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The Good Ancestor

One of the key aspects of being human under capitalism is the feel good factor associated with retail therapy that is said to make us happy.

But in a world where consumption and short-termism are king and where reputation and legacies are often defined by material trappings, such pleasures rarely make us happy for very long.

Renegade Inc. host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with the public philosopher and author of The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long-Term in a Short-Term World, Roman Krznaric, to discuss sustainability and intergenerational justice in an age of pathological short-termism.

Stepping into the shoes of future generations

Krznaric explained why he wrote the book:

“I spent most of my life thinking about empathy. How do we step into the shoes of people who are alive today but living on the social margins? And then I thought what we really need to do is step into the shoes of future generations. Never before have our actions had such huge potential impact on their lives. We need to learn to empathise through time.”

The philosopher added:

“What I discovered writing this book is that there is a movement of intergenerational justice out there in the world. It’s the climate activists, the kids on the streets. It’s the people making long-term art projects, you know, that piece of music that will last a thousand years. There’s the people fighting for intergenerational justice, trying to be good ancestors and make our criminal justice systems respect the lives of future people.”

Krznaric contends that there is little evidence of any willingness on the part of the establishment to adopt a long-term approach to saving humanities place on the planet. “Even as the planet burns and species disappear, businesses can’t see past their quarterly reports and politicians are unable to see beyond the next election or even the latest tweet”, says the philosopher. Meanwhile, we, as individuals, constantly seem to be seeking instant gratification through consumption and fast food.

Explaining the paradox

According to Krznaric, the paradox can be explained, in part, as a result of the neurological composition of the human brain – what he refers to as the ‘marshmallow brain’ which is focused on instant gratification and short term rewards. But we also have an ‘acorn brain’, the long-term thinking part of our brain within the frontal lobe which enabled, for example, the building of medieval cathedrals, the Great Wall of China and the space program’s voyaging to the stars.

This kind of thinking is needed in order to build sustainable political institutions and economic systems of the future. Moreover, it is key to what the philosopher describes as the “temporal pirouette” – the ability to scan across the time horizons.

But aren’t benign dictatorships a prerequisite for these kinds of long-term future visions to be realized?

Although Krznaric considers the question to be a legitimate one, he nevertheless rejects the idea that benign dictators are the answer to our problems. The empirical evidence outlined by the Intergenerational Solidarity Index points to the fact that it’s actually formal democracies, not traditional dictatorships, that are better at enacting long-term public policies.

Good ancestry

The philosopher says that people instinctively know that there is a conceptual emergency but are unaware that it is premised on the idea of individuals such as Jonas Salk being remembered well into the future due to the good they have bestowed on humanity. 

In his book, Krznaric characterises this as a one hundred year long intergenerational ‘good ancestor’ concept which takes us beyond our own mortality, forcing us to confront the consequences of our actions that impact on the ‘universal strangers’ of the future.

The good ancestor is an existential notion that helps engender a meaning to the lives of human beings, a reminder that we are part of something bigger which 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 encompassing the past, present and future.

Viktor Frankl and cathedral thinking

The key theme running through Krznaric’s book that ties this altogether is Viktor Frankl‘s notion of dedication to a cause greater than oneself which has been a major factor in the development of the kind of long-term visions that have been adopted by many other cultures. It has also been central to the implementation of the long-term Svalbard Seed Vault Project in the Arctic Circle, for example.

In addition, it embodies what the author has coined ‘cathedral thinking’ – the idea of embarking on projects that may not be finished within lifetimes. Examples are the construction by the citizens of Ulm in Germany of a Lutheran church in 1377 with their own money and Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s construction of the sewers of Victorian London.

“I think almost anybody, if they allow their imaginations to work at it, can really make this jump to what I think it is a transcendent sense of legacy”, says the author. The point is that rather than humans treating Mother Earth as an ecological and technological dumping ground, it’s better that we have a sense of obligation to future generations who will inhabit it.

Krznaric highlights three practical things people can do to set them on the right path to being a good ancestor. Firstly, the older generation, whose actions impact on the disenfranchised young, could help negate this by handing over their votes to them. The second thing Krznaric suggests is to support and develop collective forms of action around the world which fight for the rights of future generations to a clean and healthy atmosphere. Finally, says Krznaric, “you can go down to the beach find a fossil like I do with my kids every year, hold a little Belemnite in your hand and get that sense of deep time into your bones.”

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