Which living thing is the best 'mascot' for long-term thinking?
The Long-termist's Field Guide: 1,000 Ideas For The Next 1,000 Years
You’re reading The Long-termist’s Field Guide, a newsletter about long-term thinking. Find out more about the project, and read previous posts here. This month’s edition is about trees, old sharks, coelacanths, spirals - and other sources of long-term inspiration from the natural world.
Spend enough time in long-termist circles, and somebody will tell you a story about trees.
Perhaps the most famous one is about the oaks of New College, Oxford. The tale goes that, sometime in the 1800s, officials realised they needed replacement beams for their main hall. To their surprise, they discovered that the college’s founders had planted a grove of oaks in the 1300s to supply the job. The story is often told to illustrate the virtues of long-term planning – even the former British Prime Minister David Cameron recounted it once during a Tory party conference speech. However, it is apocryphal. “I am amazed that this myth still continues: long-term tenacity if not long-term thinking,” the college archivist Jennifer Thorp once told me.
In a similar vein, there’s also the historical story about the UK Royal Navy growing trees around the world to supply wood for their ships. There might be more truth to this one. In the 18th Century, demand for naval timber drove “acorn fever”, when British citizens were encouraged to plant trees as an act of patriotism. Officers on leave like Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood secretly dropped acorns from his breeches when he visited parks. (The British military still plants trees and has a forestry team – but now it’s to help tackle climate change.)
I could mention many more. There’s the forest of cypress trees planted a century ago to supply Japan’s Shinto temples, which are rebuilt every 20 years. There’s artist David Nash’s “ash dome”, a circle of ash trees grown at a secret location in Wales in the hope they’d outlive him (sadly they’re now diseased). There’s Jean Giorno’s short story The Man Who Planted Trees, about a shepherd who converts a barren valley into a verdant paradise. There’s Roman Krznaric’s “acorn brain”. There’s the Long Now Foundation’s affection for the bristlecone pine. The Long Time project’s tree ring logo. And I, too, have taken inspiration from the tree, as a symbol of future possibilities.
What is it about trees and long-term thinking? There are plenty of inert objects that last beyond our lifetimes and leave a legacy for the future - a building, for instance. But perhaps the tree sparks the imagination because it is alive. There’s something reassuring about the idea of another organism living as long – if not longer – than us. They provide a helpful visual representation of time passing, via their branches or rings. And they are accessible, familiar, local.
That said, many of the tree stories are about long-term planning, and don’t necessarily capture all facets of long-term thinking. In some (but not all) of these tales, the tree is framed as a future resource to be exploited.
So, I wonder: might there be any alternative living creatures on Earth that could lay claim to be the unofficial symbol/mascot of the long-term thinker?
I’m aware the tree is probably a tough contender to displace, but here are a few suggestions… I’d love to hear yours too.
The coelacanth If you wanted an example of a long-term design that works, it’s this “living fossil”. Long thought extinct, the coelacanth has lived relatively unchanged in the deep ocean for millions of years. Recent studies also suggest that they might live for up to 100 years.
The Yareta plant A few years ago, the artist Rachel Sussman set out to photograph “the oldest living things in the world”. “I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits, in order to facilitate an anthropomorphic connection to a deep timescale, otherwise too physiologically challenging for our brain to internalise,” she explained. As well as visiting ancient trees and stromatolites, one of her most famous images was of the teletubby-like mounds of yareta (“la llaretas”), a dense, 2-3,000-year-old shrub that grows at high altitude in Chile’s Atacama desert.
The Greenland shark Unphotogenic it may be, but this shark is Earth’s longest-living vertebrate. Until recently, its true age was unknown. Some sharks can be dated according to growth bands on their fins, but for the Greenland species, scientists had to carbon-date proteins inside the creature’s eyes. One female they found was between 272 and 512 years old.
For more inspiration, I asked the journalist Chris Baraniuk for suggestions. He writes a new newsletter called The Nature Gatherer, about the relationship between human culture and the natural world (I’d recommend signing up!)
Here are three from him, along with his reasoning:
100 million year-old microbes “I’m not sure a bunch of bacteria will ignite curiosity and enthusiasm among the general public – though perhaps they should – but I have to mention this. Last year, scientists claimed to have revived microbes from 100 million-year-old marine sediment. That would place them among the oldest known living things ever documented. Even if the microbes turn out to be a bit younger than that, they’re certainly hardy and, I venture, an inspiration to us all. In a similar vein, scientists in Russia reported earlier this month that they had found 24,000 year-old microscopic worm-like organisms called rotifers in the permafrost. After thawing in the lab, the dutiful rotifers immediately began reproducing. Good things come to those who wait.”
Grass trees “These are not, strictly speaking, trees. Xanthorrhoea are Australian flowering desert plants that live for hundreds of years. They grow incredibly slowly and have a fascinating history – Aboriginal people have used their flower spikes as fish spears and their leaves as kindling for torches. But best of all, these plants can survive being burnt in a wildfire because they insulate their thick stems with dense layers of dead leaves. That makes them, I contend, a great symbol of the sort of resilience our civilisation requires in a warming world.”
‘Wisdom’, the albatross “This is a very special bird. Not centuries or millennia old, I’ll grant you. But, at 70 years or more, she is the oldest known wild bird in existence. And she’s still raising chicks! Wisdom may be far from the oldest living creature, but her enduring diligence and tenacity are remarkable to behold. And it seems fitting to select a mother as an icon of long-termism.”
But of all the possibilities for a living embodiment of long-termism, this would be my own choice:
The nautilus Nautiloids have been around 500 million years, and, for cephalopods, live a long life. The nautilus may have a simple brain, but researchers have been surprised to discover that they are capable of retaining long-term memories (relatively speaking). And like tree-rings, their shell shows its age visibly, with up to 30 chambers that they fill or drain to control their buoyancy within the water column. A remarkable design.
But what I like best is the shape. The nautilus shell is almost a “golden spiral”, with an elegant mathematical ratio that also happens to be seen in galaxies too.
A spiral, I believe, can be a helpful visual representation of time. As I’ve written previously, the mind’s default setting is to construct a future that is “far”, with time framed as linear. But when you think of time as a spiral, then the past and future seem more within reach. Deep time no longer stretches into the distance beyond the horizon, but is looping and closely coiled.
What would be your own nomination for a living symbol of long-term thinking? Let me know on social, or by replying to this email.
The fossilised city
Last month, I got to work with the writer and academic David Farrier – the author of the excellent book Footprints - on an essay for BBC Future titled “How cities will fossilise.” David used Shanghai as an example, imagining how one of its tallest buildings would erode, lithify and crystallise.
The artwork for the feature was drawn by the talented Emmanuel Lafont, who, generously and unexpectedly sent me a package of the feature’s prints in the mail. It made my month. Here’s my favourite… a spiral: