In the Systems Thinking Mini-Course, I explain that systems thinking requires us to shift from the short-term to the long-term perspective. This book, The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking, clarifies *how* to make that shift.
A good ancestor recognizes a dying system when they see one, and rather than trying to pass on their own dysfunctional civilization to the next generation, they take part in the historic act of seeding a new civilization that can grow in its place and maintain the conditions conducive to life into the long future. (Pg. 136)
Short-Term Thinking is Inadequate
Roman Krznaric argues that if we want to create a sustainable world, the timeframes in which we currently operate are totally inadequate. He makes this argument with regard to individuals as well as organizations, and whole societies.
…we rarely think far beyond the threshold of our own lifetimes; death is the common cutoff point. […] In general, the public future goes dark after around three decades. In 2020, it is difficult to find any governments, corporations, or international organizations that are making substantive plans beyond 2050. (Pg. 34)
This claim has profound implications. Just think about that for a moment: “it is difficult to find any governments…making substantive plans beyond 2050.” Given the short-term profit motive of most corporations, one can explain this tendency in business. But even our governments don’t have the long view.
Why is it important to think long-term? Anyone reading this blog–or his book–is likely to be pretty clear on the “why.” Nevertheless, here is one summary statement that speaks to this:
It may be some time before we have a full-blown theory of civilizational collapse. Meanwhile, we are left with the burning question of whether we are heading for it ourselves. Evidence for the impending breakdown of today’s highly interdependent globalized civilization…grows by the day. Melting ice caps, devastating wildfires, disappearing species, water shortages. The timing may be uncertain but all the ecological warning signs are there that we are crossing critical boundaries of Earth system stability…Despite all the evidence, we remain in a state of denial. (Pg 132)
The statement above comes at the end of a section that looks at past civilizations, their collapse, and therefore, what the implications are for our own civilization. Krznaric suggests three possible destinies for our world: Breakdown, Reform, and Transformation.
What he characterizes as “Breakdown” is the result of “business as usual,” which causes us to go over the cliff into civilizational collapse. “Reform” looks basically like incremental improvement that merely extends the timeline leading to eventual Breakdown (though it may be less dramatic). He then suggests that we can rise above both of these paths and conscientiously “Transform” our civilization.
For the purposes of his argument, Krznaric deals with human civilization as a single global entity; as quoted above, “today’s highly interdependent globalized civilization.” He is addressing members of the modern West, and doesn’t spend time speculating about the potential fate or survival of isolated groups, such as indigenous societies.
However, Krznaric does invoke “seventh-generation thinking,” and quotes Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation (Native North American Indian) to help impress on the reader that planning for the future–not just the next thirty years–is something we humans are capable of, and some societies incorporate care for future generations into the very fabric of their culture. (Pg 86)
He asks the important question, “Is it realistic to take a practice like seventh-generation thinking out of the context of indigenous cultures and give it meaning and traction in the high-velocity, consumer-driven modern world?” (Pg 89) He answers this question in the affirmative, citing several examples of where the concept has caught on. And indeed, his whole book can be seen as an argument in favor of global adoption of seventh-generation planning.
In answer to the question “Transform into what?” he articulates five versions of a transformed future. Of the five “Transcendent goals for humankind,” just one, “One-planet thriving” is of interest, and constitutes the focus of the remainder of the book.
Krznaric reviews “six ways to think long in three realms: politics, economics, and culture” (Pg 161). These three buckets are the core of the book, providing ground-level ideas of specific actions, for example, the “citizens’ assembly” idea as discussed in the democracy section.
What Krznaric means by “deep democracy” is the following:
Just as the idea of deep time expands our temporal imagination across the cosmos, deep democracy expands our political imagination beyond the short-sightedness at the heart of government. To do so, it draws on the long-term ideals discussed…intergenerational justice, cathedral thinking, the seventh-generation principle, and the transcendent goal of one-planet thriving. (Pg 163)
While there are a number of different approaches and terms related to upgrading democracy, I like this idea of “deep democracy” borrowed from deep time. Deep time tends to tug our minds backward into geological history. Deep democracy inevitably asks questions about the well-being–and viability–of future generations. But not “future generations” as in one or two generations, but rather, upcoming generations reaching far into the future.
Krznaric endorses the Intergenerational Solidarity Index (ISI) developed by Jamie McQuilkin. (You can learn more about this on Krznaric’s website.) I find this section of the book particularly illuminating, as it is an attempt to qualify (and quantify) what sorts of governance tend to favor sustainability and the well-being of future generations. I’ll leave it to the book to explain the nuances, but suffice it to say that democracies are the way to go, albeit with certain upgrades necessary.
It’s handy that Krznaric’s wife is Kate Raworth, who developed the Doughnut Economics model. Gladly, this model has some significant traction in various parts of the world. It is a helpful visual for measuring what level of resource use intensity is sustainable. What I most appreciate about this section is that, while on the one hand Krznaric holds up exceptionally progressive businesspeople in corporations, he nevertheless pushes forward into actually-really revolutionary territory. Many of his examples illustrate how human well-being, ecological sustainability, and long-term economic viability all implicate one another. For example, democratizing access to energy.
This democratization of energy may have profound political implications too. Microgrid networks tend to strengthen community cohesion. With energy production, ownership, and distribution becoming local, people may well want other things to be local too, including political decision-making. (Pg 209)
As a systems thinker, this section is of particular interest because it addresses the worldview level. Referencing Donella Meadows’ hierarchy of where to intervene in a system (see this PDF), the worldview level is the most important. It is the highest layer in the hierarchy (or the foundation if you turn the hierarchy upside-down), and therefore you have the most leverage. However, it is also the heaviest lift: engineering worldview shifts among entire civilizations is no small matter. Krznaric deals with sci-fi as well as art, education and religion.
He addresses the area of education and religion in tandem, saying,
How do we create a sense of shared identity with the unborn generations of tomorrow’s world, the future people we can never meet but whom we must endeavor to embrace as our kith and kin? The creative arts, film, and literature will all play a crucial role. But they will never be enough…It is vital to harness the power of two forces that have the potential to scale up and spread the values of the good ancestor: education and religion. (Pg 230)
Krznaric quotes Yuval Noah Harari who says, “Since we do not know what the job market will look like in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40” (Pg 230). This statement certainly applies more to college and university years, as opposed to grade school early years. One can reasonably presume at least some basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic are always necessary. But the early years also need to be rethought, perhaps drastically.
There are at least two core skills they should be learning that will stand the test of time. Firstly, relationship skills like empathy, where humans have a big advantage over the AI machines that threaten to take their jobs. Secondly, the skill of long-term thinking itself. This is something we will always need in a world undergoing rapid transformation and facing long-term threats. (Pg 230)
With eight in ten people globally choosing to identify with one religion or another (ref), side-stepping religion when it comes to questions of worldview and sustainability is ill-advised. Granted, the Pew study Krznaric (and I, above) cite is from 2010, and this religious affiliation thing is tricky. For example, Pew’s survey allows people to state that they are non-specifically religious, selecting “nothing in particular,” a category that has grown in recent years, from 12% in 2007 to 17% in 2019 (ref). Membership in Christian groups has been steadily declining, while membership in “non-Christian” religions has “grown modestly” (ref).
Krznaric, however, speaks to these diverse and fluctuating groups, pointing to movements within established religions that actively embrace care for nature, and endorsing a general spiritual orientation toward nature on the level of any world religion. Remarkably, he cites a comment by “the world’s most famous atheist,” Richard Dawkins, who reluctantly endorses the idea of a nature-oriented religion: “…I can see that there might be a political argument to treat the earth as a goddess like Gaia, as a way of galvanizing people and arousing them to protect it” (Pg 235).
As systems thinkers (who are biased towards making the world a better place), we are interested in ways to “intervene” in existing systems that will lead to greater social and ecological sustainability. Current systems tend to set inappropriately short-term goals, when they set goals at all. The Good Ancestor spells out specific points of intervention when it comes to shifting the view towards the long-term.
In the Systems Thinking Mini-Course we look at three levels you may operate in when trying to make the world a better place:
- Charitable / Direct Service
- The Systems View
The first, direct service, is emergency intervention; by definition, short-term.
When you are an advocate, you work with existing systems to advance a particular cause or alter the outcomes of a given system meaningfully. You can think of this as middle-term.
As systems thinkers, social and ecological sustainability are the goal and the purpose. This is and must be a long-term enterprise. In fact, living systems are always changing, so there is no “end” point. Rather than overly-simplifying complex systems to fit the linear mindset (which loves the predictable and avoids the unpredictable), we have to find ways to reconcile ourselves to reality.
The Good Ancestor helps us to drastically re-wire our overly-linear brains in the direction of systems intelligence, with a focus on attending thoughtfully and thoroughly to the well-being of future generations.