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The End of Long-Term Thinking

My intent, from this point forward, is to stop talking about the "long-term." No more long-term problems, long-term solutions, long-term changes. No more long-term perspectives.

In its place, I'm going to start talking about "multigenerational" issues. Multigenerational problems, solutions, changes. Multigenerational perspectives.

The advantage of the term "multigenerational" is threefold.

Firstly, it returns a sense of perspective that's often absent from purportedly "long-term" thinking. In a culture that has tended to operate on the "worry about tomorrow, tomorrow" model, looking at the next year can seem daring, and looking ahead five years can seem outrageous. But five years out isn't very long for long-term thinking; even ten years is better thought of as mid-range. Multi-generational, conversely, suggests that whatever we're thinking about may require us to think ahead 20+ years.

Secondly, it reinforces the notion that choices we make today don't just impact some distant future person (subject to discounting), but can and will directly affect our physical and cultural offspring. (Even those of us without kids of our own recognize that we have a role in shaping subsequent generations.) That is to say, "multigenerational" carries with it a greater implied responsibility than does "long-term."

Finally, it doesn't let us skip over the journey from today to the future. "Multigenerational" demands that we include generations along the way -- and while the core meaning of the term refers to human populations, one could stretch the concept to include other systems that show generational cycles.

This is a key difference between "long-term" and "multigenerational," but it's a subtle one. When we talk about the long-term, the corresponding structure of language -- and thinking -- tends to bias us towards a kind of punctuated futurism, pushing us to look ahead to the end of the era in question while leaping over the intervening years. This skews our perspective. "In the long run, we are all dead" John Maynard Keynes famously said -- but over that same long run, we will all have lived our lives, too.

I'm increasingly convinced that, when looking ahead, the focus should be less on the destination than on how we get there. Yet that's not how we discuss long-term issues. When we describe climate change as a long-term problem, for example, we inevitably end up talking about what it would look like down the road, after some "tipping point" perhaps, or at a particular calendar demarcation (2050 or 2100). Although there's no explicit denial that climate change is something with implications for every year between now and then, our attention -- our foresight gaze, as we might think of it -- is drawn to that distant end-point, not to the path.

My thoughts about "long-run" vs. "long-lag" problems cover a similar issue, looking at how our articulations of the future shape our thoughts of it. But this is a deeper problem, one that the "long-lag" concept only hints at.

"Multigenerational" has two drawbacks, however. The first is that, simply put, it's a bear of a word. Multi-syllabic, 17 letters in length, it requires a bit more effort than "long-term" to write or say. While not an insurmountable barrier, this does mean that sheer laziness will bias me towards "long-term."

The second is a bit more serious. As noted above, multigenerational implies looking ahead twenty or more years. If we consider a ten-year horizon to be the outer edge of medium-term, there's still the "near-long-term" range between ten and twenty years out to worry about. It's definitely not multigenerational -- hell, it's really not even generational. Yet it's still well beyond the comfortable "foresight window" for most people (which, in my experience, tends to be about five years). At this point, I'm likely to just roll that time range into multigenerational, but the inherent inaccuracy leaves me wanting a better solution.

I first started thinking about the multigenerational vs. long-term language a month or so ago, while talking with colleagues working on a new foresight-driven non-profit. Its utility was solidified, however, when Emily Gertz pointed me to this essay by science fiction writer and green futurist Kim Stanley Robinson, "Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme," which looks out at what's needed to develop a postcapitalism perspective. KSR is one of the best world-builder science fiction writers out there, in my opinion, and he has an excellent sense of historical patterns. If he's taken to using "multigenerational," then I feel confident of its value.

Language matters, especially when considering something that's intrinsically conceptual rather than physical. "Long-term" has a lengthy (!) history and deep cultural roots; I expect that I'll find myself using the phrase for some time, even as I try to shift to "multigenerational." But right now we're facing a century of what could easily be the greatest overlapping set of crises our civilization has ever seen. If we're to get through this era intact, we'll need all the tools at our disposal -- and to be thinking about the consequences of our actions with as much acuity and clarity as humanly possible.


I've been making a distinction between types of capitalists for a few years now: short-term capitalists (who are only concerned with themselves) and long-term capitalists (who take their children and grand-children into account and behave differently - more socially responsibly - as a consequence). When I've described "long-term capitalism', I've often used the phrase "multi-generational perspective". Needless to say, I like the change in wording.

This is very nice to hear, especially as a contrasting voice to Bre Pettis's flippant "Done worship"

Getting things done is one thing, but getting things right is something different. And, when "right" must apply not just for the now, but for the Long Now, then "doneness" becomes almost superfluous in the face of concerns like appropriateness, resilience, or humility

'Gobstopper' was my initial reaction.

Still, if 'multi-generational' catches on, the continual action of innumerable tongues and palates will wear it down to something more comfortable ('multigen', 'mulgenal', ?) quicker than you can say 'participatory panopticon'

20 years is long term thinking? 20 years is far too close for my tastes, 20 years means I have to live through that future.

Given a few technological advances and some better health habits even 100 years might be too close.

It's a good switch. One of the speed bumps I find in getting people to think about the future is that they/we think far too atomistically (if that's a word?) - as if we are solo operators in the universe. But we are connected forward and backward and side wise to people we feel responsible for. Some of us do anyway, and some extend that sense of interconnectedness beyond family. A lot of folks heavily influenced by libertarianism seem to conceive of themselves as completely disconnected beings. So yes, 'multigeneration' is a very humanizing way to say it.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a wonderful writer.

Borrowing inspiration from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, we've found that deliberating for the Seventh Generation to come works really well. That's 7 real generations, not abbreviated ones.

David Orr made a similar point last night at Cooper Union's sesquicentennial (how's that for a harder word than multigenerational?).
No audio posted yet.

He also talked of how we must consider how our current choices place constraints on the choices of future generations. He couched it as a civil rights issue that we don't recognize the rights those who may come after us.


I am not taking any children, and I am going to be dead before 2050 in the current scenario, and so will everyone whom I give a damn about. So I have absolutely ZERO interest in what comes after. It can crash and burn for all I care. Start by researching me some robust life extension and a cornership way to make my life feel a LOT better, on a reliable and affordable basis, and I'll plan for the future. Right now I am raking in what I can and maximizing my environmental impact - because people on average don't give a damn about my concerns.

I work from the assumption humanity is on the way out and I am sure as hell not going to miss it for a second.

Khannea, if you believe that our worst traits define us, that short-term thinking is the only thinking we're capable of, and that it's effectively over, then, yes, it's over. That's a way of thinking and acting that guarantees the outcome. In our times especially, amoral is immoral, and frankly, it's damned boring.

Jamais, "Multigenerational" is a good meme. There's probably a more beautiful word, especially in other languages, but I haven't thought of it.

I went ahead and approved Khannea's comment because it's a useful reminder that this kind of thinking is alive and well. It gives those of us who feel a responsibility towards the future a clearer sense of the scale of the work required.

I'm glad that the "multigenerational" framing works for (most of) you folks.

One quick thought: a simple difference between the implications of "long term" and the implications of "multigenerational" could be long term=delayed, while multigenerational=persistent.

To me it has the opposite effect and weakens the impact. Multi = more than one, generation= 20 years, therefore multigenerational = at the very least is 40 years and probably 60+. Maybe its an American thing?

More than one generation and discounting kicks in along with any sense of urgency.

You can't predict half a century ahead, and we need urgency and action now!

As someone who operates entirely from a position of selfishness, I argue in favor of multi-generational planning for the same reasons I argue in favor of respecting intellectual property laws (instead of grabbing all the free goodies as quick as you can): planning for the future will, I believe, make my life better in the near-term.

Khannea's attitude is a minority view -- only around 80% of the public (if I remember the poll I saw reported on) want children. I'm childless, and likely to remain that way, and I'm also unlikely to make it to 2050 without medical breakthroughs (I'd be 86 and I have at least one ticking genetic time-bomb).

On the other hand, despite being child-free I disagree with Khannea's attitude to consumption -- specifically because there's still a chance I'll be around in 2050, and also because I happen to have friends and relatives who are younger than I am. I want to be remembered by people, and not in a bad way. (Make of that what you will ...)

I suspect the percentage following Khannea's reasoning (not gonna have children AND don't care about the future) is going to increase in the short term. The not-having-children bit is arguably a good thing -- if it doesn't catch on to some extent, the population overshoot isn't going to deflate. (A too-rapid population-led deflation is of course a bad thing too, but probably not as bad as the outright Malthusian catastrophe which seems to be the main alternative on offer.) But we need temper the urge to maximize our resource consumption that often goes with the decision not to have kids: if nothing else, to divert the selfishness into consumption of information resources that are less environmentally damaging than consumption of physical resources.

(Plus, if the horse learns to sing I may be here for a lot longer than 41 more years!)

And now, back to multi-generational thinking:

We still build cathedrals, because the Catholic Church is one of the few social institutions humans have constructed that has an uninterrupted life span an order of magnitude (or more) longer than a human life expectancy. I think the biggest problem we face is permanence -- building stuff for the long term. For example, if we have to undertake geoengineering to remediate global climate change, that's not a generational project, or even a multi-generational project, it's a millennial project. That's not something free-market capitalism can sensibly tackle; capitalism runs, as Buckminster Fuller observed, on an accounting cycle developed by Sumerian tax bureaucrats for skimming the surplus of their subsistence farming peasants. Corporations have a life expectancy of around 30 years (coincidentally -- or not -- on the same order as the working life span of their founders). Our social institutions are the key weak spot here; we are absolutely lousy at building long-lived institutions that can carry truly long-term projects through to fruition, or support ongoing efforts.

We've got a couple of religious institutions (the Catholic Church) at the 1000-2000 year mark, a couple of quasi-religious governmental institutions around the 1000 year mark (the Japanese monarchy, for example), and a bunch of nations that have governmental continuity going back up to 200 years. The USA is, despite its revolutionary/exceptionalist founding rhetoric, now one of the older nations with continuity of government. (Here in the UK -- which many people think of as old -- we only go back to 1688 before you run into an inconvenient coup d'etat and a low-grade civil war; so much for British traditionalism.)

How do we build long-term institutions?

I'm not sure -- but I'm pretty certain that the answer will not be found through any conceivable development of market capitalism as currently practiced.

So Jamais, are you thinking in terms of generations of cats or generations of Macs?


It's definitely a valuable word worth using. Whether or not an individual wants kids or not is irrelevant. The power of the word is that it reminds us of process. When the process, through human lives, is connoted, you're more likely to have empathy for those people down the road.

I don't think that it makes sense to replace one word with another in all instances. We should use multigenerational when emphasizing the process, and long-term when emphasizing events. For instance, the multigenerational effects of unregulated climate change include rising food prices and famines, increased spread of disease, the rising of the sea, the decline of species and a number of awful processes, whereas the long-term effects of unregulated global warming are the collapse of the global food system, drastic reduction of the human population and so on, things which we can view as punctuated events, by their ratio of historical magnitude to timescale.

Heh, Drew, you've evidently read my bio!

As Nick notes, an individual reproductive choices are less on-point than the broader cultural perspective.

And, Nick, I think the way you draw a distinction between long-term=events and multigenerational=process is useful.

And Charlie, I think you're 100% right -- the big question now is identifying what's coming next.

Only had time to skim some of the longer comments so I apologize if there's redundancy. Clearly one of the great challenges of language is to frame the human condition in the most accurate way possible (but only if we can agree on the deno/connotations). I could see "multigenerational" making a play for the "sustainable" meme, possibly better playing into our evolutionary/amygdala-controlled decisions.

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