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Opinion: The importance of ‘the long now’

3 min read
the long now

With the advent of AI, rapid changes in our global climate, and a growing awareness that sustainability in all its forms can’t be achieved without drastic change, the concept of ‘next generation thinking’ is front of mind for leaders across every sector and industry. This includes questions about ethical innovation, sustainable development, and how we can use today to solve the problems of tomorrow. 

For me, next generation thinking is clearly about the future. Not just the future of our industries but of our children and grandchildren, and all those who come after us.  

In his book, The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric speaks to a Native American concept called ‘seventh generation thinking’. As Krznaric explains, thinking about the future demands a desire to care deeply about the impact our decisions will have on the next seven generations. 

When we reflect on this for a moment, it highlights how short-term we really are. But despite the apparent fleetingness of it all, the choices we make can have a resounding impact. Looking back on the generations who came before us, we can clearly see how their decisions shaped our world today. 

The seven generations prior witnessed events like Captain Cook arriving in Australia and the UK making a suite of political decisions to occupy this country – an event which we now know resulted in over a hundred years of deeply negative consequences for our Indigenous populations and wider society. In the 1800s, coal began being mined for transportation and eventually power, which ultimately drove the Industrial Revolution. At the time, this development brought significant benefits to society at large, seemingly outweighing the importance of research or consideration of environmental impact. However, today we are all too familiar with the consequences of this development, with our changing climate now one of the biggest concerns of our generation. 

The short-term decisions made through governments, approved bodies, legal frameworks, and policies have resulted in many critical issues. Consider chemicals approved for consumption in our food, medicine, and cooking materials, for example. We now know that the side effects of using glyphosate on cropping are not seen until three to four generations later. This means the industrial use of fertiliser and herbicides by our grandparents is going to affect our children and grandchildren and there is precious little we can do about it.  

What is challenging about this predicament is the weighing up of important progress with clear short-term benefits and not knowing the long-term implications. It’s difficult to determine what those implications might be, in fact, it’s almost impossible for many individuals. So, what are we doing to challenge our thinking? What frameworks are we putting in place to enable more open discussion and thought – even just as an attempt to improve our next-generation thinking? 

In some countries, teenagers hold seats and voting power in politics and have a voice about the impacts on their generation. In other countries, decisions made about technology, the environment, and the financial system are sent through diverse working groups across age, gender, race, and location to understand their broader impacts and impressions. Further still, some political systems are changing to extend their terms to be longer than two to three years, where big decisions are made on an election cycle timeline – very rarely are they made on a seven-generation timeline. Krznaric speaks to all these items and reinforces the need for “citizen assemblies” and “legislation being cooked up from the bottom” as different ways to approach the ‘long now’ and long-term thinking.  

For me, next-generation thinking means looking at how we think and make decisions through a framework that truly considers the impact on our next seven generations of grandchildren. Not through the lens of what it will provide in the next 10 years, the next fiscal cycle, the ‘return on investment’ or how it will impact our lives today.  

Next-generation thinking is about the decisions we make as citizens today inside our spheres of influence. About being more caring and less consuming. The way we vote, buy food and clothing, interact with technology, our workplaces, and our families. These all have impacts on our future generations, who should be able to live safe, happy, and healthy lives when they enter the world.   

I’ll finish with one of my favourite quotes from the book: “We are so busy living in the present, caught in the short now of work deadlines and instant messaging, that the idea of being just one link in a vast chain of humanity that stretches through cosmological time might feel hard to grasp. Our individualistic culture of self-help and ‘looking after number one’ makes it even more challenging. The result is to rupture our intergenerational ties and shrink our time horizons to the present tense. If we think of leaving a legacy at all, it is generally limited to just one or two generations from today, and within the boundaries of our family tree.” 

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Tom Larter is a seasoned leader with a passion for driving innovation and social impact across global markets. A former Captain in the Australian Army, Tom had a distinguished 13-year military career, including serving in Afghanistan.


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