You’re reading The Long-termist’s Field Guide, a newsletter about long-term thinking. This edition is about rituals, and why long-term thinkers need them. If you’re new to this newsletter, here’s some context.
At this time of year, many people participate in long-lived rituals and traditions. Some of them, from an alien’s perspective, might seem curious: why exactly do these Earthlings place dead trees inside their houses and decorate them? And what’s with those big socks on the fireplace?
Over the centuries, many cultures have developed their own specific ritual acts for the festive season: a Welsh folk tradition of parading a horse’s skull dressed in ribbons and a sheet, the consumption of Kentucky Fried Christmas in Japan, or the way Icelandic children leave shoes in their windows for a band of trolls called the Yule Lads (with names such as Spoon Licker, Sausage Swiper, and Meat Hook).
Plenty of rituals have no obvious, rational reason to be performed in the way that they are, and one culture’s tradition can raise eyebrows in others. But the detail does not matter. It’s about the ideas they carry.
And this, I believe, is something that those who care about the long view should embrace.
Rituals are often coupled with pro-social beliefs, such as the importance of community, generosity and being good. And through repetition and long-lived observance, they are a human behaviour on which these ideas can travel across decades and centuries. In a few hundred years’ time, people will be using radically different technologies, but they will almost certainly continue participating in traditions with family, friends and neighbours that bring them together around positive shared values.
I was at a dinner recently with a group of longtermists (the effective altruism version) where rituals were discussed. The feeling was that longtermism, as a nascent movement, seems to lack them. Probably the closest is the Giving What We Can Pledge, which involves making a public commitment to donating a proportion of your lifetime income to do good. As far as I know, however, it involves no ceremony, dressing up, or food consumption.
Some rationally-minded sceptics might be reluctant to participate in some sort of quasi-spiritual ritual – especially if they take themselves seriously intellectually. If so, I would point them towards the once-a-century Mallard ceremony at Oxford University. Once every 100 years at All Souls College, the academics parade around the quad singing a song about ducks, following a wooden mallard on a pole. It’s a tradition with roots in the Late Middle Ages: supposedly a mallard flew out of the college foundations as it was being built in 1437.
Long-minded rituals need not be so colourful though. I asked Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, the director of strategy at the Long Now Foundation, how they think about rituals within their team. As it approaches its 25th birthday, Long Now is currently thinking about its “next quarter” – the next 25 years – and how to ensure its ideas carry on after its original founders step back and eventually pass away.
Brysiewicz cited the obvious events like their monthly seminars, as well as Friday afternoon gatherings for the broader Long Now community at the foundation’s bar, The Interval. But there are also less frequent traditions that he and his colleagues follow: for example, the team makes annual camping “pilgrimages” to the original site of the 10,000 Year Clock project in Eastern Nevada.
Another Long Now tradition that I participated in last summer was the “chalking of the horse”. The White Horse of Uffington is a giant chalk mural on the side of a hill in Oxfordshire, dating to the Bronze Age. Notably it has endured far longer than almost anything else left behind by the ancient people that put it there. Why? Because it has been regularly maintained.
A couple of years ago, the architect Chris Daniel, who runs Long Now’s London chapter, decided to join that maintenance tradition by leading a field trip to the horse, to help the National Trust rechalk it. So, in August, I found myself crouched over the surface of the horse along with several others, bashing rocky chunks of chalk into a fine powder with a mallet.
My wife had teased me beforehand, suggesting that the trip would be just me and several other Robert Macfarlane wannabes, remarking wistfully on the “old ways” and “the purity of manual labour”, all planning how we’d write about the experience. Speaking for myself, she wasn’t that far wrong, because I’m writing about it now. But I enjoyed it – and it was enriching to chat with others about the long view while we worked on a shared task.
Perhaps the idea of chalking a horse – or chasing a mallard – is not for you. But again, I would emphasise that the ritual itself is secondary. What matters is the participation in a deliberate, regular act of community, centred on shared values.
If you believe that the long view matters, ask yourself: what will carry forward these ideas after you and I have left the stage? Multi-generational thinking is, after all, a multi-generational endeavour.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your suggestions and ideas about long-term rituals on social media or by email reply.
Creatures of the dawn
This year, I’ve been fortunate to get to know Thomas Moynihan, the author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction and a research fellow at Forethought Foundation and Oxford University. I’ve learnt a lot from our conversations – particularly about the importance of taking a historical view of long-term thinking.
In September on BBC Future, he wrote us a fascinating history of how the discovery of radioactivity transformed perceptions about the long-term future. Before the early 1900s, many scientists expected the Sun to die out in a few hundred thousand years, but atomic discoveries revised that expectation upwards by billions.
Moynihan’s piece also features cameos from some early-20th Century long-term thinkers such as the physicist James Jeans, who proposed a compelling analogy for deep time based on postage stamps and Cleopatra’s needle, and whose words echo present-day longtermists talking about humanity’s future potential. With the realisation that humanity might only be beginning its story, Jeans deemed us “creatures of the dawn”, with “unimaginable opportunities for accomplishment" and “unexplored potentialities” ahead. And he said that in 1928!
Thanks very much for reading – and apologies for the long pause since the last newsletter. For the past few months, I’ve been putting the finishing touches to an all-consuming writing project. I’m really excited about it, and will share more in future newsletters!
Wishing you all the best for a pleasant and long-minded holiday,