Rx for a Better Future: Wisdom Over Recklessness

A Long Now Boston conversation with Bina Venkataraman, March 2, 02020, Cambridge MA. 

In a world dominated by short-term thinking, it is easy to become cynical or jaded about human behavior and the long-term prospects for humanity. Bina Venkataraman has a solution – the pursuit of “wisdom over recklessness.”  Wisdom (“experience, knowledge, and good judgment”) can overcome recklessness (“lack of regard for the danger or consequences of one’s actions”), but it requires a different approach to what we measure, what we reward and what we imagine. Bringing this wisdom to bear on our individual and collective choices requires change and new tools at the individual, cultural and institutional levels, which Bina has documented in her book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. She offered great advice to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Long Now Boston Conversation event on Monday March 2, 02020, at the CIC in Cambridge, with the help of moderator William Powers.

Summary by George Gantz for Long Now Boston

Attention Deficit

Short-term thinking is everywhere. We are driven in our lives and our work, particularly as journalists and in the political process, by short term demands: the next deadline, the next news cycle, the next poll, the next election, the next quarterly earnings report, the next social media click, the next new thing. These pressures are constant and create an atmosphere that crowds out deliberate, long-term thinking. In the context of her work promoting climate change issues for the Obama White House, Bina found herself becoming cynical about the possibility for change.

Being a journalist, however, she got curious. Humanity invented agriculture. We build cities.  These are example of successful long-term thinking. So why are we being driven to such short-term thinking today?  Why are we making bad decisions?  What gets in the way of wiser decisions? These questions were the genesis for The Optimist’s Telescope – and the idea of exploring examples and instructions that can enable us to improve our Long Term thinking.

Bina found that we don’t imagine what’s possible. Our culture is not rooted and has become transient. As a consequence, we lack a collective memory that gives long term context for current decisions. This fact was revealed tragically in the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, when a 14-metre tsunami poured over the 10-metre seawall and flooded the plant along with its backup diesel generators. The plants had been built to withstand 1 in a 100-year events but ignored the risk of a 1 in 1,000 year event.  The company had been “trapped by its views of the past.”   

Yet, in a town a mere 75miles away, a local engineer had insisted that the Onagawa nuclear power plant be built on higher ground, with a higher seawall. He knew the story of the massive tsunami in 869 that had flooded the Shinto shrine. That collective memory protected Onagawa from a similar disaster.

Collective memory can have the opposite effect, too.  Planners for 1972 Munich Olympics were determined to erase the stigma of Hitler’s brazenly militarized 1936 Olympics, and they had even named the new summer Olympics “the cheerful games.” A top security expert hired to advise the games on potential risks, developed a risk planning scenario titled Situation 21. This involved a potential terrorist attack in the athletic compound, something the planners simply could not imagine. They brushed it off  – and yet that is exactly what happened on September 5, 1972. In their collective commitment to erasing the embarrassment of a prior tragic history, they ended up with another.

Re-Building Collective Memories

We live in a complicated world, and we have a complicated past. Yet knowing that past in its messy complexity is necessary in order to imagine the future. One of the key ideas that Bina found can be most helpful in maintaining collective memory is heirlooms. These objects connect us in a physical, visceral way with the past and link us to our ancestors. They can also turn our vision to the future with the realization that just as we have ancestors, we will also become ancestors.

Bina had received a gift a few years ago, from her grandmother. It was her great-grandfather’s cherished dilruba, an Indian stringed instrument that had originally been crafted for him as a gift. She felt rooted through this instrument to her past – and became aware of her place as an ancestor. Heirlooms can serve as cross-generational artifacts,  reminders of our responsibilities as future ancestors.

Heirlooms are ubiquitous in human culture – and they provide rich cultural evidence of the capacity for long term thinking. They also extend beyond simple physical objects to practices, conventions, stories and myths or rituals – the imaginative connections we have with our past. Heirlooms offer us doorway for the practice of foresight, defined not as the ability to predict the future, but as the capacity of knowing what will be needed in the future. We take our heirlooms with us into the unknown future, with the faith that those connections can guide us.

The value of heirlooms, however, is not in their “thing-ness,” but in the emotional and symbolic content they bring with them. It is hard to imagine a future where the Grand Canyon is not revered and visited by millions. It is a cultural and geological heirloom, a reminder of the grandeur of nature and of the wisdom of our forebears for setting it aside to be shared. As long as the public feels that way, our politicians can and will continue to protect it. But imagine a time in the future when no one goes there anymore, or only a few. If it no longer offers that emotional and symbolic value, it may well be cast aside.

Foresight

Our ability to build and sustain foresight is often frustrated by three mistakes:

  1. We measure incremental changes, which distracts us from long term goals.
  2. We reward short term performance and achievement, which distracts us from long term success.
  3. We imagine within limited constraints because of our bias for the vivid, the colorful and the already experienced, which closes us off to the range of future possibilities. 

These mistakes can be fixed. One of the most common cited examples of a lack of foresight is the Tragedy of the Commons, an idea attributed to environmentalist Garrett Hardin in 1968 but which traces its roots back to ancient thinkers including Aristotle. The poster child for the tragedy of the commons is fisheries management practices. The model most often used in dealing with the problem of declining fishery stocks from overharvesting is to set quotas that limit the total catch. This builds incentives for fisherman to fish fast and recklessly in a race for short term profitability, at the expense of the fishery.

This was the fate of the Galveston Red Snapper fishery in 2004, when the new idea of catch shares was developed. Catch shares means that all fishermen suffer from overfishing — and all fishermen share in the benefits of a growing fishery stock. This effectively gives fisherman a long-term ownership interest as opposed to the short-term incentive to out-fish their neighbors. The fishery has rebounded faster than experts had predicted, and the catch share model is now being duplicated in fisheries around the world.

Improving our imagination is the goal of the Dear Tomorrow program, invented by two mothers as a way to encourage us to think personally about the future. The program involves writing a letter to your future self or a child, in as much detail as you can. The goal is to break the imagination gap by making the exercise real. Bina also described the experience of a virtual reality tour of a coral reef – before and after its decline from global warming. By bringing more senses into the imaginative process, the impact was more profound.

These programs are learning from the research of Harvard professor Marshall Ganz and others about how to influence motivation and behavior in the face of global problems like climate change. An important key finding is to be positive and imagine the future if we solve the problem, rather than focusing on trying to scare people with dystopian stories. A second key is to recognize that people are drawn together in communities – we live in the real world and we work best by constructing things together. And, in seeking to train the next generation, we need to recognize that culture and environment matter a lot.  Normative reinforcement can be a good thing, and there needs to be a process for enforcement of good norms.

The technologies of computing, communication, social media and artificial intelligence all have great promise in helping us lead better lives, but all have experienced significant missteps. The key here is to understand that it is still early, and we need to be experimental. Simply saying NO to a technological advance such as cloning or artificial intelligence may avoid ethical pitfall, but it may also cut off opportunities for very significant benefits. These are areas where long-term thinking is increasingly important. We have the capability of building tech systems, social media interfaces and automated transportation with carefully designed measurement and reward systems directed by human foresight and human values. This will be critical in the years ahead.

An important lesson is that information is not the only ingredient in foresight and may not even be the most important. There were rumblings before Vesuvius erupted that the people of Pompei Italy were advised to ignore. Tragically, they did choose to ignore them. Today we are much better at physical predictions. Earthquakes and eruptions are still quite difficult, but we are no longer surprised by hurricanes or severe weather patterns. Yet people still ignore the warnings.  We need to get better at understanding why and at helping people change behaviors. The evidence suggests that more data and appeals to fear will not help, but perhaps better imaginative tools and communication can.

The climate change controversies have also shown the same thing. More data and fiercer rhetoric do not help and may simply embolden the deniers. Ultimately, the reality of more fires, more storms and increasing personal suffering will change peoples’ attitudes and turn the political tide – but the sooner that happens the less the suffering will be.

Bina finds the current situation with the coronavirus to be instructive. People are scared, and rightly so, and the political response by countries across the world has been relatively swift and thorough. The coronavirus scare has also reopened some collective memories that people have forgotten – the media has talked about not just SARS or MERS, but even the 1918 Spanish Flu (which reportedly infected ¼ of the world’s population, 1 in 10 of whom died).

The  Generational Moment

Humans have the capacity to look ahead.  We are also living longer, and longevity gives us more of a personal stake in longer term outcomes. We are also experiencing an incredible series of technological transformations in so many fields that offer huge potential benefits to humanity. The challenge is to decide what and how to support these transformations – and when we may need to speed them or slow them down.

That said, we have an obligation to look ahead and to embrace the art of the possible. On climate change, we have a compass and a roadmap. We just need the political will to go down that road, and that will come as we can see the earth is beginning to speak to us directly.

As we go down that road, we do need to give people something to do — a sense of control.  The CDC admonishments about handwashing and coughing into our sleeves in the face of Covid-19 may seem trivial, but they are helping people. These are simple, practical things we can do, and they will slow the transmission of colds and flu in the process.

A question was posed to Bina about newspapers. Newspapers were originally viewed as a short-term communication medium, with publishers interesting in selling papers with big headlines. Today, it seems, they may be playing more of a long-term role, at least in contrast with social media.  She said that in her role at the Boston Globe she is trying to maintain a longer-term perspective.  

Boston itself may be in what could be described as a new gilded age, with huge investments coming in from tech and biotech industries, and with corresponding increases in average incomes and real estate prices. But these are also stressors for a metropolitan area that needs significant investments in infrastructure, housing and transportation, all of which required long term vision and leadership. The Globe editorial board is tracking the progress the city of Newton is making on its commitment to affordable housing.  It is a different approach which is drawing on a vision that moves beyond mere self-interest, and it may become a model for other communities.

Conclusion

The daily news cycle dishes up much to feel discouraged about. Like many of us, Bina worries about the state of our democracy, and she was disappointed at the disrespect the Senate Republicans recently showed towards their duty under the impeachment provision of the constitution. She also mourns the mounting evidence of climate change disruptions, including the recent fires in Australia.

But social change is not linear, and Bina believes there are powerful cultural movements underfoot in response to these social dysfunctionalities. It is impossible to predict how and when these movements will reach the tipping point. When they do, she thinks the impacts will be big. Politics follows culture. Attitudes are evolving and culture is changing, and when those collective voices become strong enough, the politics will change.

One of the goals of Long Now Boston is to help accelerate positive cultural change so that we can become better ancestors. Such changes are critical for improving our individual and collective short-term decision-making and, ultimately, for promoting long-term thriving for us, our ancestors, our civilization and our world.

About the speakers:

Bina Venkataraman is a journalist, author, and policy expert, and editorial page editor of The Boston Globe. Bina served as senior advisor for climate change innovation in the Obama White House and was director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. A frequent public speaker, she has appeared at the TED mainstage and Aspen Ideas, on NPR and MSNBC, and at university campuses around the world. Bina is an alumna of Brown University and the Harvard Kennedy School and has received a Fulbright scholarship, a Princeton in Asia fellowship, a Metcalf fellowship, and a James Reston fellowship. Bina’s book, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, was published in September 02019. 

William Powers is a technologist, a journalist, and author of the New York Times’s 2010 bestseller Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. He is also a visiting scholar at the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. William has served as a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab and as a staff writer for the Washington Post. A frequent speaker and award-winning journalist, he has held fellowships at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the MacDowell Colony, and the Japan Society.

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See the original event announcement: Long Term Thinking – A Short Term Priority

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Long Now Boston is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is independent from but philosophically aligned with the Long Now Foundation. Long Now Boston provides a forum for discussing, investigating and engaging in issues that have long-term implications for our global cultures. Long Now Boston hosts a monthly Community Conversation series in Cambridge, MA. Please sign up on our website for notices.

Cambridge Innovation Center is an in-kind sponsor of the Long Now Boston Conversation Series. We are very grateful for their support.

Upcoming Events:

Saturday April 18 – Craft a Superhero Who Envisions the Future. Part of the Science Carnival and Robot Zoo for kids, held in conjunction with the Cambridge Science Festival 2020, Noon to 4PM, at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School.

Tuesday April 21 – Dear Tomorrow – Taking Action on Climate Change. A climate story-telling exercise event held in conjunction with the Cambridge Science Festival 2020, 6:30-9:00 PM at the CIC, 245 Main Street, Cambridge.

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