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Most of us are trapped in the cult of busy – packed schedules, immediate gratification, wall-to-wall zoom calls and the incessant ‘ding’ of your so-called smart device. It’s not making us happy. And all the associated consumption is trashing the planet for those who aren’t here yet.

So how do we free ourselves from this tyranny and become a time rebel?

Host, Ross Ashcroft met up with public philosopher and author, Roman Krznaric, to discuss sustainability and intergenerational justice in an age of pathological short-termism.

 

Good ancestory

In his book, The Good Ancestor, Roman Krznaric outlines ways of thinking about a long-term vision for a future society centred on a commitment for people to learn to empathize with others through time. The author argues that short-term actions of businesses and individuals have the potential to negatively impact on the lives of future generations. Humans constantly seem to be seeking instant gratification which is at odds with the notion of long-term intergenerational justice.

In the book, Krznaric references the Intergenerational Solidarity Index which rates countries on their long term public policy performance, penalizing countries measured by their respective levels of fossil fuel production and the extent to which they dump ecological damage on future generations. The higher nations’ fossil fuel production and the concomitant ecological damage they cause, the lower their respective ratings on the index.

It is striking that the highest scoring nations, such as Iceland, Nepal, Costa Rica and Uruguay, come from a wide range of regions and income levels. While wealthy OECD countries occupy many of the top spots, some are far down the rankings: Germany is ranked 28th, with the UK 45th and the US 62nd. Nordic countries perform well as do some countries with broadly Confucian values such as China and Vietnam.

What it means to be a time rebel

Krznaric’s concept of the time rebel is the embodiment of both the individual and collective in pursuit of long term intergenerational justice and well-being of generations decades, centuries, even millennia into the future. The public philosopher cites polio discoverer, Jonas Salk as an example of a good ancestor who will be remembered as a time rebel well into the future on the basis of the huge benefits he has bestowed on humanity. Salk’s long-term contribution to society adds existential meaning to the lives of human beings that transcends not only the present moment, but also egoistic and familial forms of legacy.

The concept is, in other words, best understood as a kind of genealogy, a comparison Krznaric makes in relation to Maori culture in which everybody, whether living, dead or unborn, is seen as part of a great chain of life:

“There’s a Maori word for this. It’s called fakaapaapa, the idea that we are all in the great chain that stretches far into the past and long into the future. And I think this is the kind of mentality that we need to embody and engender.”

Krznaric continues:

“We need to pivot away from the short-termism which we are structured into by technologies which are keeping us clicking and swiping and, of course, by our public institutions, which are forcing us into the here and now. Everyone’s focused on the next election, the next headline, the next tweet and so on. We’ve got to think bigger.”

Shifting entrenched positions

The kind of radical public sector cultural changes envisaged are, however, beset on some level by the inertia of elected politicians, civil servants and judiciary. Krznaric founded the Empathy Museum as a practical way in which people are able to literally embody the lived experiences of others to help nurture the kind of long-term cultural shifts required. The author and public philosopher says that one way of shifting entrenched positions and to help people grasp the inter-generational concept of being a time rebel and good ancestor would be to have an empty chair at company board meetings.

The idea, says Krznaric, is that the chair would represent the children or the stakeholders of the future:

“Whether I am talking to top politicians or investors or radical activists on the ground, I tend to start talking about the heart, about legacy, about our connection across the generations, because human beings are social creatures. Aristotle told us that two and a half thousand years ago. You can have as many gourmet meals by yourself as you like, but in the end, you want somebody sitting with you”, says Krznaric.

Krznaric says that in the political realm, Wales, Portugal and Sweden are all countries that are moving towards becoming time rebels. Wales has already put in place a future generations commissioner whose job is to look at the impact of legislation in health care, environment, transport, education at least up to 30 years in the future, while Sweden has appointed a minister of the future to embed foresight and long-term thinking into public policy. UAE, Japan and Singapore are also picking up on this. In Portugal, young people have filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights claiming rights for future generations to a clean and healthy atmosphere.

One of the side effects of becoming a time rebel is the richer experience it gives people in terms of helping to provide meaning to lives which transcends the purely materialistic quest for ‘things’. But more than that, becoming a time rebel is understanding that humans are intrinsically connected to the long cycles of nature and that actions in the present have consequences for many generations into the future while at the same time recognizing that a non-linear notion of time is central to this understanding. The great Vietnamese Monk, Nhat Hanh, offers some good advice about becoming a time rebel: “Don’t just do something, sit there”, he said.

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