LongTerm-ism and Instant Gratification

A new book is trending among progressive altruists and tech donors: What We Owe the Future by Scottish moral philosopher William MacAskill. MacAskill preaches “long term-ism,” which in a nutshell proposes the moral position that decisions we make today should take into account the welfare not just of the current generation, but of generations to come. MacAskill actually attempts to calculate the future population of humanity under various scenarios. If the population grows exponentially as it has been, before too long there will be not billions, but trillions of human beings, all of whom will be affected by decisions we make today.
In some sense this moral proposition is a truism, and always has been. It has always been the case that the decisions we make today—whether for our family, our community, or our planet—impact future generations. What makes the moral case so compelling now is that humanity has reached a global tipping point. Our presence on the planet is so great, and so influential, that today’s decisions could affect the well-being, or even very survival, of future humanity. Climate change and nuclear conflict are but two of many examples.
In theory this is a marvelous idea. What better way to focus on philanthropy and investment than to think not just of current times, but future generations who, numerically, stand to benefit even more than those living now. MacAskill puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by living on a modest income and giving the rest away to worthy, long term projects.
However wonderful the theory, long term-ism, in my view, flies in the face of how human beings actually think and behave, which is very much in the short term. For most of our history the overriding priority for most human beings has been how to have or grow enough food for today, for a few weeks ahead, or at most a season. Until quite recently in our history, there was little in the way of long term events that human beings could actually control; it was the gods, they thought, who had that power, not them, and people devoted tremendous energy and ritual to satisfy the wants and needs of these power beings in the sky.
There are, however, examples in pre-industrial times of long term planning. MacAskill cites a Native American constitution, for example, that urges their societies to think of the “next seven generations.” I have read of medieval builders of temples and castles in England who, when they cut down great oaks to make the support beams, planted new oaks in their place, so that in 500 years, when the beams needed replacing, new great oaks would be ready. I can cite a personal example: my Steinway piano was built in 1905, and is considered a vintage instrument, with a sound not heard in Steinways built today. I’m told part of the reason is that the European craftsmen who built the old Steinways cultivated special maple forests in Canada over 50 or 100 years, to make the soundboards responsible for the ineffable “Steinway sound.”
If anything, I think there has been a clear trend line in the last 50 or so years toward less and less long term thinking, and more and more instant gratification. The entire edifice of consumer credit, consumer advertising, and now consumer shipping (think Amazon prime) is to be able to get what you want NOW, without having to wait even an extra day. Long gone are the days of our parents and grandparents who carefully saved for months and years in order to purchase a car or house. Even snail mail letters are virtually obsolete. Even email is too slow for the younger generation. Texting and social media posts are in, likes on Facebook are instantly conveyed to everyone you know, information and misinformation are communicated literally at light speed. We are being trained to experience reality like cotton candy: instant, sweet, and momentarily replaceable.
In the face of this kind of instant coffee world that we have built, how can the slow, majestic spreading of long term thinking for future generations possibly take hold? This is where I am skeptical of the long term approach—not because it isn’t wonderful and necessary, it is—but because contemporary life is so artificially speeded up that if you ask someone to think about their grandchildren’s generation and what is best for them, what you will get back is perhaps a blank stare, or an embarrassed shrug. How can I think about such things, they think, when I have to check my social media accounts to see if something new has come in?
Meanwhile, the clock of Mother Earth clicks no faster nor slower than it ever has. The great oaks in the deep forest wither, the rivers shrink, the great Amazon rainforest that supplies much of the oxygen that keeps us alive keeps being burned up to make grazing land at an unfathomable pace.
There is, and has been for the last 25 years, a foundation dedicated to long term thinking: the LongNow Foundation. Funded by some of the world’s richest men, this organization is dedicated to thinking long term—very long term, as symbolized by a clock they have built which is designed to keep time accurately for the next 10,000 years. I don’t know how influential this group is to the decisions being made on a daily basis by governments and corporations who actually have power over what will happen in the future—like the sky gods of eons past.
I hope that long term thinking will eventually take hold. But I worry that long term-ism might be just another head trip, something that satisfies the intellect of power people, without making much headway against the instant gratification world we have built and live in now. I remember the world tours that Al Gore made in the 80s and 90s to show everyone his hockey stick graph of global warming. It was an early effort at long term-ism, but it didn’t take hold. Each of us are all just a tiny point on that graph, overwhelmed by the demands of the next five minutes, and the cotton candy world of instant reward is ticking faster and faster—like a bomb?
I hope not.

2 thoughts on “LongTerm-ism and Instant Gratification

  1. “If the population grows exponentially as it has been, before too long there will be not billions, but trillions of human beings, all of whom will be affected by decisions we make today. ” I keep reading the population will eventually peak at maybe 10 billion (plus or minus a few B), which is bad enough, then it will start decreasing. I’m guessing climate change and other disasters will cull our numbers before that.

  2. My gloss take on MacAskill is that his mentality is based upon the usual taking-for-granted that afflicts most humans, i.e., that the resources required to build his particular Mittyesque society will always be there, and reasonably priced to boot.
    That’s looking more and more like fantasy, but that won’t stop the arrogated privilege we see being taken from those who endorse or want to be overlords.

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