A few weeks ago, the IPCC released a report about climate change so devastating that some of its authors were in tears at the launch. It highlighted how our actions now will determine the kinds of lives future inhabitants of the planet will have, and ultimately whether they will have lives at all. We hold immense responsibility for the future, yet in these times of apocalyptic news cycles, it can feel that everything is extremely urgent but happening too fast to change. We hold immense power, yet feel impotent. In the face of global anxiety, we put our heads down and our horizons get closer and closer. The problem is that the tunnel vision of short-term thinking is leading to decisions that might mean we are only left with a short term as a species.
We’ve started the Long Time project as we believe that: Our capacity to care about the future is crucial to our ability to preserve it, developing longer perspectives on our existence will change the way we behave in the short term, and art and culture will be crucial to making the much needed transformative shift in attitudes and behaviours. Here we explain both why and how, proposing five paths to safeguarding the long-term…
The myopic moment
Right now, we are in a moment of myopia. We are living through times of such rapid change and chaotic complexity that our horizons are getting closer and closer. Many of us can barely think about next year, let alone the next 20, 100 or 1000 years. Most of the ways we institutionally measure success are short term, whether that’s quarterly returns in business or the four to five-year terms of our democracies. So many of our industrial systems incentivise blinkering ourselves to the long term.
Over the last century, we have developed the means to monumentally mess things up on a species level, whether that’s through nuclear weapons, climate change, biodiversity destruction and perhaps artificial intelligence. We now have the unprecedented ability to destroy our species and that has happened at such a speed that we haven’t evolved mechanisms—politically, scientifically or culturally—to manage such risks.
In fact, in the West, we have done the converse, developing powerful ways to dismiss and distance ourselves from taking responsibility for the future. Philosopher Roman Krznaric talks of how we generally treat the future as something he calls tempora nullius, ‘empty time’, in reference to the ways that colonising powers throughout history have portrayed the spaces they wish to dominate as terra nullius, ‘empty places’. Our short-termism means we are effectively colonising the future, prioritising our own short-term gains over the future collective good.
The next few decades will be pivotal for the billions of people who have yet to be born. If we act wisely, humanity will survive; the Earth may remain habitable for at least a billion years; what has occurred so far could be a tiny fraction of possible human history and achievement. But there is a darker alternative too. One where we don’t make the necessary changes in time. One where we fudge and fumble our way into the dystopias we watch on Netflix. One where we wipe ourselves out as a species taking many others with us.
There is a growing movement that recognises the dangers of this short termism. New institutes have been established like the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge to help us manage these risks to our species from a scientific and technological perspective. The international network of Commissions for Future Generations is addressing this from a parliamentary angle, and there is an active movement of urban developers and financial investors using ‘cathedral thinking’ to plan long-term.
We’re starting the Long Time project as we need initiatives to help us manage these risks from a cultural perspective. Culture forms the operating system for our society. It’s foundational to the way science, politics, economics and technology develop. It shapes how we feel, how we empathise and how we connect with each other. It provides the reflective space to navigate complexity and uncertainty. If we want our species to have a long future, art and culture will be essential.
The five long-term paths
There are different routes into the long term, some of which have been around for thousands of years. We’ve identified five long-term paths to highlight fertile areas for cultural and creative experimentation.
DEEP TIME: This enables us to engage with our place in the epic geological history of the universe. Deep time work can foster a profound sense of awe for the richness of life on earth.
This profoundly scientific perspective can leave people with a sense of reverence and the miraculous. There is a wave of innovation here with people combining science with story and emotion from organisations like Global Generation that takes deep time thinking into schools, to the Deep Time App, to documentary films. Artist-technologist Honor Arger (now head of the ArtScience Museum in Singapore) has created a soundscape of the history of the universe, that enables you to hear the sounds of the cosmic rays left over from the Big Bang.
2. MULTIGENERATIONAL EMOTIONS: This work is about how we connect emotionally across multiple generations. While most of have feelings (positive or negative) for the relatives we’ve known in our lifetimes, we find it hard to generate the same emotional connection for our descendants who have yet to come. It is possible to do this: Many indigenous cultures have worldviews that connect them emotionally to long lineages in a way that means they feel a responsibility to care for future generations.
Take the notion of seven generations stewardship that originated with the Iroquois over 550 years ago. It urges current generations to live and work for the benefit of seven generations into the future (approximately a 140-year time span).
“Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the past and present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground—the unborn of the future Nation.” – The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy
In response to fears about nuclear power in the 1970s, ecologist Joanna Macey developed The Work That Reconnects, a set of experiential practices drawn from spiritual traditions, deep ecology and living systems theory, that includes exercises about intergenerational empathy. We’re using this as inspiration to develop processes that bring together the empathetic tools of fiction and coaching tools to develop a strength of feeling for future generations.
3. LEGACY STANCE: This work goes beyond just empathising with past and future generations and is about how we build our desire and agency to leave a positive legacy. It can involve looking back to what our ancestors gave us and forward to the world we want to leave as good ancestors ourselves. For example, UC Berkeley has developed a new course in the faculty of engineering called Thinking Like a Good Ancestor: Finding Meaning in the Technology We Build.
The concept of cathedral thinking that originates from medieval times is relevant here, referring to things that take many generations to be constructed. It has since been applied to space exploration, city planning and other developments that require decades of foresight and a shared commitment to long-term implementation. Architect Rachel Armstrong has developed Black Sky Thinking, a set of frameworks that ask participants to look 100 years into the future. UBS supported a whole of series on cathedral wealth in 2016, encouraging investors to look to arts, culture and science in how they leave a long-lasting legacy.
4. MORTALITY CONSCIOUSNESS: We’ve got a hunch that our inability to deal with the future of the world beyond our lifespan is wrapped up with our inability to deal with the fact that our lives will end. Western civilisations have been distancing themselves from death for centuries. Our denial of our own mortality prevents us from engaging with the long-term future. There’s a growing death-awareness movement happening. Death doulas are increasingly used to help people die well. The Order of the Good Death learns from global cultures to introduce better rituals for death. Bristol Museum held a recent exhibition on the most universal experience we will encounter, following a major exhibition in 2012 from the Wellcome Collection.
5. INTERCONNECTED WORLDVIEWS: Valuing the long term is also about understanding our place in the wider web of life, fostering a sense of connection to the non-human. Again we can learn from indigenous cultures here, many of which have worldviews which foster deep relationships with all species.
There has been some beautiful creative work here such as Marshmallow Laser Feast’s Treehugger, which uses VR to journey inside the epic Sequoia of California. Eve Mutso’s Loop is an aerial dance performance which reflects on the interconnectedness of all living beings over a vast timescale. Richard Powers’ recent Man Booker nominated novel, The Overstory, gives voice to the non-human and shines a light on the interconnectedness of all things…
“We’re deeply, existentially lonely. Until it’s exciting and fun and ecstatic to think that everything else has agency and is reciprocally connected we’re going to be terrified and afraid of death, and it’s mastery or nothing.” – Richard Powers
A long-time movement?
The good news is that we’re not alone in our Long Time mission, but one of a growing number. Next year philosophers Roman Krznaric and Toby Ord will both publish books on long-term thinking. In 2019, BBC Future will also be launching a year-long exploration of the theme. In policy terms, there are the future generations movements; Wales now has a Future Generations Commission; there is an All Party Parliamentary Group on Future Generations in the UK and a Committee for the Future in Finland. Cambridge University have established a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and Oxford University, the Future of Humanity Institute.
Creatively, there’s been important work in this space from the Long Now Foundation who began pioneering a longer perspective 22 years ago. Their 10000-year clock from Danny Hillis, is designed to run for ten millennia with minimal maintenance and interruption. The Longplayer project is a self-extending composition with Tibetan bowls designed by Jem Finer which started on 1 January 2000 and will go on without repetition until 2999. Artist Katie Paterson created Future Library, a forest planted in Norway which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in 100 years time; Margaret Atwood was the first author to had over a manuscript which won’t be read for a century. Wu-Tang Clan recorded an album called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin which cannot be legally distributed until 2103. Cathy Haynes’ Stereochron Island imagines a State Without Clocks where we must rely on natural rhythms to keep time. The recent exhibition at Modern Art Gallery Oxford ‘Future Knowledge’ features artists such as Rachel Sussman and explores the role of visual culture in raising awareness about climate change. This is part of the Season for Change initiative from Arts Admin and Julie’s Bicycle.
We’re really excited about the above and also feel like it’s just the tip of iceberg, given how important arts and culture are to tackling the short-termism that is an existential threat to humanity (and many other species). If we want to start to live by longer term narratives, culture will be vital.
Yet all too often we see art and culture relegated in big strategic conversations about the future of humanity and the planet. We think this is part of the problem. On a macro-level, we need to ensure that arts and culture are integrated into institutions tackling the long-term future of the planet and that there is resource and investment in this vital area. At a sector level, we need to coordinate and resource activity in this space.
Ultimately want to support a wave of cultural output that enables people to engage with their lives in much longer time frames. We want to grow the community of people exploring the role of art and culture in stretching our ability to care into the future. So if you resource, commission or create art and culture, get in touch.