A picture of a clock

We need to get better at long-term problems

As a society, we’re great at fixing problems and getting things done. But we have an atrociously short attention span. We can deal with the urgent stuff like nobody’s business. Yet we absolutely suck at things that require a sustained response over a longer period of time. We need to get better. And quickly.

In the absence of a long-term vision for the future of humanity, we lurch from one challenge to another. Trying to keep the show on the road for a little while longer.

War and conflict. Poverty and hunger. Inequality. Corruption. Homelessness. Dangerous dogs. Declining mental health. Sewage in rivers. Microplastics in everything. The dearth of anything good on TV. There’s no shortage of problems with which we can occupy ourselves.

And we’re truly great in a crisis. If there’s an urgent problem that needs to be solved, we can usually pull out all the stops and get it sorted. We may not get everything right, of course, but we’ll go at it with gusto and we won’t stop until we’re done.

We’re less good, however, when it comes to longer-term problems that can’t be fixed with a short, sharp effort. In fact, we’re awful. We struggle to commit. We obfuscate. We play down the problem. We question the need to do anything. We question the need to do anything yet. We get distracted by other things that we can fix more quickly, even if they’re far less important.

And yes, I am talking about climate change. But I could equally be talking about any number of intractable long-term challenges that we’re currently failing to address, from the asylum system to industrial agriculture to the growing pile of space junk that we’re depositing not-so-slowly in the Earth’s orbit.

This failure to get to grips with long-term problems has a range of less-than-helpful ramifications. It means that we end up waiting until the problem becomes urgent, for example, at which point it’s inevitably a lot harder to fix. Or sometimes even impossible to fix at all.

It also opens the door to raging populists of left and right, who claim that only they know the secret to fixing the problem. All you need to do is vote them into office and give them the key to the kingdom. (To be fair, we’ve not seen this with climate change yet. But I’m sure it’s coming. And it’ll certainly be interesting / terrifying to watch.)

So why do we struggle so much with longer-term challenges? Partly, I think, it’s because these sorts of problems are genuinely complex. There’s no easy answer. And sometimes there isn’t even a satisfactory answer at all. We just need to do the best we can and accept that things won’t be perfect. And we struggle with that.

On a more political level, longer-term challenges tend to span multiple jurisdictions. So it’s more challenging to get all of the relevant people, organisations or governments on board to do something about them. And even once they are on board, they may have very different views about an appropriate course of action.

For those living in democratic nations, the timescales associated with such problems go beyond the normal electoral cycle. And it’d be a very brave politician who proposed a course of action that yields only pain in the immediate term and doesn’t realise the desired benefits until well into the future.

I’m tempted to add, too, that another reason we struggle with longer-term challenges is that we behave like infants. We say we’re deeply worried about something, but then refuse steadfastly to take the action that is required to actually do something about it. We pander to those who say it’ll all be fine and vilify those who try to make a difference. (Yes, I’m still talking about climate change here.)

So what’s the answer? Do we need some kind of global king? A benevolent dictator who can take – and implement – decisions in our collective long-term interest? Someone who has an incentive to think twenty, fifty and a hundred years ahead?

I was reading the other day about Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s ‘fifty year charter’ for Dubai and the efforts being made across the United Arab Emirates to shape their long-term economic future. And it all struck me as eminently sensible and something that we’d really struggle to do in the UK, Europe or the US.

But I still balk at the idea of an unelected oligarchy that can, ultimately, do whatever it wants. Because you really have to trust the person or people in charge to have the right motives. And history tells us that this sort of thing doesn’t always end too well.

Perhaps we could have some form of world government, which has authority over our response to long-term, global-scale problems. But I can’t see our existing political leaders ceding this kind of power to someone else. (My own country flounced out of the European Union, after all, because our continental neighbours had the temerity to push for such horrendous things as cleaner water, less air pollution, better working conditions and nicer cheese.)

The United Nations does a decent-enough job, I suppose. But it doesn’t really have any muscle to back up its aspirations. And it doesn’t get trusted with any particularly meaty decisions. Everything comes back, utimately, to the governments of the member states. Then we’re pretty much back at the beginning.

At the level of individual nation states, we sometimes see governments of national unity in times of crisis. Grand coalitions of all of the major parties, taking decisions on the basis that we’re all in this together and that we’ll achieve more if we present a united front. Without having to continually take cover from the political sniping. But such things are rare. And they inevitably don’t last long.

Ultimately, our ability to address long-term existential challenges – and, indeed, our failure to do so – comes down to us. Sovereignty may reside with our political rules, but it belongs to us. If we live in a democracy, then our politicians work for us. And even if we don’t, our leaders will struggle to remain in power if they do not have our tacit support.

Our leaders fail to address long-term challenges – such as climate change – because we allow them to fail to address them.

Their failure is our failure.

We need to do better.

If you’d like to stay up to date with what I’m thinking, writing and doing, sign up to receive my free email newsletter. Once a fortnight direct to your inbox. Including links to new blog posts as well as exclusive content just for subscribers. Written personally by me. Sign up now.

Image: Sonja Langford on Unsplash






Join the conversation