The End of Long-term Thinking

Jamais Cascio posted an article with the headline above. I agree with most of his points, but think his article still leaves us in a linguistic muddle.

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My intent, from this point forward, is to stop talking about the "long-term." No more long-term problems, long-term solutions, long-term changes. No more long-term perspectives.

In its place, I'm going to start talking about "multigenerational" issues. Multigenerational problems, solutions, changes. Multigenerational perspectives. . . The advantage of the term "multigenerational" is threefold.

Firstly, it returns a sense of perspective that's often absent from purportedly "long-term" thinking. In a culture that has tended to operate on the "worry about tomorrow, tomorrow" model, looking at the next year can seem daring, and looking ahead five years can seem outrageous. But five years out isn't very long for long-term thinking; even ten years is better thought of as mid-range. Multi-generational, conversely, suggests that whatever we're thinking about may require us to think ahead 20+ years.

Secondly, it reinforces the notion that choices we make today don't just impact some distant future person (subject to discounting), but can and will directly affect our physical and cultural offspring. . . That is to say, "multigenerational" carries with it a greater implied responsibility than does "long-term." . . . Finally, it doesn't let us skip over the journey from today to the future.

I do not think that long-term is, by itself, a problem, one that will be cleared by by changing the words we use. The problem is a mindset that cannot grasp and react to the impact of slowly occurring changes. It is the action that is missing. We, as a society, are doing very little other than trying to restore the world to where it has been, but only for a very limited number of its population. But whether we look 5 or 500 years out, it is hubris to think we can predict the outcome of whatever actions we take today. Cascio and others are still coming from a hubristic system of beliefs that suggest that we can predict the future within some bound of uncertainty.

Cascio also says "I'm increasingly convinced that, when looking ahead, the focus should be less on the destination than on how we get there." But that is precisely the kind of thinking that has gotten us into the mess we are in. Throughout modernity, we have believed that the future will always be better than the past. Progress is immanent in the modernist belief in the power of knowledge to perfect our human world. But in grammar, "perfect" connotes over, done, complete, cessation. . . The process framework lacks this sense of perfect. Given a finite earth there is an end when we must say enough is enough.

Tom Friedman, writing in today's Times, seems to have gotten off his usual technology-based, Panglossian mantra that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." I hope his words resonate with our political leadership.

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

The alternative to growth and progress as a process is to have a vision of a "perfect" world and constantly monitor our convergence on that world, continuing to adjust as the trajectory appears to take further away rather than closer to our vision. That is what sustainability is all about. The vision is flourishing where all forms of life of follow their evolutionary destinies and every human being, in addition, enjoys those qualities that make us unique among all species--dignity, justice, and so on.

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