funding of pensions, Covid-19 or mass unemployment that need short-term answers... But what is ethically wrong is not to bring our future generations into those discussions. The point is not to ignore them, it's a matter of intergenerational justice and solidarity. Intergenerational justice is about our moral and ethical obligations towards future generations. Our actions have consequences for people not born yet, and they are not here to decide. So we have a responsibility for them. Intergenerational solidarity has a slightly different meaning for me, it is about how we make that emotional and psychological connection with those unborn people. I think about my daughter, 12 years old, I close my eyes and imagine her on her 90th birthday in 2100. What kind of world is out there? A world on fire or a utopian regenerative economy? That form of solidarity draws on a high sense of empathy and togetherness.
We need « cathedral thinking » to build something bigger than us, for the sake of future generations.
How do we do that connection with people not born yet?
R. K. : I call it a « legacy mindset » : a connection between generations that won't live together. It relates to a specific form of empathy. It is not the affective one, where you mirror and share someone else's emotion. It is the cognitive or perspective one : when you imagine yourself in the shoes of other people, trying to occupy their skin and see the world through their perspective. Usually, we think about that form of empathy in a cross-space dimension, not in a cross-time one. It is indeed very difficult to express that empathy towards future generations : we cannot put on their shoes, look at them in the eyes nor talk to them. It is a real challenge but we have the long term thinking capacities to deal with it. No other animal can do that. A chimpanzee can make tools but it won’t make a dozen of them for next week.
What can we do at the collective level to engage in long term thinking?
R. K. : I believe in the idea of the ethnosphere : the cultural air that we breathe. It is made of all the myths, assumptions, stories, novels, art and poetry that shape the way we think. For example, the idea of collective justice was very prominent in the 20th century, before being replaced by individualism. Today, we need a new ethnosphere. We need to acknowledge our interdependencies with the living world. We must break free of the endless growth myth. There is no choice but to draw a circle around our economy and society. That circle is the biosphere. There is no other way, unless you are Elon Musk and you think you can colonize Mars!
If you give the space for imagination, people are willing to consider and pay for the future.
We also need to invent new economic models that break down the old world of individual private property . It is not about replacing private property by state ownership, that's a 20th century idea. It is about collective forms of property, taking care of our « commons ». We need that new ethnosphere, a new language of long term thinking that we can all speak, to become good ancestors. I also like to call it « cathedral thinking » because we need to build something bigger than us, for the sake of future generations. Just like medieval cathedral builders, we won't be able to observe the results of our actions. Yet, we have to make that gift to future generations.
How can we take long term decisions when we are uncertain about what our future will look like?
R. K. : For sure, we do not know what 2100 will be like. We also have different visions of the future : the one that someone who works for Goldman Sachs has is very different from the one of an activist in BlackLivesMatter in Detroit. There will be conflict. and it is OK. What matters is to put mechanisms in place to discuss and confront those different visions. Citizen assemblies are one of those mechanisms. In Japan, a movement called Future Design invites people to discuss and decide on local stakes. They draw on the native american idea of 7th generation decision making. The concept is simple : people split into two groups, half of them represent residents from today, and the rest residents from 2060. It comes out that the group representing future generations come with more transformative ideas for the city. In the town of Yahaba, people agreed on a 6% rise of water taxes to improve water infrastructures for the city in the long term. They accepted to pay for their children and grandchildren. If you give the space for imagination, people are willing to consider and pay for the future.
I believe in fear because historically, people in power have rarely acted unless they felt fear.
Some people share their vision of a future great collapse. What do you think of that perspective?
R. K. : In Great Britain, the concept of deep adaptation went viral, deriving from a paper written by Jem Bendell a couple of years ago. It is empirically true that every civilization rises, flourishes, and eventually dies. The average age for civilizations is about 336 years. Could it also happen to us? Yes. But is it inevitable? No! Nothing is inevitable until it happens. We might end up like the Roman empire but we might not. In fact, human beings are very good at dealing with crises. The state is paying salaries in the Covid 19 crisis even though we are still in a neoliberal world! After 9/11, people in the street were cooperating... I'm against this idea of a collapse because once we embrace it, we have no motivation to act. There must be some hope to take actions and avoid political apathy. Still, I believe in fear because, historically, people in power have rarely acted unless they felt fear. Why did the British politicians build the sewerage system in London in the ninetenth century? They feared a mass outbreak of disease, they could not breath. I believe in Greta Thunberg saying : « Your house is burning, I want you to panic. »
Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher who writes about the power of ideas to change society. He wrote several books, including Empathy, The Wonderbox and Carpe Diem Regained and his most recent one, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World.