Will we be remembered as ‘Good Ancestors’?

Posted on November 24, 2020

The concept of the ‘Good Ancestor’ isn’t exactly new. As Roman Krznaric acknowledges in his book (1) the term was coined by Jonas Salk, the man who developed the polio vaccine sixty years ago. He quotes him: ‘Will future generations speak of the wisdom of their ancestors as we are inclined to speak of ours? If we want to be good ancestors we should show future generations how we coped with an age of great change and great crises.’  But in his book sub-titled ‘How to think long term in a short term world’ Krznaric takes us on a journey both forward and backward in time. One of his most striking images is of the nature of time past and the impact of humans on it.  If the age of the earth is conceptualised as a line from the tip our nose to the tip of our outstretched hand, one stroke of a nail file erases human history. Just as there is this ‘deep time’ behind us, so too is there ‘deep time’ ahead. The question he poses is, in that time ahead, will we be remembered as good ancestors, like we remember the people who developed agriculture,  passed down cultural and intellectual inheritances form language to feats of engineering like the Pyramids, or the scientific advances of the past hundreds of years on which we rely so heavily?  At the moment the answer to that question must lie in the balance. We could end up as ‘bad ancestors’ unless we act now. So how can we become good ancestors? Krznaric is from Australia, and he deploys an interesting analogy from that continent.  He argues that we have, especially those in wealthy countries, ‘colonised the future’, treating it like a distant colonial outpost where we can ‘freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please’.  Just as when Britain colonised Australia in the 18 Century it drew on a legal doctrine known as ‘terra nullius’ – nobody’s land, to justify its conquest and the treatment of its  indigenous inhabitants,  so today we have an attitude of ‘tempus nullius’ where the future is seen as nobody’s time, an unclaimed territory that is similarly  devoid of inhabitants.

The book attempts to offer a set of six visionary and practical ways to cultivate long term thinking and starts from the principle that ideas matter, citing HG Wells, arguably the most influential of all future thinkers, that ‘human history, is in essence, a history of ideas.’  One of the guiding principles is the idea that in this high velocity short term culture there is a lack of concern for future generations facing myriad threats from environmental collapse to the proliferation of weapons and out of control AI or nano-technologies; that ‘now’ means seconds, minutes or perhaps a few days. We don’t have to look far to see that reality. This ‘short now’ has been challenged. Yet it was back in the 1970s musician and cultural thinker Brian Eno coined the concept of the ‘long now’. As he put it ‘Our empathy doesn’t extend far forward in time.’

For planners the idea of the’ long now’ of thinking further into the future than a few days or months is ingrained. The clue is in the name. Many plans look forward twenty or more years ahead. So the ideas that Krznaric puts forward won’t be completely uncharted territory. In the battle of ideas between short term thinking and a culture of longer time horizons, planning’s territory is already clearly staked out. Perhaps that is one of the reasons it is under attack by current ultra short-termist political thinking. Those six visionary and practical ways to cultivate long term thinking won’t be completely new to anyone who has wrestled with some of the conceptual issues around what sustainable development means in practice, ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, deep time humility, a legacy mindset, intergenerational justice, cathedral thinking, holistic forecasting, and a transcendent goal.

For each, the ideas thrown around and the examples given, are fascinating, but to focus on one, cathedral thinking an area planners are like to be most familiar with, illustrates both the benefits of deep time thinking and the extent to which we have come to rely on good ancestors, perhaps without really being conscious of it.  The polder water management system in the Netherlands was set up in 1533. It has developed and extended over the centuries, but it is essentially the same system that has operated successfully for almost 500 years. Ulm Minster in Germany – charmingly described as the world’s first crowd-funded project, started in 1377 was expected by the local burgers to take about 50 years to complete. It was finished in 1890. The Ise Jingu shrine in Japan has been in existence for over 1000 years. Every twenty years, as an act of devotion it is completely re-built. Fortunately such long term thinking isn’t just confined to the past. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Spitzbergen was opened in 2008 with a planned lifespan of over 1000 years. More prosaically North Vancouver recently extended its city plan from 30 to 100 years. The problem is that it isn’t very common and the initiatives aren’t integrated at a political and transnational level.

There is a sense of both anger and playfulness in the way Krnzaric deploys his arguments – all to better effect. Taking apart the lets escape to other planets once we’ve wrecked this one, approach of Elon Musk and others, he reminds us that the best way of ensuring a successful ascent of Mount  Everest is to have a robust and reliable base camp (planet Earth) to come back to. Equally economists are given short shrift for their concept of ‘discounting’ in which they make value judgements about the future, which don’t give a lot of value to their children, let alone grandchildren or great grandchildren. He describes their approach as ‘a weapon of inter-generational oppression disguised as a rational economic methodology.’

What to do about it? Krznaric has a concluding section entitled ‘Bring on the time rebellion’. Naturally it is full of good ideas and gives due prominence to the work of Kate Raworth on ‘Doughnut economics’ (they are married to each other), ‘cosmo-local production’ the idea that cities should produce everything they consume by 2054, and governance by citizens assemblies amongst other things.  Visionary for sure, but I’m not so convinced by the resilience of some of the ideas. What happens to trade with cosmo-local production? Even the Phoenicians traded across the Mediterranean and as far as Cornwall, millennia ago.  They didn’t destroy the biosphere while doing this. Citizens assemblies are an interesting way of engaging groups in society often marginalised or alienated by conventional political structures and processes, but do they really have a longer term perspective? After a couple of weekends of immersive engagement in the issue at hand, and a set of thoughtful recommendations at the end, they disperse, with no ownership of the actual nitty-gritty of putting them into practice over the next four years, let alone the next forty. But here is a set of ideas whose time has come. Written before the COVID19 pandemic broke over our heads one sentence feels apposite and hopeful ‘Throughout history, long term planning has frequently emerged from moments of crisis, especially when it has affected those in political and economic power.’ Here’s hoping.

1.       Krznaric, Roman. The good ancestor: how to think long term in a short-term world. WH Allen 2020

This article first apeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Town & Country Planning.