Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode I speak to public philosopher and author, Roman Krznaric.
I think there is a global growing movement of what I think of as time rebels, who are challenging that idea of linear time, extending our horizons beyond our mortality. A hundred years, a thousand years ahead. Ten thousand years ahead. Their voices are becoming stronger and stronger.
Roman Krznaric, excerpt from interview
Roman shared his thoughts on how to cultivate long-term thinking, solutions for overcoming political presentism, and what it takes to be a good ancestor.
This episode was recorded virtually, using Skype.
Roman Krznaric, your new book is one of the most important texts that I’ve read this year. It offers solutions for decolonising the future and attempts to find ways to overcome short-term thinking. So, why is it that human beings have such a problematic relationship with this thing called the future?
Roman Krznaric: You’ve gone straight at the big question. My instinctive answer there is to think about the human brain. So I’ve got a friend called Morten Kringelbach who is a world famous neuroscientist, and talking to him, I started thinking about how part of our brains are directed towards instant rewards and short-term gratification. I call that the marshmallow brain. It’s an ancient part of our brains—80 million years old—we share it with rats. That’s part of what is driving us to the here and now. But in contrast to that, the marshmallow brain—as I do discuss it using that term of course—is named after the marshmallow test from the 1960s where kids had a marshmallow put in front of them. If they could resist eating it for 15 minutes, they were rewarded with a second marshmallow, and the majority snatched the marshmallow.
But it isn’t the whole story of who we are, because we have this acorn brain which is a part in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, right at the front of the head. That focuses us on long-term thinking. That’s where we do our planning, our strategising. It’s more developed in humans than in other animals. A chimpanzee makes a tool with a stick, stripping off the leaves to make a tool to stick in a termite hole, but they’ll never make a dozen of these tools and set them aside for next week. That’s what humans do. We’re good at long term thinking, but it’s only a new part of the brain—a couple of million years old. It’s that marshmallow brain, that short-term brain which is more dominant.
That’s part of the answer, but not the whole answer by any means to our short term focus, because this is also a question of culture. The first clocks were invented in the 14th century, chiming maybe once an hour, every quarter of an hour. By 1700 they had minute hands, by 1800 they had second hands. In other words, time has been speeding up for half a millennium. Of course, now we’re in the age of the nanosecond and the quick share trade algorithm. Let’s not think this is just about human nature, or just because we’ve got phones. There is a deep history of the tyranny of the clock, and many other factors which have driven us towards a chronic myopia written into our political, economic and cultural institutions.
Mason: I mean, this is really a book about time, about the temporal. It feels like it’s problematising the dominance of this thing called lineal time, because the emergence of lineal time in comparison to something like cyclical time is that it forced a concept of past, of present and of future. Talk to me about why we decided—certainly in the West—to prioritise this idea of lineal time, and how that led to notions of things like progress.
Krznaric: Of course if you go to indigenous cultures, you can very much find these ancient ideas of cyclical time. Calendars which are on the scale of moving with moons and suns and so on. For us, we’re much more interested in the fiscal year than the solar year. In electoral cycles rather than carbon cycles, working on the scales of tens of thousands of years. We’ve lost touch with the ecological choreography of the planet.
This goes back a long time. In Western culture, it goes back to Christianity, because Christianity switched us towards a linear notion of time by giving us a creation, by giving us a mid-point when Jesus comes along, and giving us a point where he may come back again, or an end of the world. That’s a very linear notion, there.
Then the next development is the rise of what has been called merchant time in the Medieval period. The need to measure time for capitalist development. The need to be able to time your workers on the assembly line in the Industrial Revolution. The need to time the ups and downs of the stock exchange like we do now with the currency fluctuations. I did an interview the other day on Sky News, actually. We were talking about long-term thinking, but flickering above my head when I watched the replay afterwards, was the share price. That’s part of this deep history of shifting us to linear notions of time. I would love that we were immersed in something like the Balinese clock, the [inaudible] clock which is all about a series of cycles within cycles. It runs on a lunar calendar, but we’ve lost touch with that. How we can get back it is very difficult, because we all have those clocks on our screens and on our phones.
Mason: It feels like if we were able to redefine our engagement with time, that we would get away from these very destructive tendencies. Linear time brings with it this artefact of progress, the idea that tomorrow is going to be better than today. The way we escape the trauma or hardship of today, is by potentially building a better tomorrow. In actual fact, what we’re beginning to find is that the future isn’t better than the present, and we’re in a very problematic moment where we might actually find that tomorrow might be worse than today.
Krznaric: You mention progress, and that question really immediately makes me think of someone like Steven Pinker and his book ‘Enlightenment Now’. The idea that the enlightenment story of material progress in particular, which has been going on for the last couple of hundred years, can just keep on going on and on. It’s certainly true that material progress has delivered the goods to many people. We’re not in the age of grinding poverty of the medieval period. I have 11 year old twins, and there’s a high chance that my partner would have died in childbirth in the era before scientific advancement in the 18th century and the rise of public health.
Pinker is like a child who believes that you can keep blowing up the balloon bigger and bigger, with no idea that it could ever pop. What we have been learning is that—and this is all about being in tune with the ecological choreography of the planet—is that the planet is crying out. We are exploding over planetary boundaries of a safe and stable earth system. Great work by people like Johan Rockström and Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Institute: the idea of planetary boundaries. We’re going over safe boundaries of climate change by diversity loss, ocean acidification, chemical pollution. These go hand in hand with progress; this is the collateral damage.
Now we know too much. The idea of holding onto that vision, the belief that we can keep going up and escalating the growth curve is dangerous and one that we need to wean ourselves off from. But of course, governments still tend to believe that it’s GDP growth which is going to save us, which is going to get us out of a period of economic recession and epidemic recession. We need to look to new models which are not about progress but are about thriving imbalance. Post growth economic models, in a sense post growth political models that can take the long view.
Mason: But it’s very hard for people to think about a new form of time which doesn’t involve that progress narrative, and that doesn’t involve the growth trap. How do you force individuals to think differently about the possibility of new forms of progress? One that doesn’t offer maybe something bigger, better, faster—but offers something of continuation, an idea of continuation or of cyclical progress, I guess.
Krznaric: Yeah that’s a very profound question, and it makes me think of a very profound thinker called Janine Benyus, one of the founders of the idea of biomimicry. In a sense, she’s got an answer to your question, and I’ve kind of stolen it from her. If you want to get people to think really long-term, and get beyond the methodologies of progress, you’ve got to not think about time—but you need to think about place. She asks the question, “How do species in nature perpetuate themselves over the generations? How do they keep themselves going? Not just one or two generations, but for ten thousand generations or more—whether it’s birds or beavers or bears?” She says that what nature has learned to do, what evolution has given us is a piece of knowledge which is this: The living world of species in nature takes care of the place, that will take care of their offspring. In other words, life has learned to create conditions conducive to life.
Creatures in nature tend not to foul the nest. They learn to live within their ecosystems. That’s how they survive for so long, and that’s exactly what human beings cannot do very effectively. We’re using 1.6 planet Earths per year, depending on how you measure it. We’re using more resources than we can naturally regenerate and are creating more waste than can naturally be absorbed by carbon sinks and other parts of the living world. So, the message there is a profound one. It says, “Care about place.”—in a way, honouring a beautiful mohawk blessing which is said when a child is born: “Thank you Earth, you know the way.” It’s about falling in love with a meadow or a river, it’s not about jetting off into space like Elon Musk. Like a good mountaineer before they climb that big mountain, at the tricky peak, they make sure their base camp is in order. I’m interested in how we get the base camp in order. That is the opposite of a story of progress. That’s about thriving in balance for generation to generation to come.
Mason: I mean it feels like today, in the present, what we spend a lot of our time doing is solving the problems caused by past generations. But also, causing new problems that we just assume would be solved by future generations. There’s a very human hubris approach when it comes to thinking about temporal time: You know what? We’ve inherited this mess, we’re going to do our best to clean it up—but if we create messes because of the ways in which we clean it up, I guess that’s what the next generation will just have to deal with. If we’ve had to deal with it, then they’re going to have to deal with it, too. It’s a very problematic way of thinking about time and temporal space.
Krznaric: Yeah, I mean that really brings up for me the issue of legacy. We are the inheritors of extraordinary legacies and gifts from the past: From those who planted the first seeds in Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago; who built the cities we still live in; who made the medical discoveries we benefit from. At the same time, we are the inheritors of negative legacies from our so-called bad ancestors. Those who bequeathed us colonial era and slavery era racism which is still written into our criminal justice systems, and culture and public institutions; who have given us the inheritance of fossil fuel economies and addictions to carbon. That raises the question: What are we going to pass onto those future generations? We all know about The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Well we have a chance now to shift to a temporal or an intergenerational version of The Golden Rule: Do unto future generations how we would want past generations to do unto us.
The problem—or one of the problems—is that our institutions were invented in the age of the Holocene, not the Anthropocene. They were invented in the age when the Earth could deal with, more or less, a lot of the shit that we threw at it. The industrial pollution population and so on. It can’t deal with it now—we have all of the evidence of that—and it can’t go on. Economists like to talk about the idea of discounting the future. I did a briefing with MPs about this the other day. The idea here is that governments, for example, are making decisions about long-term investment in infrastructure like tidal energy, renewable energy power schemes. The way discounting works—as you probably know—is that…it’s a bit like compound interest in reverse. Basically, the further and further away people are in the future, the less and less their welfare is taken into account when they’re calculating the costs and benefits. Any project which has benefits of more than 50 years ahead is basically not taken into account. It’s swept away. This is a form of gross intergenerational injustice, but what the economists say is, “It’s alright to do that because in the future, our future generations are going to have more wealth and more technology to deal with problems.”. As far as I can tell,I can’t see how any amount of money in your pocket can reverse the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. For these particularly ecological risks, the idea of discounting the future makes no moral sense or logical sense to me.
Mason: It doesn’t make logical sense. You say in the book how we’ve become future eaters. We first colonised geography, then we colonised ourselves with things like social media, and now we’re colonising the future. We’re basically just dumping our waste into this envisioned notion of the future in the hope that either the next generation will be financially more well off or technologically better advanced to deal with the problems that we can’t deal with now. That’s creating a very problematic engagement and relationship with future generations, isn’t it?
Krznaric: Yeah. The way you’ve just put those three different kinds of colonisation was absolutely brilliant. I think I’d like to steal that myself—it’s much better than I put it in the book. In the book, I really do focus on this idea of the way we’ve colonised the future and we treat it as a dumping ground for ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste—as if there was nobody there. It is, I think, very much like the way Britain colonised Australia in the 18th and 19th century. It drew on this legal doctrine now known as terra nullius: The idea that the continent was nobody’s land, and there were no indigenous people. Of course there were, and now we’re in an age of tempus nullius. We see the future as nobody’s time, and again, uninhabited territory—ours for the taking. A tragedy of this is of course that future generations, what I think of as the futureholders—not stakeholders, or shareholders—futureholders are not here to do anything about it. They can’t throw themselves in front of the King’s horse like a suffragette. They can’t block an Alabama bridge like a civil rights protestor. They can’t go on a Salt March to defy their colonial oppressors like Mahatma Ghandi. They’re given no rights at the ballot box or marketplace.
If you think of the scale of this—and this is really a question of how long-term you like to think—but we’ve got 7.7 billion people alive today. Go back 50 thousand years, an estimated 100 billion people had been born and died. If you go forward 50 thousand years—assuming this century’s birth rate levels often remain constant—an estimated nearly seven trillion people will be born. What are we doing for them? That’s the moral question. There’s a kind of good news story here, too. I’m not a particularly optimistic person, but what I have noticed in the three or four years that I’ve been looking at this issue and trying to track people who are starting to think long-term, which of course, everyone who’s on your podcast is that genre in a sense, as well. There’s people who are long-term thinkers, deep time thinkers. But, I think there is a global growing movement of what I think of as time rebels, who are challenging that idea of linear time, extending our horizons beyond our mortality. A hundred years, a thousand years ahead. Ten thousand years ahead. Their voices are becoming stronger and stronger.
You find it in unexpected places like local government decision making in Japan. There’s this amazing movement called future design where they bring citizens into towns and cities to make decisions about plans for their local municipalities. They split them into two groups. The first group are told they’re citizens from the present. The second group are given these almost ceremonial green kimonos to wear, to help their imaginative journey into the future. It turns out those citizens who imagine themselves in the years ahead come up with much more radical plans when it comes to environmental policy or education or healthcare. This movement is spreading across Japan in local government decision making. I think it should be spreading across the UK and Europe and other places. I’d like to see the UK’s House of Lords replaced by a House of the Future based on this kind of citizen assembly model. Let’s at least get rid of the 92 hereditary peers and bring in a citizens assembly, because citizens assemblies—randomly selected members of the public—very strong evidence that they are better at thinking long-term than your standard politicians. This kind of rebel movement is, I think, as significant as the movements that brought along the French Revolution. It’s shifting our sense of time.
As you were saying at the beginning when we started talking, that battle, in a way—I don’t really like warfare metaphors—but that battle against the imposition of linear time and the second and the nanosecond is one we have to win if we’re going to survive as a species for the long-term.
Mason: Could you tell me a little bit more about the time rebels? On one hand, you’ve got the very technolibertarian sorts of individuals who believe that we’re going to create technology to get us out of these issues and these struggles. On the other hand you’ve got time rebels such as Greta Thunberg, who doesn’t strike me as a technolibertarian. Maybe she’s offering an alternative solution with things like rewilding and a closer engagement with nature.
Krznaric: As I’ve been thinking about this question at the centre of my book of how to be a good ancestor, it’s clear that there are different constituencies out there. There are the people who are interested in transhumanism, going to Mars, technological solutions to things. I know a lot of those people—I’m involved in The Long Now Foundation in California, where I’m a research fellow, for example. But at the same time, there is this growing movement, coming out of the ecological movement, where the notion of thinking about time, and not just thinking about place, is really growing in importance. Greta Thunberg has talked about cathedral thinking. That idea of embarking on projects going beyond our own lifetimes, decades and centuries ahead. She said we need cathedral thinking to tackle the climate crisis. My kids are going on the streets to protest about the Paris climate agreements and things like that—they’re only 11, my kids—they are time rebels, too. They recognise that if we’re going to survive for the long-term, we need to overcome this incredible myopia built into our institutions.
It’s happening in the legal sphere, too. There are movements of young people fighting for legal rights for future generations. In the US, there’s an organisation called Our Children’s Trust, campaigning for the right for current and future generations to a clean and healthy atmosphere. They’re probably going to lose. They’re fighting the power of the Trump administration and also state governments, too—but, they’re again a rebel movement. They are inspiring people around the world. I think these time rebels come in many shapes and forms.
There’s a third realm where they come from, and that’s the realm of culture and art. That’s The Long Now Foundation’s 10000 Year Clock—a project which I’m sure you know about, of course, which is being built as we speak in the Texas desert. A secular altarpiece to a long-term thinking civilisation. It’s the cultural actions of artists like Katie Paterson and her Future Library, a 100-year art project started in 2014. Every year for 100 years, a famous writer is depositing a book which will remain completely unread until 2114, when the hundred books will be printed on paper planted from a thousand trees which are growing outside Oslo right now. The first writer to deposit a book was Margaret Attwood—she’s never going to see it published in her lifetime. She’s never going to meet any of her readers. This is a legacy gift to the future. It’s a kind of Western expression of indigenous ideas of seventh generation thinking, or the Māori concept of whakapapa which is the idea of us being a part of a great chain of life stretching long into the past and long into the future.
I think these time rebels come in many shapes and forms. I don’t think there’s really quite recognition of them as a unified movement. I’d love to bring them all into one room and say, “Hey! You are all time rebels struggling for intergenerational justice. That may not be written on your CVs or on your websites or Twitter handles, but actually you’re doing something very similar which is moving us from seconds and minutes and hours, to decades and centuries and milenia.”
Mason: That’s what I saw from the book. It feels like transhumanists and ecomodernists—or individuals interested in saving ecology—do sit under the same umbrella of time rebels. They want, essentially, the same things. They just see different methodologies and different solutions to getting there. So on one hand you’ve got this rewilding process whereby you just argue that if you hand back 50% of the Earth, the Earth will deal with it itself. Mother Nature will take over if we just give her 50% of nature back. On the other hand, you’ve got the transhumanist movement who are looking at things like techno-escape, techno-split and techno-fix. What are those different ways of looking at radical innovations—those three different ways—and why do they differ? Equally, why are those technolibertarian ideas so problematic?
Krznaric: I’ve struggled with this issue of technology. I’ve tried so hard in the way I think about this to take a neutral position; to see technology as a tool. The question is how are we going to use it? But, the conclusions I’ve come to are kind of a scepticism, I think, about certain kinds of technology—not all kinds of technology. That idea of techno-escape is that great dream that Carl Sagan, for example, had: That if we’re going to survive into the long-term as a species, we need some people in other worlds. We’ve got to spread to other planets. As we’ve talked about a little bit already, I think that idea—attractive and romantic though it sounds—is one that has this problem of collateral damage. That’s what people like Lord Martin Rees have written about so eloquently: That we need to solve the problems on Earth first before we go terraforming Mars. That’s my view, too. Once we’ve learned to live within the boundaries of this one planet that we know can sustain life, then we can do as much terraforming of Mars as we like.
Actually, right next to me, by chance, I’ve got a copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora, which you probably know is one of these space generation stories. Without giving too many spoilers, a couple of thousand people are sent off to people another world, and that’s going to take them a couple of hundred years to get there. When they get there—generation after generation living on the ship—they decide to come back. They basically believe that the one place to live out the future is on the planet that they have evolved into, to be a part of. I think that’s the issue of techno-escape. Let’s sort out this planet first, before we go.
I think the issue of techno-split is this transhumanist one. The idea that the future that we’re facing and our destiny as a species is to make a metabiological leap to a new form of human. You know much more about this sort of stuff than I do, but it comes in different shapes and forms. There are those people that are interested in longevity escape velocity and stopping their cells from ageing so that we can reach a point where medical advances for longevity will be so great that we’ll be outrunning death. We’ll be living at least a year longer, every year that we go forward. Then there are other people who are interested in super-intelligence and getting the chips in us so we have perfect memories and so on. Then there’s a third group who are really interested in things like whole-brain emulation—being able to upload ourselves online.
The way I think about this is that many of these developments are pretty much inevitable, in a sense that we are moving towards enhanced humans of some kind. Of course, we’re already there in the simplistic way of people with pacemakers who are connected to the internet, or that guy Neil Harbisson who’s got an antenna coming out of his head. He can tune into sounds and go online and have waves passing through his brain.
I guess maybe I have quite a traditional view here. I’m actually with Yuval Harari on this issue, that the great danger here is that the split into another kind of human is one that will probably be pursued first by those who are wealthy, the people in Silicon Valley. The danger of course is that we get a kind of split between the ‘us’ and ‘them’. The superior and the inferior. As Harari says it—and I know I’m not saying anything original at all—he says, “If you want to get a sense of how that might develop, think about how colonial oppressors treated colonial subjects in the 19th century, or think about how humans treat animals today.” Now, who knows if it’s going to develop that way. Actually, there’s a part of me which also believes that whatever we evolve into—at least in the next couple of hundred years—is going to be quite like us. They’re going to be ‘we’, not ‘them’. We’re going to be able to still recognise emotional life. We’re going to recognise cyborg peoples who fall in love, who care about purpose and who get anxious. There, the moral connection will stay close. It’s when we can no longer feel that kind of connection—where we can’t recognise the same kinds of empathy or moral spheres—that the dangerous split comes.
Then the third kind of technological development is the idea of techno-fix, and I think there’s a very strong trend of people believing that the destiny of humanity is one where we continue doing what we’re already doing, because we can fix it with technology. So, we can turn to geo-engineering to solve the problems of the climate. The problem is, this is risky stuff, right? You can’t embark on a geo-engineering experiment for the whole planet by having run several experiments on it before to work out how to do it well. We don’t have that option. You can do an experiment and you might stop the Asian monsoons and billions of people will perish as a result. This is where we invoke the precautionary principle of environmental law. I don’t think we have a right to impose those risks on future generations—those kinds of technological risks. In the end, I think we need to be very wary about those technological solutions to everything, and that’s why my inclination is to turn to an economic revolution rather than a technological revolution. An economic revolution where we wean ourselves off the addiction to GDP growth. Where we learn to live within the boundaries of this planet. Where we get interested in things like the circular economy, movement, decarbonising our economies—that kind of thing.
Mason: What the book is problematising is the fact that it’s very hard to find a unified vision for the future. In actual fact, there’s probably no such thing as the future, because the future is plural. It has to be futures. There are multiple routes and multiple paths we can potentially go down. Do you think, in a circular society, it’s even possible to have a unified, humanitarian view for where we could potentially go in the future? Everyone has a slightly different flavour of how they want this thing to all pan out, eventually.
Krznaric: You’re absolutely right. Of course there are multiple futures, and it’s important to recognise that the future that’s desired by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur is very different from the future which is being fought for by people involved in Black Lives Matter, which as as much a time rebel movement as the transhumanist movement, because people in Black Lives Matter are saying, “Let’s not pass on the intergenerational injustices of slavery which are still written into our world today. Let’s create a different future for our children and their children.”
In my book, one of the things I do is talk about the six different forms of long-term thinking; six different approaches. That’s partly a recognition that we all go about it in very different ways. Some people are interested in deep time. Some people are interested in questions of intergenerational justice. Others are driven by thinking about what their legacies will be. But ultimately, no matter how plural the future is, I think we need to have a single guiding transcendent goal for our species—what the Ancient Greeks called a telos. In existential psychotherapy, the great thinker Viktor Frankl talked about how as individuals, if we’re going to have meaning in life, we need to have a transcendent goal; a telos to aim for. That could be discovering a cure for cancer if you’re a scientist, or keeping your family business alive. It doesn’t matter what it is. We need something bigger than ourselves to aim at—that gives us direction and meaning. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
But we also need telos for the species. When I force myself to think about what that telos should be, I always come back to this idea of one planet thriving. That we must learn to live within the boundaries of this one planet. Hey yeah, there are these different forms of long-term thinking, but…I came across this amazing quote from a former head of Goldman Sachs, Gus Levy. He said, “We’re greedy. But long-term greedy, not short-term greedy.” Well, that’s not the kind of long-term thinking or cathedral thinking that I think is actually going to be good for those seven trillion humans who are going to occupy the future, who are in that land and territory of the future. This is a very narrow form of long-termism. We need to have a more transcendent sense of legacy. Not just being like a Russian Oligarch who wants to defy their mortality by having a wing of an art gallery or football stadium named after them, and not just someone like me who’s thinking: What am I going to pass onto my children? Whether it’s a home or wealth, or traditions or languages, or religion. We need to care about the universal strains of the future, and ultimately that comes back to what we were talking about at the beginning. That planetary whole; that sense of place.
I think the question of the secularism issue that you raised is really important and really fascinating. I think what’s interesting here is that, of course, most religions have some sense of the long-term written into them. Of course Christianity has a very bad record on this. At least into the Medieval period, the doctrine that man, or humans—or man, actually—has dominion over nature, he can use it for his own purposes—helped justify the pillage of the Industrial Revolution. Of course there’s now Christian ecological movements and so on challenging that. I went and interviewed someone from the Vatican who kept telling me about the Pope’s latest encyclical which talks about intergenerational solidarity. It’s a very important shift from thinking about moral obligations across space, to thinking about moral obligations through time. I’m a secular person and I think: Well how does that relate to me?
What’s really interesting here is an idea that I kind of stole—I think I stole a lot of great ideas from a lot of really great thinkers—from Paul Hawken and his book Blessed Unrest. He talks about how in the last 50 years, there’s been this incredible movement that’s arisen called the environmental movement. Hundreds of thousands of organisations around the world. What I picked up from that was: What’s common amongst these hundreds of thousands of organisations…They’re all very different in many ways. Some are religious, some are secular—whatever. But they all have something in common. They all worship the same deity, and that is Gaia. They all have some sense of the sacredness of the planet. It may not be written on their mission statements, but it’s there.
Last year, I think it was, I asked Richard Dawkins—probably the world’s best known atheist—I said to him, “Look, don’t you think that in this age of ecological crisis, there is a case for people developing a kind of spiritual connection with the living world, just to motivate them to care about it?” I really thought he was going to swot me away, because he can be a bit dismissive sometimes, Richard Dawkins. But actually, he was incredibly thoughtful. He said, “Look. I’d rather make the scientific arguments about dealing with climate change, but I can see instrumental reasons…”—I mean, paraphrasing him slightly—”…but I can see instrumental reasons for getting people to connect with the living world in a more sacred and spiritual way, just to get them to galvanise and to act.” I thought that was an incredible admission from a hyper-rationalist. I thought that was highly fascinating, and it certainly galvanised for me the idea that we need to be thinking about this one planet thriving as an ultimate goal, no matter how different our visions for the future are. They can all fit pretty much within that.
Mason: Lord Martin Rees shares that position. He says he’s an Accommodationist Christian. He doesn’t practice Christianity, but he sees the usefulness in having something like a religion to garner some sort of consensus as to where we might possibly be going. I had the absolute and utter pleasure of meeting James Lovelock, just before lockdown, actually. He said Gaia was co opted by the 60s and later in the 90s by the counterculture as this very spiritualist idea of Earth consciousness. When Jim Lovelock coined it, he really just meant it as metaphor—but it does have some form of very important weight to it. If we believe that the Earth has some form of personhood—the Mother Earth has a form of personhood—then that’s a very galvanising way in which we can all get behind the rights of a certain entity.
You cover that a little bit in the book when you talk about the rights for non-human entities. Taking seriously ideas like the laws of the rights of Mother Earth or the rights of future generations, because there may actually be ways in which we can give non-human things like rivers, forests and mountains a degree of personhood, so that we start treating them like fellow travellers along this temporal line.
Krznaric: It’s really interesting that you raise Jim Lovelock there, because as well as being one of the people behind the Gaia hypothesis, he also notoriously said—some years ago now—that the only way we can deal with the ecological crisis is by suspending democracy for a while. I think that’s a growing trend. Even Martin Rees himself once said, “Only enlightened despots could help us deal with problems like the climate crisis or deal with the risks of bioweapons.” I know Martin Rees is not a goose stepping Nazi or anything like that. He’s a believer in democratic process—in fact, he’s one of the cofounders of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations. But it raises a question which relates to the issue of rights. Certainly, the evidence I’ve looked at in this book systematically shows that benign dictatorships—dictatorships in general—do not deliver the goods when it comes to public policy, whether that’s environmental policy such as carbon reductions or deforestation. They don’t deliver the goods when it comes to social policy like long-term investment in health and education. They don’t deliver the goods when it comes to economic policy like dealing with wealth inequality. One of the solutions to this is not to say, “If dictatorships don’t do it well, we’ve got democracies. We’re fine.” Well, democracies could perform a hell of a lot better because of their myopia being caught in electoral cycles, 24⁄7 news and not being able to see beyond the next Tweet. That’s exactly why raising the issue of rights and giving legal personhood, for example, to rivers, that’s happened in New Zealand—or mountains and things, that’s happened in Bolivia—with the law of Mother Earth, is a really important legal shift. It goes in parallel with this growing movement for rights for future people.
This is speculative, but over the next 20—50 years, we’ll see this new era of rights for future people and for the living world becoming a dominant way of thinking about rights. Just think that it’s not so weird to give rights to a river, given that rights were given to corporations at the end of the 19th century. This is not strange stuff—it’s just the next step, and in a way it goes to the heart of what your podcast is all about; it’s about trying to rethink the future. This is one of those ways where politicians find it really hard to get their heads around the idea of giving a right to an unborn person who can’t claim that right—but that’s exactly what we need to do. You just write it into a law, you just do it.
Mason: But there is something useful there. It might be the fact that the only useful thing the corporation might actually give us in terms of its legacy is this concept of artificial personhood. The idea that corporations can be people. As Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people, my friends.”—and no one really knew if he was referring to the corporations as his friends, or the audience being his friends, but that’s a whole other issue. But if there’s already legal precedent there, then potentially that could be used as lacunas in the law to allow for us to start constructing protections. Protections for future generations of certain things we know that are good for humanity, whether it’s something like the Amazon basin for example. That might be at least some way in which we can heavy handedly ensure a protectionist relationship with our current environment.
Krznaric: Yeah, and I think what’s going to play out in different countries is going to be different stories because of their different legal structures. In the UK, for example, because there’s no written constitution, struggles aren’t going to be so much about establishing legal rights. Whereas in the Philippines, for example, in 1993, there was a very famous legal case where a lawyer by the name of Oposa took the government to court on behalf of forty-three children—including his own children—for the governments granting licences to cut down old growth forests. He won. He established the rights for future people to a clean and healthy atmosphere.
The other great movement going on is the movement for making ecocide a crime that can be tried in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Like genocide, there’s ecocide. You can take a big corporation to court for chopping down the Amazon rainforest—that kind of thing—or knowingly polluting the oceans. Again, this is partly about timescales. This isn’t going to happen in just a few weeks or a few years. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has been notoriously slow at getting convictions, but let’s think long about this. Although there’s this paradoxical urgency to the need for more long-term thinking—we need it right here, right now to deal with technological threats. We need it to deal with ecological threats. We need it to help us plan for the next pandemic on the horizon, or genetic engineered pandemics. We’ve also got to play the long game here. Human rights struggles have always taken at least half a century to achieve their aims. The suffragettes rallied their first organisation for votes for women in Britain in 1867—it took them more than 50 years to achieve that aim, and of course women’s rights are still a contested area; a big area of social struggle.
Mason: In the UK, the current political environment is one of political presentism, one of political myopia. What you suggest in the book is this idea of deep democracy. I wonder if we take that one step further, and we actually extract anything related to the long-term, and put that in its own form of institution that exists externally from the four year cycle of government. I kept thinking of Fouchi in the US and how he’s served multiple presidents. We have the civil service in the UK that serves multiple governments. Perhaps things like ecology—anything related to long-term thinking—needs to be extracted from democractic government and placed somewhere where it can be run authoritarian-ly. We shouldn’t perhaps cherry pick the best things about China, and do things like eco-authoritarianism as you mention in the book.
Krznaric: I don’t agree with you, but I think it’s a great issue to discuss.
Mason: Oh no, why don’t you agree?
Krznaric: There has been a move in many countries in the last couple of decades to try and take apparently long-term issues that politicians often get their hands on and separate it out. The classic case in the UK is that interest rates are set by the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee—so they’re outside the realm of short-termism, political presentism, the cut-and-thrust of everyday politics. But look at who sits on the UK Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. I think there’s nine people, and more than half of them are former investment bankers. They have a very non-plural view of the future. They have very narrow interests. I agree, actually, with taking parts of public policy away from our elected representatives. I do agree with that part of your statement—so some of these ecological issues, for example. But who’s hands should they go into? I deeply believe that they should be put back into the hands of everyday citizens.
I think we need to go back, in a way, to the Ancient Greek idea of participatory democracy. We know democracy is dying, that’s why there’s the rise of far-right populism across the world. Traditional parties are failing to deal with the great challenges of our time—not just ecological but migration and economic stagnation and so on. Because the systematic evidence I show in my book…I’ve got this new index in it called the Intergenerational Solidarity Index. It actually demonstrates empirically that authoritarian governments don’t perform well on these things. You’ve got outliers like China or like Singapore, of course, who are good at long-term thinking, but that’s not the case when it comes to Russia, Cambodia and Saudi Arabia. So, I think things need to be put back in the hands of citizens. I think that’s good for democracy in terms of engaging people in participation, but it’s also good for long-termism because of the growing band of evidence showing that citizen assemblies—randomly selected by what’s known as ‘sortition’ so have got a big variety of people from different parts of society—tend to be able to do the slow thinking required to think about long-term risks. They’re not in the pockets of corporations. They don’t have that next election to worry about.
There’s really good examples of this in Ireland, for example, where they had a citizen assembly which made its historic contribution to having a referendum on abortion. It led to a big constitutional change, and it also discussed climate issues. Citizens assemblies are now also established in decision making in Belgium and Spain. I actually believe, if I was going to go out on a limb, that we need to revive the idea of The Renaissance City. We need to put a lot of power back in the hands of cities, because cities are really good at dealing with long-term problems. Of course, cities have longevity behind them. Istanbul’s existed for more than 2000 years while nations and empires have risen and fallen around it. Cities are really good at dealing with long-term problems like sanitation and housing, and today we’ve seen them dealing with the climate crisis. When Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, 279 US mayors basically said, “Well, we’re not going to follow that. We’re going to stick to ourselves and try and stay below 1.5 degrees.” Equally, you’ve got cities like Amsterdam which has recently adopted the economist Kate Raworth’s model of donut economics, which is a post-growth model of an economic system staying within planetary boundaries. They’ve adopted it as their long-term, post-COVID recovery model and part of their program to become a circular economy, 100%, by 2050 and to get rid of fossil fuel cars by 2030.
In a sense, I think we need to go—not quite back to Renaissance cities in the sense of warring city states like Florence and Pisa where they were trying to kill each other all the time—a bit more like the Hanseatic League in the 16th and 17th century where there were over 200 Northern European cities in an interdependent association. In that case, it was for trade between different cities—very successful. We need it now to be sharing knowledge about dealing with climate risks and tech risks. This is actually happening. Devolution is becoming destiny. Cities are becoming more important, while nation states are slowly dying out.
Mason: At the core of the book is this idea of long-termism, and really that’s what the book does such a good job at doing. It opens up the possibility and the methodologies for how we, as individuals and communities, can think long. You proffer six ways in which we potentially could engage with long-term thinking. The first of those is to rethink time, rethink our temporal perception. That’s come with the discovery of something called deep time, the cosmos has actually provided us with the way in which we can think differently about time.
Krznaric: I think it’s extraordinary that deep time is such a new idea. It’s only been around—at least in the Western culture—for a couple of hundred years, since the first great geologist started questioning the biblical idea that the Earth was 6000 years old but was in fact millions of years old. At the same time, what that helped us recognise was that humankind is just an eyeblink in the cosmic story. As people like Martin Rees says, we’ve got to recognise that deep time goes forward as well as backwards. Whatever creatures are going to be around when our sun goes down in five billion years—if there will be any creatures—will be as different from us from the first single cell bacteria.
What I get out of deep time is a recognition or a question, which is this: Who are we as human beings to have wrought such destruction in just a couple of hundred years; in just this tiny eyeblink? What right do we have to disrupt the great chain of being, the great chain of life which has been going on for at least 3.8 billion years on Earth as far as we know, and will probably go on long into the future in some form or another? That’s an incredible kind of arrogance. I think deep time helps us raise that question. It enables us to start thinking about those kinds of cyclical time—those long cycles, the carbon cycles, the solar cycles—to get us back in touch with the seasons and the lunar cycles. This would help wean us off this epidemic of short-termism which is going on.
Mason: I try to argue with Martin Rees as to whether the discovery of The Big Crunch would actually help our understanding of cyclical time. The Big Bang brings with it the idea that there was a beginning and then there was the bang, and now we’re extending out into the future. To learn that there’s such a thing as loop quantum cosmology whereby it will expand and then it will contract and then it will re-expand, and then we’ll have this process of Big Bang, Big Crunch, Big Bang, Big Crunch—that’s a cyclical process. Discovering that from a cosmological perspective might actually help us conceptualise the idea that we’re only around for a short period of time. But he wasn’t having any of it, so that was largely unsuccessful.
You go into these six ways, and what you’re trying to do is help us develop a legacy mindset. A way to have that cyclical understanding of time. You borrow quite heavily from indigenous thinking, and how indigenous cultures have thought about time. What do you think we can learn from indigenous cultures and the way in which they’ve conceptualised time that we can apply to Western notions of time?
Krznaric: At first glance, it seems that a lot of indigenous notions of time are just too distant from our own to really make sense. Take, for example, that Iroquois idea or Lakota nation idea of seventh generation decision making and making decisions based on the impact seven generations from now—let’s say that’s 150 or 200 years. Now that’s deeply embedded in a lot of North American, indigenous culture. It’s happened, it’s well documented, it has been for a couple of hundred years. Can we bring that into our own cultures? When I was speaking to MPs earlier this week, I didn’t say to them, “Look, you must start thinking a thousand generations ahead, or even seven generations ahead.” I was saying, “Well at least think 30, 50 years ahead.” But I did point out to them was that some of the things we’ve talked about—like that future design movement in Japan where they’re getting people to put on kimonos and imagine themselves in 2060, or movements like Our Children’s Trust, that legal movement fighting for rights of future generations—they are directly inspired by the seventh generation principle, by that indigenous thinking.
I don’t think it’s so crazy. I think it’s really just a sense of packaging. It doesn’t work to talk to some kinds of people with that language of indigenous cosmology, or even talking about the idea of Gaia or anything like that. We have to choose the way that we talk about issues. I think what does connect with human beings is that idea of legacy—it’s very deep. There’s very established psychology evidence over the last half century showing that when most human beings reach mid-life—somewhere between 35 and 50—start thinking about how to keep the fire of their life burning beyond death.They worry about what their legacies are going to be. I’ve spoken to super rich investment fund managers and stuff about long-term thinking. We don’t connect with regards to our perspectives on capitalism, for example—but we connect on legacy, because they’re as interested as me on the legacy they’re going to leave. I remember speaking to one of them, who will remain nameless—a very major famous investor—and he was really inspired by 19th century philanthropists who funded things like the railroads. He was really interested in the sewers which were built in Victorian London that are still used today. They were made and planned with a 100-year—at least—time horizon. You could see that he wanted to leave something bigger. I think there’s a legacy mindset we can tap into.
Mason: We don’t celebrate the names of the people who built the sewers, but we do celebrate the names of the people who built things like cathedrals. All of what you’re talking about is encapsulated in this idea of cathedral thinking: The ability to create something in the present that we may not see with our eyes, that will take multiple generations before it comes to fruition. The unfortunate thing is, we’re very bad at cathedral thinking. As you show in the book, we’re actually a lot better at sewer thinking.
Krznaric: Right. Cathedral thinking is one of my six ways to think long-term, and on the one hand although we’re embedded in the short-term, if you look through the last 5000 years of history there are amazing examples of long-term planning and strategising and thinking. That goes back to the building of the Pyramids, the first canals in the 17th century. It goes to scientific projects today, whether it’s nuclear fusion projects and particle accelerators and so on. These are often projects which don’t get completed within people’s careers. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the remote Arctic, which is holding over a million seeds from 6000 species in a rock bunker designed to last for a thousand years. That’s a kind of cathedral thinking.
I do also talk about this sewer thinking which is drawing on that example from Victorian London when the great engineer Joseph Bazalgette masterminded building the sewers which people are still walking across today, after the famous Great Stink of 1858 when the cholera epidemic was so bad, tens of thousands of people were dying every year because raw sewage was being dumped in The Thames. Finally, parliament passed emergency legislation to allow the sewers to be built.
We need that kind of sewer thinking and cathedral thinking, but the problem is that it isn’t always good for us. Hitler wanted to found a Thousand Year Reich. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily inherently good about long-termism. We need to ask the moral questions about: How does it relate to intergenerational justice? How does it relate to that grander telus or transcendent goal of thriving within the one planet we know sustains life? We can’t just pursue it in and of itself, otherwise you could just go to North Korea, and say, “What a great model. This is a long-term, political thinking system where they’re trying to pass on power and privilege from one generation of the same family to another.” This is a very conservative form of long-term thinking which is connected with the 18th century political thinker Edmund Burke. A lot of people like quoting Burke on long-termism. He talked about, “We must respect the wisdom of the past.” but he was—in my view—ultra conservative. He opposed the French Revolution because he wanted to preserve the power of the aristocrats and the monarchy.
This raises a really interesting issue on the issue of maintenance. A lot of people interested in long-term thinking talk about the importance of maintaining things. There’s a kind of beauty and virtue in maintenance, of itself. I love these amazing Japanese businesses that have been around for more than 500 years or 1,000 years, like robe makers and shrine makers. They’re incredibly impressive and inspiring. But on the other hand, you’ve got this maintenance of power and privilege. What is it that we want to maintain? We’ve got to make a choice. I make a choice in my life—and I think we all can—I’m part of this Long Now Foundation and we’ve got this Long Now London group. Last summer, we embarked on a kind of cathedral thinking project where we went to the White Horse of Uffington in the British countryside, which is a monumental piece of Bronze Age art, 3000 years old, carved into the chalk mountainside. Every year, it needs weeding and new chalk being smashed into it with little hammers so that you can still see this horse on the hillside which is over 100 feet long. People have been doing this for 1000 years. There have been rituals of rechalking the horse. To be part of that kind of long-termism is incredibly beautiful. It’s like being immersed in a piece of art.
So I’m into that kind of maintenance, not necessarily the kind of maintenance of political regimes or the maintenance of the fossil fuel industry.
Mason: When it comes to creating futures, it requires an unprecedented level of imagination. To do something like holistic forecasting requires the ability to tell new narratives about possible and multiple Futures—some utopian and some dystopian. It feels like the people who are best placed to write those stories or help provoke those ideas are actually artists and storytellers; science fiction authors. In what way is storytelling so important to conceptualising possible futures?
Krznaric: I think that’s a really vital question. I’m a believer in the power of paradigm change. If you want to change as a society, you don’t tinker around with the tax rates. You change the narratives. You challenge the narrative of progress and perpetual growth and replace it with something like thriving imbalance, and direct your economies towards that. You change your narrative of human nature—that we are not just short-term marshmallow brain thinkers, or snatchers—but we are long-term acorn brain thinkers. That’s a really fundamental story. When you start telling these new stories, then you can build new institutions on top of them. That’s where the arts, in its various forms, have been very successful in many ways.
On my bookshelf next to me, as I’m speaking…I’ve got, if I look up, books by Olaf Stapleton, Last and First Men, looking at a timescape of billions of years. Then you’ve got much more, I guess, immediate writers—like Kim Stanley Robinson and his book New York 2140. It’s not set that far into the future and when you read it, it’s not that different from today’s world. It’s full of capitalists and anarchists and socialists all trying to live together in a flooded New York under 50 feet of water. It’s very, very realistic for that, and I think that’s partly why Kim Stanley Robinson is the number one great good ancestor sci-fi author of our time. There’s nothing simple about his books, I don’t think. They’re very full of human dilemmas, and political and economic dilemmas, as well.
I think we need to draw on that kind of visionary fiction. I don’t think we need too many Hollywood blockbusters which are just all about voyeuristic catastrophes about the future. We need the thoughtful stuff, The Handmaid’s Tale, that kind of thing. At the same time, I think the artistic world has a challenge here. I argue with artists about this a lot, or we have a lot of discussions. There’s a whole load of deep time art around. People taking photographs with exposures that will be there for 3000 years, that kind of thing. I love that stuff on one level, but I also know that people have been producing deep time art for 200 years, ever since those geologists told us that the Earth was very old. You can go back and look at watercolourists from the 1830s who were drawing pictures of Lyme Bay in the coast of Britain which were using the skeletons that had been found of Ichthyosaurs and that kind of stuff. That was deep time art.
But, let’s look at the real picture. No amount of deep time art in the last two centuries has been able to win over the short-termism of the iPhone and the factory clock. The iPhone has won over the geologist’s hammer, as it were, or the stargazer’s telescope. So art has a challenge, and I believe in the power of art. I’ve written about the rise of the movement against slavery and the slave trade in the 18th century—that was powered, partly, by art. In 1787, there was a famous poster printed called The Brookes Slave Ship which was a piece of graphic design that showed how slaves could be fit in a slave ship. It went viral, that poster. It helped galvanise the movement against slavery and the slave trade.
Equally, in the early 20th century, Lewis Hine—a social and documentary photographer in the US—snuck into factories and took photographs of child workers. Nobody believed there were children working in textile mills and glass factories. It caused an incredible expose and led to new legislation against child labour. I raise the challenge to the artists, as it were, to create the kind of work that can shift our politics and our economics. Of course, there are artists who are already doing that. I don’t want to be too instrumental about the arts. I believe, for an example, an artist like Katie Paterson—whose raw material is time itself—is very profound. Her projects like Future Library, or she did an amazing early art project where she put a microphone underwater and recorded the sound of a melting glacier. You could phone a phone number in an art gallery and listen to it melt in real time. That kind of art is fundamental. It’s part of the paradigm shift. It’s just like, “I’m just feeling urgent, I want more of it now. I want bigger, better, faster.”
Mason: Hearing you speak just reminds me of that scene from Children of Men where they go to Battersea Power Station and Clive Owen’s brother has collected all of the great arts from across the world and he says, “Well what’s the point in saving this if there’s going to be no future generations to actually see it?” Ironically, Battersea Power Station is now about to become Apple’s UK headquarters, so there is something painfully ironic about that.
The narratives we tell ourselves about the future are so important for one particular reason, which is: ideas can manifest. Where we see that most problematically is in things like self fulfilling prophecy, which you touch on briefly in the book. It feels like at the moment, humanity has some sort of self esteem crisis. If we frame the collapse as inevitable, then it feels like it’s going to become inevitable. If we focus and fixate on the fact that eventually, the climate crisis is going to come, it will inevitably be here which seems like the narrative of Extinction Rebellion. What we end up doing is preparing for after the collapse, or preparing for the collapse. What ends up happening is we speculatively invest in flood prevention technology instead of investing in the technology that will prevent the floods in the first place. We’re investing in the walls to put around Miami rather than solving the issue that will stop Miami flooding in the first place. How do we, one: Get over this self esteem crisis that we seem to have right now, that we’re so terrible and we’re destroying everything, and two: Have a better relationship with self fulfilling prophecy whereby we can put positive narratives out into the world that may or may not realise themselves?
Krznaric: That’s a great question actually, because I think movements like Extinction Rebellion and the ecological movement more broadly are somewhat split between those who are hopeful and believe we can transform society and green new deals and so on, and those who have taken on a view which is sometimes called Deep Adaptation—which is the idea that we are facing near-term inevitable collapse due to the climate crisis. This is associated with a guy called Jem Bendall and others. I just don’t buy it. I just do not have a linear view of history. Nothing in history is inevitable until it happens. Even though I recognise that we underplay the climate risks, I know that in the governmental panel on climate change, projections are based on trying to reach consensus between lots of countries and that the reality for the last 20 years is that we’ve been hitting the upper projections systematically in terms of sea level rise and Co2 emissions and so on. I know it’s worse than we think, but that doesn’t mean that this global civilisation we’re in is going to collapse. Who could have predicted the rise of Christianity from an obscure sect? Who could have predicted the spread of Buddhism across Asia and into parts of the Western world? Who could have predicted the recovery of Europe after nearly half its population had been killed in the Black Death in the Medieval period? Who could have predicted the social impacts of the spinning jenny, or the civil rights movement, or anything? Nothing can be predicted, because human beings are various, history is contingent, and we’re actually also pretty good in a crisis. We don’t really know how the 10,000 years worth of human organisations that have been developed will respond to the crises that we’re in. We’re seeing it develop. We know that after 9⁄11 or Hurricane Katrina, people go onto the streets and they organise and they deal with their crises. We know that during the coronavirus, tens of thousands of mutual aid community groups and WhatsApp groups have sprung up to help deliver food to people, so I have a kind of…not an optimism about humanity, but a hope. I think optimism is a bad term. I think it’s associated with a glass-half-full-despite-the-evidence kind of attitude which can breed apathy. I’m a believer in hope, which is about pursuing the things that you value even though you know it might be a struggle and you may well fail.
Ultimately, I think if we’re going to overcome our self-esteem problem, as you really brilliantly put it—and I really love that idea—first we need to believe in hope. We need to believe in our capacity to solve problems, which we have done. We have dealt, to a large extent, not only with slavery and with coloniasm, and those battles are kind of going on. I think that we have the potential to transform.
Let me just give you an example of this—it’s very hard to see. Look at the regenerative economy movement which has grown around the world in the last 20 years. These are alternatives to the big growth wastefulness of the fossil fuel economy. You’ve got things like donut economics that I mentioned in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Costa Rica—very important movement. You’ve got the circular economy economy movement. You’ve got rewilding that you mentioned. You’ve got a whole load of people…there’s a wonderful company called Houdini in Sweden, where they make this ski gear and hiking gear from totally reusable products. When you’ve outgrown your hiking jacket, you can throw it into a compost bin. It turns into soil, and then you can have a meal made out of your old jacket. It’s this totally circular economy, and we need to be moving towards that.
If you look around the economy now, you think: Well, we’re still dominated by these giant corporations. This regenerative economy is never going to win. Let me tell you something about something I realised. I think this is really, really important. I was reading this kind of dense academic text called Energy in the English Industrial Revolution by Tony Wrigley who is one of the great industrial historians in the UK. He pointed out something which blew my mind, which was that in the 18th century, Adam Smith didn’t even realise there was an Industrial Revolution going on. In fact, most big thinkers at the time couldn’t even see what we see now as so obvious. There was this transformation going on from frugalism to a totally new economic system. They couldn’t quite see it. That’s where, I hope, we are now. There are these transformations going on. We can’t quite see it in a unified way. We’ve got these cities like Paris suddenly putting cycleways everywhere and having citizens assemblies. We’ve got other cities committing to staying below 1.5 degrees. We’ve got amazing things happening in lots different places and you can pick out these individual examples; as well as the Fridays for Future movement; as well as all the examples I’ve given of long-term thinking in politics. Put them together—this is a global rebel movement. That may be how it will be seen in history.
Mason: That’s such a hopeful position to take, but it does feel, right now, like we’re caught in fatalist futurism. Futurism suddenly became a data driven science where the name of the game is basically to use the past and data about the past as raw material to try and predict the future. It’s all based on Adam Smith economics which is all about the limitations of growth: land, labour and capital. When you start doing futurism about land, labour and capital, you start generating narratives that fixate on how we can grow those things that have limitations to them.
Land—well there’s no geographical land, so how do we grow land? Err, well we either go into virtual environments or we blast off into space where there’s a multitude of infinite new possibilities when it comes to land.
Labour—how do we deal with the fact that we’ve got a limitation of the human workforce? Well, we create robots and AI and we can just replicate these things; ad infinitum.
Capital—well instead of engaging with those circular models that you’re talking about, we’re looking at new growth economics and that becomes the digitisation of currency—bitcoin and cryptocurrency. If we just digitise capital, then it can grow infinitely. We’re caught in this very…it sounds very exciting and it sounds very shiny, but in actual fact it’s very limiting and it’s based on aesthetics and models that are all based in the past. So how do we get away from that, that fatalist futurism?
Krznaric: I love that phrase: fatalist futurism.
Mason: I just made it up now. [laughter]
Krznaric: [laughter] I’ll let you write a book with that title because I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I think in a way, the fatalist futurism attitude or ideology is one that is opposed to the idea of systems thinking and systems analysis. Systems thinking is something that’s actually new to me. I mean, I studied economics 30 years ago. We were never thinking about whole systems and how they operated. We weren’t thinking of the economic system as something bounded by the environment. You would open an economics textbook and see a picture of a demand and supply diagram or of a circular flow of income, but no one drew a circle around it that said, ‘the planet’ - yet that circle is absolutely there. That’s why these really exciting things like cryptocurrencies and so on—no matter how attractive they are—if you’re a serious long-term thinker, you need to keep asking: Is their development consistent with thriving on one planet for the long-term? That means going back to: What is it that creates a stable Earth system? This is now a really well established science. This is about the amount of carbon you’re putting into the atmosphere; the amount of nitrogen that’s there; what’s happening to your soils and keeping them alive and healthy for the long-term. No matter how much our capacity develops to upload our brains online and send ourselves out into the cosmos…I know people like Anders Thunborg and so on love this stuff. I love it too. I love reading about it and find it really exciting.
But, I keep coming back to this question: How does it align with the ultimate telos of one planet thriving? Forecasting, as you know, emerged out of people like Herman Kahn and scenario planning around nuclear testing and nuclear warfare in the 1960s. Then in the 1970s, it got captured by companies like Shell and the famous planner Pierre Wack who was a brilliant thinker, but it was all about scenario planning and future projections and so on in order to help Shell become a much more successful oil company. Now I think one of the really important developments in the last 20 years is that the forecasting industry has become much broader. That’s partly due to the rise of climate science, because since the Kyoto Agreement in Rio, you’ve had climate scientists and researchers coming along and saying, “Okay, we need to do scenario planning for the planet as a whole.” In the IPCC UN reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some of them are looking 100 years or 500 years ahead at sea level rises. That’s an amazing expansion of what forecasting is all about.
The point I really want to make here when thinking about fatalist futurism: Who we are trying to make the future for, and also to be as broad in our thinking about it as possible. Not allowing futurism to be dominated by the market. I was at a really interesting meeting the other day with a great Futures thinker, Paul Saffo. Paul Saffo was talking about how—and I don’t want to take words out of his mouth, I might be misquoting him slightly—he was saying that in a way, the forecasting industry has failed. COVID-19 showed its failure, because none of these governments were taking any notice of the fact that they’d been doing these scenario planning around epidemics for three decades. The conclusion I drew from that was that actually, I think part of the reason might be because the forecasting industry hasn’t been involved enough in politics. It’s been too much thinking about: How do we predict what’s going to happen in the market? How do we predict how successful the next brand is going to be and what we can do around that and what consumers are going to want? Fine if you want to do that, but remember that bigger picture. Let’s forecast for: What’s going to happen to this civilisation as a whole? Let’s forecast civilisation ups and downs. There’s this great Cambridge University researcher called Luke Kemp who studied 90 ancient civilisations and concluded that their average lifespan is 336 years. There’s a great diagram about it in my book designed by this guy called Nigel Horton—brilliant graphic designer—but what it tells us is that all civilisations are born, they flower and then they die. So will ours as well, unless we make fundamental transformations. I don’t think those transformations are going to be all about bitcoin. I think they’re going to be about deep economic changes. In that sense, I’ve got a bit of my grandfather’s Marxism in me: You need to change your economic system, get on with it, planet Earth.
Mason: This is what I love so much about your book—it actually deals with the future. I know that sounds silly, but as you were just saying, futurism seems to be about the survival of capitalism or companies, rather than the survival of humanity. In actual fact, it feels like futurism is really about fixing the future. Fixing not in the sense of repairing, but in the sense of taking everything we have now, looking around going, “Hey, this looks like a really nice scenario we’re in. Right now, things aren’t as bad as they were in the 1920s. I’m able to do a certain amount of things in my life that others in past generations weren’t able to do. What I’m going to do is I’m going to fix this moment in time, and extend it as far as possible into the future.” The best example of that is probably in cryonics, which is literally about freezing you in this moment in time, and extending you into the future in the hope that you will remain the same; that there will be some form of continuity. It’s not actually about prophesying. I know prophesying is a problematic word because it brings connotations of religion and spiritualism, but it seems like we do prophecy as entertainment rather than propagation. What you’re offering in this book is prophecy as a way to actually propagate. To prophesy about certain things that may be possible so that we have the wherewithal to bring about those forms of utopia.
Krznaric: I think that’s actually really well put and I love the idea of the freezing of the human brain as a kind of metaphor for everything that we are trying to do. It shows a kind of deep, kind of stasis about a lot of future’s thinking—not all of it, of course. In a way, it reminds me of Edmund Burke, who we were talking about earlier. There’s a kind of deep conservatism in it that’s about maintaining, ultimately, business as usual. You see it very much in responses to climate change. You’ve got governments saying, “Oh, we need to regulate carbon emissions a bit, and we need to have some limits on the kinds of cars we’ve got and let’s shift to electric, if we can.” None of that stuff is really fundamental. That, as I see it, is just extending our demise a little bit. Maybe a few decades, maybe a few centuries. But actually, if we are going to transform, we need to jump onto those different models that are already emerging. Like these ideas like rights for future people, like these ideas of the B‑Corporation—companies which have environmental priorities written into their statutes which mean that they cannot simply pursue short-term profits and listen to their shareholders. They have to look at their impacts on the living world as well as social impacts. This is where the big game is, I think, and this is the exciting stuff.
Of course, there are good reasons to work within your existing system and try to reform it. If you’re a civil servant working in Brussels, you’re going to try and create the spaces within a system which is still quite short-termist, but you can create those spaces for a new economy to emerge, or for social movements to emerge that take the longer view. In a way, I’m hopeful—but we have to be ambitious about this stuff. You can’t just tinker around the edges by trying to reform capitalism. I just don’t use that kind of language. Let’s shift from reforming capitalism to creating a regenerative economy.
What systems thinking teaches us is that nothing grows forever. Neither a forest or your children’s feet. Human systems, ecological systems follow the Sigmoid curve; the famous S‑curve. They rise, they grow, they reach an inflection point, they level out, and then they decline. Yes, you can jump onto new curves, but ultimately you’re limited by your resources, by your planetary stability. So the curves we need to jump onto are ones where we learn to live in harmony. Where we are following the basic tenet of ecological economics which is: You don’t create more waste than the planet can absorb, and you don’t use resources faster than they can be regenerated. It sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it? Now I hear myself saying it, I think that could sound really glib. When you try and translate it into practice, it is the hard work of civilisational transformation.
Mason: As Douglas Rushkoff says, “The only thing that grows exponentially is cancer, and then it eventually kills its host.” so that’s probably our best metaphor.
Krznaric: I think that’s right. I think Rushkoff is brilliant on this stuff, too. When he talks about, “Let’s dismantle these giant corporations and turn them into public entities.” That’s the kind of thinking which is fundamental. Let’s get the big tech companies and let’s split them up or let’s make them community owned, or publicly owned—they’re public interest institutions because they’re so big now. He is really there, I think, on this kind of transformative, jumping onto the new curve agenda.
Mason: I want to just broach a subject which feels like it’s a thread throughout the book—although not explicit—and that’s our relationship with death. A new relationship with death that celebrates the fact that you will become an ancestor. A large part of the important process of becoming an ancestor is dying, and new generations taking over. Is there something positive about death, about the fact that there is a limitation to the amount of time that you’re—at least in this form—on terra firma?
Krznaric: I think death is a kind of thing of beauty in this context, amongst all its tragedies. Humankind is really good—particularly in Western culture—at shielding itself from death. We’ve been doing that for a few hundred years. We do it now by shunting elderly people into care homes and having advertising which makes us think that we can be forever young, and by not talking about death with our kids. Yet it’s a recognition of our finitude, which is exactly—as you say—what connects us with our ancestors and our future-cestors. We need to be looking backwards and forwards. We need to recognise that we are in a great chain of life, stretching far into the past and long into the future. This is what ingidenous cultures are so good at doing—like that Maori concept of whakapapa, of lineage, of genealogy. It so happens that the light is shining right here, right now on this moment, this generation. We just need to widen that light so that we can recognise that the living and the dead and the unborn are all here in the room, with us. In a way, it’s something that can help us come to terms with death itself. If you feel that the living, the dead and the unborn are in the room with you—like a lot of Maori people do, in New Zealand—then, I think, death is less of a scary thing, because your legacy is something that you feel very closely connected to.
I think people who are parts of strong communities—like religious communities or even sporting teams—they have this sense of legacy. They want their team to do well, not just now but in the future, even when they’re gone. Or, they want their religion to persist. I want this planet to persist. In a sense it goes back to legacy, a lot of this. That whole idea of legacy. The original Latin word legatos referred to a legate who was a papal ambassador in the Medieval period who would go out as a messenger to distant lands. Let us be the messengers to future generations. Let our legacies be one where we pass on a planet that is at least in as good condition as the one that we received. It goes back to the idea of this Intergenerational Golden Rule: Do unto future generations as you would have had past generations do unto you.
Mason: It goes back to the idea that nothing is destroyed. The wonderful idea captured in indigenous cultures is that there is some form of continuation. Or, everything is happening simultaneously right now—which goes back to new notions where we have around B‑theory of time—where both the past, present and the future is all happening simultaneously at a quantum level. That would certainly shock us in the West, to have a new conception of time. This is purely a subjective moment in time.
But the book is called The Good Ancestor, and for anybody who wants to become a good ancestor, what can they do today, right now?
Krznaric: Well, one thing you could do when you’re going out shopping today: Ask yourself, “Am I being a good ancestor when I buy an avocado which has been flown over in an aeroplane from Peru?” Should you be buying the avocado? A very simple thing. Something my partner and I did in the last UK general election is that we gave our votes to our children—our 11 year old twins—as a birthday present. We sat around the kitchen table, debated the party manifestos, they told us where to put the X on the ballot sheet. It’s their future, after all.
There’s all these practical things we can do in daily life. I think on a wider level, of course, we can support those movements for long-termism. In the UK, for example, there is a campaign for the UK to have a Future Generations Commissioner—a political position like they have in Wales—whose job it is to scrutinise legislation for its impact on 30 years, 50 years ahead, for example. We can support those movements.
Ultimately though, we can fall in love with a place. We can fall in love with a meadow or a river or a mountain. We can start being the kind of species that doesn’t foul its nest. Ultimately, that’s how we’re going to survive in the long-term. I would absolutely love it if we could learn to live not on 1.6 planet Earths each year—which we currently do—but to live on one planet Earth a year. Then, great. I’m going to be the first person there trying to send my brain into space or to support terraforming Mars. Until that happens, until we learn to live within that planet, I’m not there.
Mason: Well on that hopeful note, Roman Krznaric, thank you for your time.
Krznaric: Thanks so much for the conversation. Really fascinating. Thank you.
Mason: Thank you to Roman for teaching us how to form a better relationship with future generations.
You can find out more by purchasing Roman’s new book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World—available now.
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