Are you a good ancestor?

Hello!

This is the issue of The Makers that your children’s children hope you will read.

Welcome to The Makers and a very warm welcome to new subscribers joining us this week. You can read all previous issues here (scroll to bottom of the page).

You might have noticed that there’s been a slight intermission since the last issue of The Makers. The reason? Well, it’s been a reassuringly busy time here at Ours For The Making studios, with a huge effort and focus on producing new videos for you on the subject of time and how we might better engage with it. 

You can take a peek here.

Today’s issue is all about the question: “are we being good ancestors?”. First, a summary of the book, The Good Ancestor, followed by links to the excellent Long Time Academy podcast that explores the idea further.

1. Are you a good ancestor? 🌳

Watch the video version of this article:

This is the first part in a new series called The Timeful Book Club where we draw out and discuss the key insights from books on how we engage with time.

Today I’m going to summarise some of the many highlights from The Good Ancestor by public philosopher, Roman Krznaric. 

The book for our age of short-term thinking

Sometimes a book comes along which captures the mood of the moment – which I believe you could summarise as being a mixture of, on the one hand, a weariness of trying to achieve endless productivity in the short term, and on the other hand grappling with our very real concerns about the state of the planet that we are leaving to future generations.

And it’s to this second point that the Good Ancestor really explores the ways in which you can start to think long term in a short term world.

If you’re new to, or just curious about, long-term thinking, what it might involve, it’s benefits, how it works in practice, this is THE book that you should start with. In just over 250 pages, it covers a huge amount of ground. (Or, to be more precise: time.)

Are we being good ancestors?

The Good Ancestor opens with a simple question from medical researcher Jonas Salk. Salk headed the team that developed the first effective vaccine for polio. And rather than seeking to personally profit by patenting this breakthrough vaccine, Salk sought to be of some help to humankind. And he later distilled his life philosophy into a single question:“Are we being good ancestors?”

From this point of departure, Krznaric explores the many facets of this urgent question. A question that Krznaric acknowledges is a “formidable task” given that we live in an age of “pathological short-terminism” 

Krznaric identifies six drivers of short-termism present in the world around us.

6 Drivers of Short-Termism

  1. The tyranny of the clock – where the perception of time held by our ancestors, such as circular time driven by repeating patterns of sleep and seasons, has been replaced by our modern concept of linear time where we are all drilled into step by mechanical clocks.
  2. Digital distraction – whereby technology competes to hijack your attention.
  3. Political presentism – where elected representatives have a myopic focus on the next election, opinion poll or just the next tweet.
  4. Speculative capitalism – with its volatile boom and bust financial markets and near instantaneous electronic trading.
  5. Networked uncertainty – where risks of global contagion, be that a pandemic or economic.
  6. Perpetual growth – chasing after the next near-term target over longer-term sustainable growth.

Krznaric believes that, taken together, these drivers hold the potential to “drag us over the edge of civilisational breakdown”

And so what is the counterpoint to all this short-termism?

The book offers six ways to think long.

6 Ways to Think Long

  1. Deep time humility
  2. Adopt a legacy mindset
  3. Intergenerational justice
  4. Cathedral Thinking
  5. Holistic forecasting – imagining the many possible future pathways for us
  6. Transcendent goal – We should strive for one-planet thriving via a “transcendent goal”.

Here, I’m going to focus on the three which really resonated with me personally.

The first is deep time humility. 

Thinking long #1: Deep time humility

This is all about recognising how humankind is but an eye blink in comic history. Day to day life obscures this perspective that is neatly captured in the book by a metaphor of a calendar:

New Year’s day to Halloween represents the vast Precambrian period (some four billion years of earth’s history). Dinosaurs make an appearance mid-December before vanishing on Boxing Day. The last Ice sheet turns to slush a minute before midnight on 31st December. Oh, and the epic Roman Empire? That pops in and out of existence for a mere five seconds! 

If the drivers of short-termism severed our links with these deeper natural cycles, ancient woodlands and the geology beneath our feet are just a few portals for us to travel through to reach this wider expanse of time. 

And perhaps they can help us to ponder, for just a moment, our cosmic insignificance.

Thinking long #2: Legacy mindset

“How can we be remembered well?” – Krznaric, The Good Ancestor

The second way to think long that I want to talk about from the book is adopting a legacy mindset.

Krznaric asks: “How will the people of the future remember us?”

Which begs the question: “How can we be remembered well?”

A common interpretation of legacy is essentially familial: to leave something behind in a will to loved ones. This usually takes the form of assets – pounds, paintings or property – or non-material possessions such as values, language, culture or traditions.

Krznaric challenges you, however, to think a bit more broadly. 

He invites you to set aside your urge for personal glory – having a museum wing named after you (those of you watching the brilliant series Dopesickwith Michael Keaton might appreciate this point) – or leaving your offspring a weighty inheritance, and instead adopt what he calls a “transcendent legacy mindset”. 

The aim is to be remembered by future generations you’ll never know “ the universe of strangers of the future”

Thinking long #3: Cathedral thinking

The third way of thinking long that I’m going to talk about today is a concept called “Cathedral Thinking” – this is the art of planning into the distant future.

In the book, Krznaric illustrates not only the concept, but also documents the many examples from history that demonstrate our capacity to think long, plan long and build towards a specific goal with a time horizon stretching out hundreds of years.

One example in the book is drawn from a city in South West Germany called Ulm, where inhabitants decided to fund the building of a new church in 1377. 

Half a millennium later, Ulm Minster was completed in 1890. The original contributors who kickstarted this project would never see the project’s completion. 

Similar things could be said of Gaudi’s masterpiece La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona. And this idea of how a Cathedral could inspire generations of people is dramatised in Ken Follet’s epic novel “The Pillars of The Earth”.

The idea of ‘Cathedral Thinking’ is, Krznaric suggests, a kind of short-hand for the long-term vision found in these soaring, awe-inspiring historical buildings, yet sadly lacking in our contemporary politics and commerce. 

But it’s worth stressing that Cathedral Thinking is not only to be found in Cathedrals nor is it limited to buildings. 

The book notes that everything from the Great Wall of China to London’s sewer system to the American Constitution serve as examples of how human societies have embarked on long-term projects stretching out over decades and centuries.

This was just a short summary of three of the six ways to think long that this book discusses, and there is a huge amount of factoids and curiosities, as well as very thought provoking ideas packed and into this book.

I see The Good Ancestor as a gateway book to the many ways you and I can upturn our rigid fixation on the short now. And it serves as an invitation to become what the book calls “time rebels”. The Good Ancestor is a call to action – to think and do ‘long’.

This was the first in a new seriese called The Timeful Book Club which shares key insights from books on how we engage with time.

2. Future jam today 😋

To continue today’s theme of being a good ancestor, here is a link to a new podcast collaboration between the Long Time Project and Headspacecalled the Long Time Academy. The series explores how to change the way you engage with time (which should sound familiar to you as a reader of The Makers!).

I recommend listening to the whole series which is being drip-released over the coming weeks. I attach here a link to a bonus practice that takes you on a journey to express kindness towards future generations. Enjoy! You can listen here. If you enjoy it, be sure to show your appreciation on Twitter, etc.

Thanks 🙏

Thanks for reading, watching, subscribing and being a Maker. I really appreciate it.

If you’ve enjoyed this edition of The Makers, you’d be doing me a kind and generous favour by sharing it with someone who might enjoy it also. 

And if you have questions or comments, do hit reply. 

Until next time…

Best wishes,

James

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