Humans have a “lifetime bias.” When we plan ahead, we do so by thinking in terms of years and decades rather than centuries and millennia.
We need to escape this short-term thinking if we want to be great ancestors to the generations of humans that will come after us.
One way to do so is through transgenerational empathy, by which we reconcile ourselves with the past in order to focus on the attributes that we want to pass on to the next generation.
This video is part of The Progress Issue, a Big Think and Freethink special collaboration.
In this inaugural special issue we set out to explore progress — how it happens, how we nurture it and how we stifle it, and what changes are required in how we approach our most serious problems to ensure greater and more equitable progress for all.
It’s time for a return to optimism. Enjoy the full issue now.
Read more of our stories from The Progress Issue:
ARI WALLACH: When we think about our own life, we think about from birth to death. We have what I call a 'Lifespan bias.' We're the only known sentient species that at a very early point in time, realizes one day we're actually going to cease to exist. Ernest Becker says though, that this is actually the greatest challenge that homo sapiens face. What death does is it kind of puts an end state to what we think is possible. If you're death-anxious, you're gonna be very short-termistic. If you're death-aware, you're gonna recognize that it's not just about your life, it's about the lives that came before and the lives that came after. What are we doing that outlives us way beyond our own lifespan to build another future for generations to come, that makes you a great ancestor?
My name is Ari Wallach and I'm a futurist. And I'm the author of "Longpath: Becoming The Great Ancestors Our Future Needs." We are in a moment of unbelievable flux and change in society. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, nuclear weapons and obviously climate change. The level of trust in major institutions and narratives is an all-time low. What that says to me, as an anthropologist, is we are deep in an 'intertidal.' So an intertidal is a moment in time where the old ways of doing things, the institutions, the narratives, and stories are no longer working- but the new ones are yet to be born. And I take that from an ocean metaphor.
The intertidal is this place between where a high tide and low tide exist. It's an area of high chaos, but also magnificent creativity. And here's the thing, unlike previous intertidals, this is the first major intertidal where we're actually self-aware enough to know, 'Hey we're in an intertidal, we're in the middle of something.' And so how we are and act during this moment sets the stage for the next several thousand years. The issue is we are biologically prone to short-term decision making. 15,000 years ago, if you and I were walking and we came across a tree laden with fruit, we would gorge ourselves cause we didn't know where the next meal was gonna come from.
We were being short-termistic; that's okay. But now we're using that kind of short-term thinking and applying it everywhere. But if we are going to skillfully navigate this intertidal, we need a mindset that allows us to be future-conscious. Longpath is one of many solutions to help us skillfully navigate through this intertidal. What Longpath asks us to do is think about the ramifications of our day-to-day actions and the impact they will have on future generations. So more often than not, I say, "Hey I have this mindset called Longpath," and people say, "Oh great, we're all gonna get into a room, and we're gonna put post-it notes up and we're gonna design the future we want. I say, "No, actually what we're gonna do is we're gonna talk about empathy." Now, when we think of empathy we often think about empathy in the present moment.
It's also about empathy for the future or empathy for the past. We call this 'Transgenerational empathy.' Transgenerational empathy with the past, asks us to look at our parents or at the society and place them in context. There are things that my mom and dad used to say, that today would be called out as wrong. The fact of the matter is that's gonna happen to us, I guarantee you, in 400 years, 500 years. Allowing us to look at the past and reconcile with it in some ways actually cleans the slate. So I know there are certain ways that I am in the world that are because that's how my dad was and his grandfather and their great-great-grandmother.
It doesn't mean we don't hold them accountable, it means we put it within a context that allows us to process it, integrate it, and then move forward. We then say, "What attributes do you wanna pass on?" So we use empathy, 'cus it allows us to actually connect with folks in the future in a way that will actually drive actions in the present by us. On the other hand, there's 'Futures thinking.' Futures thinking is an invitation to imagine something more than just a singular tomorrow. We live in this idea of an 'Official future.' And the official future usually is a set of assumptions, mostly unsaid, about what tomorrow will be. Well, who makes the official future? Back in the 1930s at the World's Fair, there was this exhibit called "Futurama," and was built by General Motors.
NARRATOR: Let's travel into the future.
WALLACH: Now they had these amazing displays about what the world of tomorrow would look like.
NARRATOR: And now we have arrived in this wonder world of 1960.
WALLACH From education, into kitchens, universities- but the one thing across the entire exhibit were eight-lane highways.
NARRATOR: Accommodating traffic at designated speeds of 50, 75, and 100 miles an hour.
WALLACH: Well that's GM, so it makes sense that the official future would have a lot of cars in it. The official future of today is mostly driven by technology or kind of a Silicon Valley way of thinking. More often than not we live in someone else's official future.
ELON MUSK: Eh, not bad.
WALLACH Futures with an 's', opens that up again and says, "Well, there are many possible futures that could happen." So futures thinking explodes the idea of an official future. But then the question becomes if it can be anything, how do you decide which one you wanna move to? What are the futures? That's where 'telos' comes from: it's from the ancient Greek of "ultimate aim." What is the future that we want? So our telos is always about thinking, 'Am I becoming a great ancestor?' This is a big time for homo sapiens. We can't just kind of let the future wash over us or be dictated by people who say, "Well, the future is going to be X."
The future isn't this distant place, it's not a noun. It's actually a verb, it's something that you make. If we wanna steer away from this iceberg that we're heading towards, we don't need a great man to do it for us, we need collective action. We may not all run companies that can feed the world or build spaceships, but it's really our behaviors and our values that we have to start changing. If we are to move forward as a people, as a species, we have to plant trees whose shade we'll never know. That's it, that's Longpath. It's a mindset that instills that agency into the individual to help us kind of navigate this moment skillfully.