What Makes Environmentalism So Hard? Short-Termism and the Importance of Timefulness


Your phone buzzes. Laptop lights up. Alarm rings. Your day is held together, strung by, the minute-by-minute succession of moments, so much so that you – and I – find ourselves wound together by the overwhelming grip of the present.

It’s no surprise. Evolutionarily, in fact, our brains are wired for the Now. If we close our eyes and try very hard, we can faintly imagine what evolutionary psychologists often implore us to envision, in attempting to explain the cognitive ins and outs of modern-day humans. Thus the wildly exotic scene: ancient Homo sapiens, thousands of years ago, roaming unsullied lands, not yet conquerors of nature, and yet acutely aware of their environs. If a threat springs forward – say, the classic saber-toothed tiger – then the early Homo sapiens brain – not too different from ours today – must trigger a physical response, or else its owner pays the price. Our ancestors survived by living hand-in-hand with immediacy. Urgency was key to survival. The Now reigned, as it does today.

Short-Termism

Regardless of your views on evolutionary psychology, it offers a promising, if not worthwhile, explanation as to why tackling climate change seems so incredibly difficult to us today. We’ve heard this a million times, simply because it’s true: that if we allow ourselves to be swept along by the tides of our 21st-century circumstances – which are, as we’ve all experienced, incredibly difficult to resist – we find our lives becoming increasingly fast-paced. So much so, in fact, that we experience, according to sociologist Elise Boulding, “temporal exhaustion”. “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present,” she said, “there is no energy left for imagining the future.” Though she explained the phenomenon in 1978, it certainly seems to hold true today.

“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present,” she said, “there is no energy left for imagining the future.”

Despite having been warned of its potentially catastrophic outcomes in the past few decades, the human race has been relatively slow to mobilise itself in reaction to the imminent climate crisis. If we were all truly rational creatures, Greta Thunberg’s climate strike should have been no surprise at all – yet our clamorous reaction to it bespeaks only our unpreparedness to face the crisis, the novelty of her cry, and the remarkable insensitivity we possess to a problem so portentous and imminent, from which activists like Thunberg awaken us. “If we fail to start the rapid transformation of our society,” the 16-year-old said on Twitter, “then basically nothing else will matter in the future.”

Why, one wonders, do we need such ardent convincing? Why do we fall short? She is right – we stand on breaking ice – literally (the Arctic, of all places, is reaching temperatures rivalling that of Singapore’s) – and yet we remain steadfastly myopic.

The endearing “horse and rider” image is apt: the rider, representing our rational faculties, knows it’s better to think ahead, but the horse, representing our impetuous urges, often has other ideas, and many a time the saddle and whip are insufficient to tame it.

“We have the innate ability, then, to imagine the consequences of our actions in deeper time, but sadly not always the will or the motivation to escape the salience of the present,” said Richard Fisher. In other words, short-termism – our often excessive fixation on the present – can easily blind us to the deeper and more far-reaching narratives of ourselves, our societies, and our world.

How can we challenge short-termism? We must begin with the awareness of how this outlook influences out cognitive faculties. We must then evaluate them by raising a mirror to ourselves and recognising our own shortcomings, to know where we must improve.

“We have the innate ability, then, to imagine the consequences of our actions in deeper time, but sadly not always the will or the motivation to escape the salience of the present”..

To begin with, a BBC article on our evolutionary tendencies suggests we possess a host of cognitive biases that make the present overwhelming and climate change a distant problem. One of them is hyperbolic discounting.

Social Discounting

Though we recognise the fallacy of short-term gratification, we still fall prey to it. A study found that people are more likely to accept an offer of £10 today, rather than £12 by the end of the week; to smoke cigarettes despite a shortened life; to spend on pleasures, than to save for rainy days. We are plagued by an often invisible, and irresistible, present bias: the favouring of the Now over the Then, regardless of how irrational that choice may be. In short, we discount the future.

How, then, should we go about addressing this? We cannot, of course, be so myopic as to completely disregard the future, but the future cannot make us blind to the needs of the present. Policy-makers have a tool that helps them make decisions that purport to balance both: social discount rates. As explained by Fisher, “it weighs the upsides for future people against costs borne in the present-day, and proposes that the calculated value of benefits to future economies and people should steadily decline over time.” In other words, social discounting considers future benefits against the price we would pay for said benefits in the present. However, it also assumes that benefits in the future are worth less than if the benefits were had today: “it’ll tell you that a 5% boost in economic growth in 12 months is better than a 5% boost in 12 years”. Just like financial discount rates, $1 million today is worth more than the same amount in a few years’ time.

Social discount rates are at the base of every discussion about climate change, according to Fisher. How much are we willing to give up for future generations? How much cost to the present is acceptable? Essentially, we are asking: how big a discount rate should we apply?

Since social discount rates are based on the compression of complex issues into malleable numbers, it is easy for us to close an eye on the future. To feel better about the decisions we make today, we simply magnify the cost of eco-friendly actions today and minimise the consequent impact of environmental neglect, though neither magnification nor minimisation stand on truly rational ground.

Moreover, the social discount model can be dangerous. Is it justifiable to treat social problems like economic ones – to reduce future generations to statistics, or their needs to depreciating numbers? Harm done to an individual today would surely be equal injury committed to a person in the future – even if that person is someone the brevity of our lifespans will never permit us to meet.

Considering the sheer scale of future generations, the awareness of which will make our current 7 billion feel dwarfish, we could very well be ‘colonising’ those we shall never meet, but whose health, security and peace we will be plundering without compunction. Indeed, to Roman Krznaric, “We treat the future as a distant colonial outpost where we dump ecological degradation, nuclear waste, public debt and technological risk.”

Though the social discount rate is used as a statistical tool, we are all guilty with toying with it – though less quantifiably, and in ways more flexible to our comforts – whenever we shrug off an environmental transgression.

"To feel better about the decisions we make today, we simply magnify the cost of eco-friendly actions today and minimise the consequent impact of environmental neglect, though neither magnification nor minimisation stand on truly rational ground."

Timefulness and Cathedral Thinking

However, we cannot end with an accusation. We must learn to be rewired – to be “timeful”. “Timefulness”, as described by Marcia Bjornerud, is “the ability to locate ourselves within eras and aeons, rather than weeks and months”. The concept of deliberately expanding our field of chronological vision might feel deeply alien to us, as if the rapidity and connectivity of the present denies us the chance to even begin. So we look to the past, and we look to cathedral thinking.

“Timefulness, as described by Marcia Bjornerud, is 'the ability to locate ourselves within eras and aeons, rather than weeks and months'”.

In medieval Europe, some cathedrals took several generations to be built: Notre-Dame de Paris took about a century to complete; the York Minster Cathedral, 252 years; and, at the far end of the spectrum, the Cologne Cathedral took 632 years! Foundations laid down by one man could be built on, and the entire structure finished by his children’s children, or his children’s children’s children. The thought is almost unfathomable.

People have likened the restoration of our damaged ecosystem quite hopefully to the building of a cathedral. Of course, the analogy, like all others, falls short in certain areas. Cathedrals built in the middle ages took time because money could be lacking, and because their builders didn’t have the technology we possess today. What we regard, rather, is the vision, patience and charity of cathedral thinking. We cannot demolish the earth beneath us and leave no ground for future generations to build on. We must carefully, with all forbearance and love, set down the tiles. The project ahead is gargantuan, and we may not be able to do much more, but it is certainly better than nothing.

We do not, however, abandon the present. The architects, stonemasons and artisans that built the cathedrals in the middle ages did so through mundane persistence: through the daily routine of waking, wielding their tools, and working. We, too, can learn to use the present to inform the future, rather than having the former blind us entirely to the latter.

Timefulness is difficult, and we will fail, time and time again. Yet what is more enduring than ourselves and our actions are the vision, perspective, and cultural vocabulary we build in and around ourselves, which will go beyond the boundaries we cannot reach. Perhaps, indeed, we can have cathedral thinking – about cathedral thinking itself.


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