#12 Prelude to COP26: How can you weigh the future?

Hello!

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) and subscribe to the accompanying YouTube channel Ours For The Makinghere.

Today I’d like to share with you:

1. How can you weigh the future? With the UN Climate Conference just 27 days away, what are some of the ways we can weigh up the future to decide what action to take? 

2. This week’s video introduction: Last week has been a busy one here at Ours For The Making. I’ve been shooting a new video, which is the first in a new series to explore what living long term might might look like in practice. I talk a little bit more about it below. 

3. Future jam today: Three ways to think long term in a short term world.

1. How can you “weigh” the future? ⚖️ 

In 27 day’s time, leaders from around the globe shall assemble in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference 2021 (known as COP 26).

Delegates will need weigh up: given what we know (and don’t know and can’t know) about the climate crisis: what action should we commit to take? 

Central to this consideration is: how do we ‘weigh’ the future? 

So, what are the benefits and costs of certain courses of action? Can we even make a stab at what those costs and benefits are?

A second dimension is: what are our moral obligations to two distinct sets of people: those alive and those yet to be born. (And you could add a third group: the biosphere.)

A set of scales

So how should we balance the needs and wishes of these two groups of people?

In his book The Good Ancestor, public philosopher Roman Krznaric suggests that we picture a set of scales. On one side sits everyone alive today – some 7.7. billion people. On the other sits everyone yet to be born.

If you consider the relative loading of these scales, it’s clear that they are not evenly balanced; they are tipped heavily towards the future. 

But by how much? 

Krznaric points out that “[b]y one calculation, around 100 billion people have lived and died in the past 50,000 years; if the average birth rate of the 21st century is maintained for the next 50,000 years, around 6.75 trillion human beings will be born.”

These numbers alone present us with a backdrop to our decisions today that appears to overwhelmingly favour of the future. After all, if you have just a crumb of care for others, how could you possibly dismiss and downgrade the future well-being of all those people in favour of ‘just’ your own?

Let’s look at an example.

A cataclysmic event

The philosopher Derek Parfit explored this thorny ethical question in a thought experiment that considers a hypothetical cataclysmic event.

He considered two scenarios. In the first, a cataclysmic event dispatches 90 per cent of humanity. In the second, 100 per cent of humanity perishes.

Parfit then posed a simple question: how much worse is scenario two than scenario one?

On the one hand, some might say: 10 per cent worse as the raw number of people wiped out is 10 per cent higher.

Parfit, on the other hand, begs to differ. He would argue that the second scenario could be worse by a huge, huge margin. 

His reasoning? 

The loss of the last human calls time not only on their lives, but also snuffs out the existence of countless future people – billions, perhaps even trillions.

More people happy, or more happy people?

In Parfit’s thought experiment, we are asked to balance the needs, wishes and concerns of people alive and breathing with those of ‘possible’ people.

Again, the numbers alone appear to favour the future. But, as Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees notes in his book On the Future, “some philosophers criticise Parfit’s argument, denying that ‘possible people’ should be weighted as much as actual ones (‘we want to make more people happy, not make more happy people’).” 

Indeed, Rees himself views Parfit’s and others’ suggestions that we should so heavily shift our weight of concern towards the unborn as “naïve utilitarian arguments”.

Legacy lens

Perhaps a way to find a way through questions of how should we act based on whom we should act for is to reflect on the following two points:

  1. The rational argument. If we want to do good in the world, improving the future (rather than the immediate present) holds greater potential for betterment because of the sheer number of people it could positively affect. In other words, the numbers become a no-brainer: we should weigh the future more greatly and act in accordance with the numbers. 
  2. The emotional argument. Here, I’m talking about the human connection to these numbers. How are you related to these people through the lives of your children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren and their children. And what is your legacy to them?

In a recent episode of The common room philosophy podcast, Roman Krznaric highlights the importance of both the rational and emotional arguments.

If you consider the question whom are we acting for? not through the lens of vast numbers of possible people but rather through the lens of ‘legacy’ – i.e. what is the legacy you are gifting future generations – arguments about taking action to benefit the many future people become far more resonant – particularly with parliamentarians, Krznaric notes (and having spent many, many hours in parliamentary hearings in both the UK and in Brussels, I agree with him on this point). 

Why? Because ‘legacy’ is a kind of conceptual thread that binds together the big numbers and your personal connection to, if not all, at least some of those possible people and the world that they’ll inhabit.

So, the rational argument presents a framing to the question (which for COP26 delegates is “what action should we commit to take?”). It offers a perspective on the quantum of people in the future we are acting to help with our actions right now. 

But the emotional argument perhaps holds greater power to persuade those in the room, by forging a more personal connection and bond between what they do right now and the futures of all those possible people with whom they are directly related.

(As well as how history will judge them.)

Again, we find ourselves talking about our connection to others in the future (our empathy with their lives) as being a powerful motivational force that can influence how we make decisions in the present.

How we decide how much weight we should assign to the future is something I’ll explore further in next week’s issue.

👉 Hit reply with your thoughts and I’ll look to include them in next week’s issue.

2. This week’s introduction 📽️ 

Next video coming soon

I’ve been busy shooting a new video exploring what happens if you apply a long term lens to exercise.

For example, imagine exercising today not for your immediate goals – weight loss or gain, toning and so forth – but for your health in decades to come? 

We often hear about benefits ‘compounding’ over time, but what are the compound benefits of exercise?

This video on long term exercise will share with you how I got on testing a long term regime over the course of 8 weeks. It also explores an unusual technique to better motivate yourself towards such a long term goal.

Perhaps you’ll never look at exercising the way same again?

Coming very soon on the Ours For The Making YouTube channel.

3. Future jam today 😋

Three habits to master long term thinking

What’s key to long term thinking? Independence, curiosity, and resilience – argues writer, marketing strategy consultant and professional speaker, Dorie Clark in her latest book The Long Game: How to be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. Clark draws out the key points here in this article.

Thanks 🙏

Back to the present, thanks for reading and have a great week. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts – just hit reply.

Best wishes,

James

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