When we make decisions, we’re pretty good at thinking about what they’ll mean for us in the immediate future. But when it comes to the longer-term impact of our decisions, whether taken individually or as a society, we struggle to think further than the next decade or so. Anything beyond that is, as we tend to see it, someone else’s problem.
Such an approach is not conducive to long-term resilience and sustainability. It had led us to irreversible climate change, unsustainable agricultural practices, stores of radioactive waste that will remain a threat for centuries, and economic systems that borrow from the future to pay for the desires of today.
This short-termist way of thinking about things is also hugely unfair to – indeed, potentially disastrous for – future generations, who will have to bear the consequences of our failure to think ahead. But these future generations are denied a voice, simply because they have yet to be born. While those alive today, who will die untroubled by the longer-term impact of their actions, continue to consume and to destroy.
In The Good Ancestor, public philosopher Roman Krznaric fires the starting gun in the race to combat our short-sighted descent into a crisis that will blight the future of generations to come.
At the heart of the problem, he suggests, is the conflict between our short-term ‘marshmallow’ brain, which thrives on instant gratification, and our ‘acorn’ brain, which considers the longer-term impact of our actions.
Sadly, in modern society it is all too frequently our marshmallow brain that ends up in the driving seat.
This has not always been the case. And, indeed, is not always the case. We are still capable, contends Krznaric, of thinking long term, even when the benefits of our current actions will take years – if not decades or centuries – to be realised or appreciated. The pyramids and the great cathedrals of Europe show that this has held in the past, while the UK’s National Health Service and a dazzling array of modern cultural projects show that it continues to hold today.
We need, however, to move away from isolated examples of long-term thinking and to embed it into how we make decisions as individuals, as businesses and as a society. And it is an exploration of the ways in which we can do this, the ways in which we can be better ancestors for future generations, that forms the main thrust of Krznaric’s book.
Krznaric sets out six ways in which we can learn to think in the longer term and to take better account of the deep-time implications of our actions. He talks, for example, about how we can promote intergenerational justice by thinking about the needs of the seventh generation that will come after us. And he explains the logic of the S-curve, which shows us that most things in the living world – including human civilisations – ultimately grow, peak and decline.
In the later chapters of the book, Krznaric explores examples of people, businesses and societies that have started to integrate these tools for long-term thinking into the way they make decisions about the future. This includes the growing use of citizens’ assemblies and the rise of ‘doughnut economics’ (about which I’ve written here), as well as the ways we can use powerful storytelling to help people to take more seriously the longer-term implications of their current way of life.
Sprinkled throughout the book are a myriad of other facts, ideas and suggestions that provide insight into Krznaric’s thinking and food for thought for the rest of us. One of my favourities is that notion that, to emphasis how much of the future lies ahead fo us, we stop writing the year as, for example, 2021 and instead write it as 02021.
I’m also, to be honest, tempted to run as a ‘seventh-generation’ candidate in the next elections to my local council, to ensure that the decisions it takes reflect the needs not just of current residents, but also of those who will live in my part of the world – and, indeed, in all parts of the world – in the decades and centuries to come.
Overall, this is an inspiring book that is well-written and a pleasure to read. It challenges our current short-term way of thinking about things, but also explains why we struggle to think longer-term and what we could begin to do about it at both an individual and a societal level.
It is, I’d admit, somewhat abstract in nature and lacking in specific, practical courses of action. But that’s perhaps Krznaric’s point. He’s explained in The Good Ancestor why we need to pay more attention to our ‘acorn’ brains. And he has provided us with some theoretical tools to help us along the way, as well as inspiration from fellow-travellers who are starting out on their journeys.
But, ultimately, the challenge of turning this theory into practice is the responsibility of all of us. And not just for our sake, but for the sakes of all those yet to come.
You can buy The Good Ancestor from your local independent bookshop. If you don’t have a local independent bookshop, you can order it from Alistair and Chloe at Books on the Hill in Clevedon, Somerset, which is my local independent bookshop.