Navigating the Minefield of Short-Termism
Its disappearance went largely unnoticed. There was no post mortem, no eulogy, no deep sighs for what had been lost.
Posterity slipped from our consciousness as we ushered in the neoliberal era 40 years ago. Populations would now be administered, not led. Grand vision was a quaint artifact of generations past. Besides, the invisible hand of the marketplace would see to all our needs today, tomorrow, forever. Politicians grew smaller and smaller until they shrunk to fit the mold of technocracy. Like sheep being dipped we were plunged into a world of supply-side economics in which lower taxation and deregulation would deliver manna from heaven. We focused on skinning the economy, and society, right to the bone. Everything would be maximized, nothing would be wasted, not even the offal.
We were surrendered to a world of short-termism. We elected governments of technocrats - grey suits stuffed with wet cardboard - whose horizons were measured in electoral cycles. They would do what they must to get re-elected, the bright thing rather than the right thing. The corporate sector loved it. Stock markets soared. So too did a host of social blights from inequality to substance abuse.
Weak thinking generates huge problems. We saw that in the Great Recession of the Harper, Bush-Cheney era. Our leaders failed to hold Casino Capitalism in check and, like any con game, it swelled until it burst, plunging the world into economic chaos. It's not like we weren't warned. Guys like Roubini and Stiglitz and Krugman warned anyone who would listen that we were holding a gun to our own heads but societies and economies and governments that are reactionary don't heed warnings.
Which brings us to the first article in MIT Technology Review's "Long Term Issue," Richard Fisher's essay on how to navigate past the trap of short-termism, "How to escape the present."
"Like toddlers, our pre-human ancestors had no sense of a distant future. They lived only in the present. Humanity’s trajectory from tool-wielding hominins to the architects of grand metropolises has been interwoven with our ever-expanding sense of time. Unlike other animals, we have minds capable of imagining a deep future, and we can conceive the daunting truth that our lifetime is a mere flash in an unfathomable chronology.
"Yet while we may have this ability, it is rarely deployed in daily life. If our descendants were to diagnose the ills of 21st-century civilization, they would observe a dangerous short-termism: a collective failure to escape the present moment and look further ahead. The world is saturated in information, and standards of living have never been higher, but so often it’s a struggle to see beyond the next news cycle, political term, or business quarter.
"...In the West, a deeper sense of time didn’t emerge until the 18th century. In the 1700s, geologist James Hutton showed how the chronology written into Scottish rocks extended millions of years into the past. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote that there would be “millions and millions of centuries, in which new worlds and world orders will be generated,” adding: “Creation is never finished. It once had a beginning, but it will never end.”
"...Future historians may have a clearer view. But we can still perceive the lack of longer-term thinking from which our society suffers. You can see it in business, where quarterly reporting encourages CEOs to prioritize short term investor satisfaction over long-term prosperity. You can see it in populist politics, where leaders are more focused on the next election and the desires of their base than the long-term health of the nation. And you can see it in our collective failure to tackle long-term risks: climate change, pandemics, nuclear war, or antibiotic resistance."