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Hooked on short term thinking, we urgently need a sense of a longer now.

Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric is a “public philosopher” who wrote, “The Good Ancestor: How to think long term in a short-term world.” While I don’t agree with everything he writes, I think he provides some good provocation in considering how to be “good ancestors.” In a recent article he wrote:

Humankind has colonised the future. We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if nobody will be there.

This resembles the attitude colonizers had of the “new world” (to colonizers) declaring the legal doctrine known as terra nullius or ‘nobody’s land’, in which “new” lands were treated as if there were no indigenous people there when they arrived.

Tempus Nullius?

Krznaric suggests our societal attitude today is one of tempus nullius, where the future is seen as ‘nobody’s time’, “an unclaimed territory that is equally devoid of inhabitants.

In the same way that indigenous peoples were disenfranchised, and not given rights to influence their participation in society, Krznaric considers future generations are granted no political rights or representation. “Their interests have no influence at the ballot box or in the marketplace. This leaves them vulnerable to multiple long-term threats, from rising sea levels and AI-controlled lethal autonomous weapons to the next pandemic that lies on the horizon, whether naturally occurring or genetically engineered.”

Why Protect the Interests of Future Generations?

Krznaric gives three compelling reasons why we should consider protecting and promoting the interests of future generations:

“The first is an argument I call the Scales, which has its origins in utilitarian philosophy. Imagine a set of scales where everyone who is alive today is on one side, and on the other are all the generations of people who are yet to be born… Even in just the next millennium, more than 135 billion people will be born. How could we possibly ignore their wellbeing, and think that our own is of such greater value?

A second argument, the Arrow, comes courtesy of the philosopher Derek Parfitt. In his book Reasons and Persons (1987), he asks us to imagine shooting an arrow into a distant wood, where it wounds someone:

If I should have known that there might be someone in this wood, I am guilty of gross negligence. Because this person is far away, I cannot identify the person whom I harm. But this is no excuse. Nor is it any excuse that this person is far away. We should make the same claims about effects on people who are temporally remote.

To put it another way, if we have an obligation not to plant a bomb on a train that would harm a child now, we have the same obligation not to do so if it was timed to go off in 10 minutes, or 10 days, or even 10 years from now.

A final argument, which I call the Baton, is based on the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ This ancient empathic principle can be extended to future generations, so we have a duty not to impose harm or dangerous risks on future people that we wouldn’t be willing to accept ourselves. In other words, do unto future generations as you would have past generations do unto you. Think of it as a Golden Rule passed on from one generation to another – a golden baton.”

Should today’s generation give up a little or a lot for their unknown successors?

How should we weigh the interests of the current generation in relation to those yet to come? Krznaric writes:

“The future might be full of uncertainties, but we can rest assured that there is one thing that our descendants will want to inherit from us: a living world in which they can survive and thrive. We must bequeath them the conditions conducive to life itself…

It can be difficult to feel a powerful and visceral connection with future people when we cannot hear their voices, look them in the eye, or even imagine what their lives and struggles might be like. The Māori concept of whakapapa – their word for ‘genealogy’ – could provide the inspiration we need. It is the idea that we are all connected in a great chain of life that links the present back to the generations of the past and forwards to all the generations going on into the future. It so happens that the light is shining on this moment, here and now, and the idea of whakapapa helps us shine the light more widely so we can see everyone throughout the landscape of time. It enables us to recognise that the living, the dead and the unborn are all here in the room with us. And we need to respect their interests and the world they inhabit as much as our own.”

Time and Timelessness

We occupy a small physical geography and we inhabit a short moment in time. This discussion isn’t about “leaving a legacy” to self aggrandize one’s memory. It’s about considering how we benefit future generations for the common good. If you have children and grandchildren, etc, etc, they will want more than a distant memory of who you were… they will want the benefits of you living wisely as a good ancestor leaving an inheritance of creation, and an understanding of the Creator.

How are you becoming a good ancestor?