We spoke to Roman to find out more about the themes of his book, how we can build our organisations and societies to be more resilient in the times of rising uncertainty and how to take steps to become ‘good ancestors’ for future generations.
What issues do you see with society as it is now?
We know that we live in a world of chronic short termism, it’s evidenced when it comes to politics, business and economics. This is true for individuals too – we’re constantly looking at our phones and hitting the ‘buy now’ button.
The issue, particularly in wealthy countries, is that we have colonised the future. We see the future as a distant outpost where we can freely dump ecological degradation and risks, as if there was nobody there. The tragedy is that future generations are not here to see the pillaging of their inheritance – they can’t protest and are written out of political and economic systems.
How can we start thinking about these future generations?
It can be quite hard to grasp the scale. Look at it this way – there are 7.7 billion people alive today, over the last 50,000 years an estimated 100 billion people have been born and died, but project forward and these are far outweighed by the 6.75 trillion people to be born over the next 50,000 years – assuming current birth rates level off and stabilise.
There’s a real question of how future generations will judge us on what we did or didn’t do when we had the chance – are we being good ancestors?
What problems can long-term thinking help with?
A diverse range of issues. We need long-term thinking to help deal with the next pandemic that might be on the horizon, confront technological risks from artificial intelligence or bioweapons, tackle racial injustice, and of course we need it to help with the global ecological crisis.
The need for long-term thinking is incredibly urgent – we need it right here, right now.
How do we get better at being long-term thinkers?
In the book, I outline six main ways that we can switch to long-term thinking. These are:
- Deep-Time Humility – grasp we are an eyeblink in cosmic time
- Legacy Mindset – be remembered well by posterity
- Intergenerational Justice – consider the seventh generation ahead
- Cathedral Thinking – plan projects beyond a human lifetime
- Holistic Forecasting – envision multiple pathways for civilisation
- Transcendent Goal – strive for one-planet thriving
One of the activities that I ask people to try is that they close their eyes and imagine a child they really care about. I ask them to picture this child as they are now, and then 30 years in the future, and then at their 90th birthday party. What kind of world do they see out of the window? What do they say about you, their departed ancestor? It’s a good way to connect with generations to come – not in science fiction, but in intimate family facts. This is the beginning of a legacy mindset.
Are there any positive examples of how we’re already being good ancestors?
In terms of intergenerational justice, there’s many interesting examples. In the US, Our Children’s Trust has been directly inspired by ‘seventh generation’ thinking – a principle that stems from the indigenous communities of North America to consider the impact of future generations when making any decisions. It has launched a legal campaign against the government for infringing on young people’s rights to a stable climate system. There’s also been movements to grant legal rights to the living world, such as the Whanganui River in New Zealand.
There are some wonderful projects that aim to create a legacy. For example, Future Library from the Scottish artist Katie Paterson aims to plant a forest and print an anthology of secret books in 2114. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway aims to preserve the world’s plant biodiversity and the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to keep time for 10,000 years, is being built in the Texan desert.
Closer to home, I am inspired by the Well-being of Future Generations Act in Wales, that looks at the impact of public policy up to 30 years from today. A bill is currently before parliament to replicate this Welsh model for the whole UK, supported by the Big Issue co-founder John Bird.
What would your advice be for someone who’s starting their journey to develop a long-term thinking mindset?
The Long Now Foundation puts a zero in front of the year when it writes it – 02021. That small act switches you onto a timescale of tens of thousands of years. These little nudges can help.
You can also ask yourself each day – am I being a good ancestor? It could be when you are shopping, for example. Take a moment to pause and think about the wider impact of what you’re buying – how it’s been grown or made, and how it’s been transported. Is it the act of a good ancestor not to press that ‘buy now’ button?
Finally, go into the organisations that you’re a part of – community groups, religious groups, businesses – and ask them: do we have a 100-year sustainability plan?
About Roman Krznaric
Roman Krznaric is a philosopher who writes about the power of ideas to change society. After graduating from the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, he taught sociology and politics at Cambridge University and City University, London. Founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum, Roman has been named by The Observer as one of Britain’s leading popular philosophers and his books have been published in more than 20 languages. He is married to Kate Raworth, economist and the author of Doughnut Economics and when interviewed recently in a Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, he described how he’d recently become a Triodos customer, as part of his efforts to reduce his impact and do good for future generations.
The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World (Penguin) is out now in paperback from all good bookshops.