The well-being benefits of embracing deep time
The Long-termist's Field Guide: 1,000 Ideas For The Next 1,000 Years
I’ve been reflecting recently on the motivations that can draw people to the idea of long-termism. Over the past few years, I’ve observed people converging on the long view from totally different starting points: philosophy, technology, art and culture, anthropology and more.
There are clearly intellectual reasons that so many people are now advocating for long-term thinking, many of them rooted in concerns over short-termism in culture and politics, as well as the risks and collective challenges we face as a species this century.
But today I wanted to focus on the emotional motivations – and some of the personal benefits. As I’ve written in past newsletters, for me long-termism has always been there in some form, but recently I realised that my interest may have been, in part, a form of coping mechanism.
Ten years ago, my dad died, which as well as grief, brought reflection about mortality. A couple of years after that, my daughter was born, which made me realise that our generation was poised to leave behind a degraded world for our children. Year-after-year of worrying global events only deepened those concerns.
Long-termism offers a balm of sorts. It allows the mind to transcend the stresses of the present, and travel to other times. In times of difficulty, it tells you “this will pass”, providing perspective; in times of uncertainty, it can offer a set of secular guiding principles for navigating the world.
While everyone is different, I believe it’s important to identify the personal benefits of long-term thinking. If you want to persuade people to think beyond the present – to care about strangers living in an abstract future, for instance – you need more than cold logic and a rational argument. You need to give them emotional reasons too.
In that vein, this week I edited an essay for the BBC by the anthropologist Vincent Ialenti, who recently published Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now (MIT Press).
Vincent is such an interesting guy to talk to. For his research, he spent two-and-a-half years in Finland embedded with the planners of a nuclear waste repository beneath the island of Olkiluoto. By telling the stories of these “Safety Case” experts, his book aims to draw out universal lessons and principles for long-term thinking.
In his essay, he makes the case that embracing deep time can promote well-being. “Contemplating deeper time can help replenish our mental energies during adversity, and offer a meditative source of catharsis amid the frenzy of the now,” he writes.
One route to this is by taking a cue from the way that the Finnish Safety Case experts turned to “deep time analogues”. To understand the impact of future ice ages, they visited glaciers near Kangerlussuaq in Greenland, and to understand the long-term corrosion of their waste containers, they looked at copper cannons on historic warships.
Vincent’s argument is that there are similar examples of deep time all around us if we care to look, from long-eroded mountains to prehistoric plants. And by seeking them out, there is solace and perspective to be found.
That is not to say, of course, that we should bury our heads in the sand about this year’s global traumas or deep-rooted problems. I’m well aware that deep time can be a form of escapism – a luxury – that is more accessible to the comfortable and privileged.
I think Robert Macfarlane put it best in his book Underland: “There is a dangerous comfort to be drawn from deep time. An ethical lotus-eating beckons. What does our behaviour matter, when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human morality looks absurd – crushed to irrelevance.
“We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it.”
This month’s “long-terminology”
As David Farrier pointed out in his book Footprints, the term “deep time” may have first appeared in the writing of Thomas Carlyle in 1832. But it was popularised by the writer John McPhee in the 1980s, to capture the dizzying scale of geological chronologies. As he wrote in his book Basin and Range: “People think in five generations – two ahead, two behind – with heavy concentration on the one in the middle. Possibly that is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it.”
The name that Vincent Ialenti gives to “open-ended guidance for embracing long-term thinking”. These are not hard instructions, rather suggested starting points, he says. An example would be his analogical thought experiments, inspired by his studies of nuclear waste planners in Finland, that encourage us to seek out examples of deep time on our doorstep. These can help to transport the mind out of the present to other ages.
Thanks very much for reading. I’d love to hear about your own personal motivations for embracing long-term thinking, so don’t hesitate to get in touch. And please do pass on this newsletter to others if you think they’d like it.
I wish you all the best for the holidays and new year.