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, 247 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 2050 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 911 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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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).

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