A Call for a Longer View of Time

[Lightly edited from 2009 blog]

Ecological destruction and the nuclear threat are issues that are best understood from a viewpoint that considers the past (for comparison) and appreciates the future outcomes of our current actions. This longer temporal view runs counter to a focus on the present that is unfortunately becoming far more common worldwide.

As I see it, there are at least two contributing factors to our growing focus on the present. One is that the entertainment industry (with its worldwide hub in Southern California) through the messages of its movies and music is unintentionally convincing the world, Global North as well as Global South, to think primarily of immediate pleasure and satisfaction and to turn away from long-term wisdom. Values that are healthy for families and a society in the long run lose out to sex, drugs, and booze. Instant hedonism sells, so the entertainment industry pumps out more. The second force for the immediate is political and economic destabilization caused by Western governments and industries of scale. International meddling is at a high (for example, the United States’ Middle East wars) as is global trade that can undercut local production (for example, American rice in foreign markets). Arguably, these international influences put much of the world’s people and governments in a position in which they have to put all energy and resources into merely staying afloat. Ecological destruction pales in importance to the urgency of an individual not having eaten in days or a government striving to forestall an insurrection.

Cultures with a strong cognizance of the future are waning rapidly in the face of Westernization. An example is the Iroquois Confederacy of eastern North America, who (as codified in their Great Law) considered the effects of any current decisions on the next seven generations. This is the kind of wisdom and perspective we need in order to understand and then act on the dual threat of ecological and nuclear destruction. But regardless of ones cultural background, the evidence today is crushing – graphs of myriad factors such as global population, resource use, or deforestation over the last 10,000 years are nearly vertical now, an almost inconceivable situation that cries out for immediate action.

One reason for looking toward impacts to come is so we can mold them, and intentionally make things happen. That is vision. Leaders with true perspective, whether they are triumphant rulers of history or pioneering businesspeople of today, are able to lean back and picture the situation they desire years down the road. They can then work backwards from that to guide their present decisions, reverse engineering for success. So, then, what is our vision? It varies by person and is open to debate, but I argue that the most beneficial and all-encompassing vision is of a planet teeming with life, on land and sea and air above, including ample healthy and happy people wise enough not to overstep their bounds. Such a situation of balanced plenty could go on essentially forever. That is the vision. Let it guide us in our choices today.

The irony is that a long time perspective is needed to see that action in the present is necessary; those concerned only for the now push off addressing the dual threat to a pseudo-infinite future. A long sense of time is not an end in itself – it does nothing to decrease the production of toxic waste, for example – but is a necessary tool in this campaign. Such a tool increases the likelihood that citizens will recognize the severity of the current situation, which is a prerequisite to action. This can be manifested, for example, as thoughtfulness about the world we leave our grandchildren and their grandchildren. With an eye to the future and the past we are more likely to act in the most beneficial ways in the present. Lack of awareness of our future condemns it.