The perils of short-termism: Civilization’s greatest threat

| January 11, 2019 | Leave a Comment

Engendering the Response to Climate Change by Jervis Sundays, Kenya Red Cross Society | Bread for the World | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Media Type: Article - Recent

Date of Publication: January 10, 2019

Author(s): Richard Fisher

Newspaper: BBC

Categories: , ,

Our inability to look beyond the latest news cycle could be one of the most dangerous traits of our generation.

As a journalist, I often encounter and deploy the date 2100. It’s a milestone year frequently cited in climate change news reports, stories about future technologies and science fiction. But it’s so far ahead, clouded with so many possibilities, that the route we will take to get there is difficult to see. I rarely consider that, like my daughter, millions of people alive today will be there as 2100 arrives, inheriting the century my generation will leave behind. All the decisions we make, for better and worse, will be theirs to live with. And these descendants will have their own families: hundreds of millions of people not yet born, most of whom you or I will never meet.

For many of us currently in adulthood, how often can we truly say we are thinking about the well-being of these future generations? How often do we contemplate the impact of our decisions as they ripple into the decades and centuries ahead?

Part of the problem is that the ‘now’ commands so much more attention. We are saturated with knowledge and standards of living have mostly never been higher – but today it is difficult to look beyond the next news cycle. If time can be sliced, it is only getting finer, with ever-shorter periods now shaping our world. To paraphrase the investor Esther Dyson: in politics the dominant time frame is a term of office, in fashion and culture it’s a season, for corporations it’s a quarter, on the internet it’s minutes, and on the financial markets mere milliseconds.

Modern society is suffering from “temporal exhaustion”, the sociologist Elise Boulding once said. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future,” she wrote in 1978. We can only guess her reaction to the relentless, Twitter-fuelled politics of 2019. No wonder wicked problems like climate change or inequality feel so hard to tackle right now.

That’s why researchers, artists, technologists and philosophers are converging on the idea that short-termism may be the greatest threat our species is facing this century. They include philosophers arguing the moral case for prioritising our distant descendants; researchers mapping out the long-term path of Homo sapiens; artists creating cultural works that wrestle with time, legacy and the sublime; and Silicon Valley engineers building a giant clock that will tick for 10,000 years.


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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Greeley Miklashek

    So that’s what’s wrong. Leave it to another Englishman to set us straight. In fact, we do have solid predictions of what the future holds, if we continue on our current path of overpopulation, over-consumption, and technology worship: extinction of many more species and eventually ourselves. A whole scientific literature never featured on this site or any other for that matter reports the results of animal crowding researches done over the past 70+ years. These studies can be used to project our eventual fate. They are reviewed at some length in the “Stress R Us” PDF to be found here at MAHB in the e-library under the title “Stress R Us”. In summary, mammalian populations expand exponentially until they fill up their environment to the point of unsustainability. We have passed that point some time ago, roughly 1980. These ever more crowded rodent (mammalian) populations grow at an exponential rate in a sinusoidal distribution until they max out and plateau. This experiment has been repeated over 100 times and always ends the same way, with sudden cessation of all further reproduction and extinction, as dramatically depicted in the movie “Children of Men”. Whether the final blow is disruption of family life from crowding or a neuro-endocrine mechanism based on heightened cortisol and CRH (in the hypothalamus) levels is contested by investigators, but I believe both operate simultaneously today in our increasingly crowded populations. All of our current increasing load of “diseases of civilization” can be traced to population density stress, and, so, none of these diseases that are killing us now can be found in traditional living sparsely populated hunter-gatherer bands/clans anywhere in the world (there are over 600 of these). The future is clear to anyone willing to peer steadily into to crystal ball of natural history and crowded animal research. Want to see the future? Read “Stress R Us” or just remain oblivious and enjoy reading English philosophers. It’s your free choice after-all Think of “Stress R Us” the next-time you seek medical attention, which your sparsely populated, physically active, diversely nourished hunter-gatherer neighbors never need. Stress R Us