Political thinker and philosopher Roman Krznaric is interviewed by Writers Rebel’s Liz Jensen. Roman shares an excerpt from his latest book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World, here.
Liz Jensen: The title of your book is taken from a quotation by the medical researcher Jonas Salk, who asked: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ You write that Salk, who developed the first successful polio vaccine, could have patented it and become rich as well as famous, but he resisted, because he wanted to ‘be of some help to humankind.’ Does the 21st century have its Salks, and if so, how would you characterise their mindset?
Roman Krznaric: Let’s start with the mindset. Or rather, the brainset. Each of us possesses what I think of as a ‘marshmallow brain’ and an ‘acorn brain’. The marshmallow brain is the part of our neuroanatomy that focuses on instant gratification and immediate rewards – we love the dopamine rush of clicking the Buy Now button. It’s named after the famous Marshmallow Test of the 1960s, when kids had a tasty snack placed in front of them and if they resisted for 15 minutes, they were rewarded with a second one: the majority of kids couldn’t resist and snatched it up.
But that’s not the whole story of who we are. We are also the proud possessors of an acorn brain. It’s new – only about two million years old – and lives in the front of our heads in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s the bit that focuses on long-term thinking, planning and strategising. We’re actually pretty good at it compared to most mammals. A chimpanzee plans ahead a bit and might take a stick, strip off the leaves and turn it into a tool to poke into a termite hole. But it will never make a dozen of these tools and set them aside for next week. Yet this is precisely what humans do. We might be addicted to our phones, but we are also experts at the temporal pirouette – we have a capacity to think long and save for our retirement or write song lists for our own funerals. That’s the acorn brain in action. It’s how we built the cathedrals of medieval Europe and the sewers of 19th century London, which are still in use today.
So, to answer the question! I think Good Ancestors are people who have their acorn brains well and truly switched on. They are thinking beyond the here and now, beyond their own mortality. They project their minds forward to look back and ask, ‘How will future generations judge us for what we did or didn’t do when we had the chance?’
Salk was one of them, of course. But I’m a little reluctant to pick out individuals, in the same way that I have a bit of an allergy to the idea of leadership – ‘exemplary individuals’ who will come along and save us. I think many of the Good Ancestors today are collectives – the Māori activists who are campaigning for rivers to have the same rights as people, or the XR Grandparents who take to the streets with photos of their grandchildren hanging around their necks.
LJ: You argue that the future has been colonised as a result of our short-term thinking, and you write about ‘time-rebellion’ as a form of resistance. What are time-rebels? How can they decolonise the future, and what simple initiatives could governments, corporations and communities take to think decades and centuries ahead?
RK: Yes, I believe that humankind – especially those of us living in wealthy countries in the Global North – has colonised the future. We treat it as a distant colonial outpost where we can freely dump ecological degradation and technological risk as if there was nobody there. But of course it’s occupied by the billions and billions of people who are likely to inhabit the future – who far outweigh everyone alive today. The tragedy is that these future generations are not around to do anything about this pillaging of their inheritance. They can’t leap in front of the King’s horse like a Suffragette or go on a Salt March to defy their colonial oppressors like Gandhi. So we have to do it for them.
As I wrote my book, I started to discover just how many people, organisations and movements are dedicated to this task of decolonising the future and giving a voice to future generations and the planet they will live on. I think of them as Time Rebels. They can be found in every realm – politics, economics, culture, technology.
I’m particularly inspired by organisations like the US public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust, which has launched a series of legal cases on behalf of 21 young people who are campaigning for the legal right to a safe climate and healthy atmosphere for both current and future generations. To be honest, I never used to have much faith in law – I thought it was too slow and too conservative. Yet Our Children’s Trust and similar legal movements in the Netherlands, Germany, Pakistan, Colombia and other countries have shown incredible energy and effectiveness in their campaigns for the rights of future citizens. And they’re starting to win (like in the Urgenda case in the Netherlands). This is one of the biggest revolutions in rights since the French Revolution.
So I think we should be doing all we can to support these legal movements. I’m also a big fan of citizens’ assemblies. One of the most interesting models I’ve come across is in Japan. It’s called Future Design and is directly inspired by the Native American idea of Seventh Generation decision-making. What they do is invite local people to discuss and draw up plans for the towns and cities where they live. But they typically divide them into two groups. One group are told they are residents from the present day. They other half are given beautiful kimono-like gowns to wear and told to imagine themselves as residents from the year 2060. It turns out that the 2060 residents come up with much more radical plans for their communities, from long-term investment in health care to action on the climate emergency. Future Design is now being used in big city governments like Kyoto and is spreading to other countries. It’s a brilliant innovation on the citizen’s assembly model, adding an explicit imaginative journey into the future. Let’s all create bespoke Future Design gowns for our own communities.
LJ: You quote the astronomer Carl Sagan who argued that societies should be guided by what he called ‘a long-term goal and a sacred project’. How can we discover what our own transcendent mission might be, as individuals? What is yours?
RK: Ha! Big questions! I’ve always been a fan of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. What I took from his book is that dwelling in the present moment isn’t enough to give most human beings a sense of meaning and purpose. What we need is what he called a ‘concrete assignment’ – a future goal that transcends ourselves and which can get us out of bed in the morning. It could be anything – to find a cure for cancer if you’re a medical researcher or to keep your small family business going.
For me, what’s the transcendent goal? Just as there is a biosphere that provides the air we breathe, I believe there is also an ‘ethnosphere’ that provides the cultural air we breathe – it’s the swirls of ideas, assumptions and beliefs that shape our worldviews, our ways of thinking and being. I see my goal as a writer to transform the ethnosphere – to add new ideas into the swirl that will ideally outlast my lifetime. Some of these ideas are metaphors or concepts – like ‘colonising the future’ or being a ‘good ancestor’ or ‘time rebel’. I am convinced that ideas have the power to change society – that’s what I’ve learned from three decades of grappling with the question of how change happens.
As a society, we need a transcendent goal too. I love Sagan’s writing but I don’t like his ultimate goal for our species, which is for humanity to spread to other worlds. I think we first need to learn to live within the boundaries of this one and only planet we know that sustains life. Once we’ve mastered that, then fine, let’s jet off to Mars. But I think it’s going to be some time yet before we’ve learned to live within the ecological limits of Spaceship Earth.
LJ: What role do stories play in engaging us with the future, and its inhabitants?
RK: Storytellers are time travellers, taking us on journeys into both the past and future. It’s interesting, though, that the genre of science fiction and stories about time travel into the future didn’t really emerge in Western culture until the 19th century (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells etc). Until then, most utopias and dystopias were set in a distant place, not a distant time. Think, for instance, of Thomas More’s Utopia.
My favourite storyteller about the future would have to be Kim Stanley Robinson. Many climate activists might know his most recent book, The Ministry for the Future. But I also love his novel Aurora. At first sight it’s a classic generation starship story, but it is actually the best exploration of ecological economics and its importance that I’ve ever read. You have a giant spacecraft travelling for 200 years with 2000 people on board to colonise a distant planet. The spacecraft has 24 biomes in it—so there’s a desert, a savannah, a wet tropical zone and so on—and the people are living and dying for several generations, attempting to survive in a closed system. They’re trying not to use more resources than they can produce and regenerate on their farms and spaceship, and not to create more waste than they can deal with. In other words, it’s about trying to keep the system in balance. That is the essence of ecological economics as expressed by people like Herman Daly in the 1970s.
Aurora looks like it’s a book about space, but it’s really a depiction of the dilemmas we face on Earth—about how to survive on our beautiful and fragile life-giving planet. I’m sorry to give a spoiler, but this is exactly what the people on the spaceship realise: upon reaching their destination, they discover that humankind cannot survive in a place it has not evolved to adapt to, and so they decide to come back to Earth. The best plot twist I’ve ever read. Genius.
LJ: Now for a short creative writing exercise. Imagine your children at the end of this century, looking back on the how the world has changed since they were young. Give us the capsule version of the story you’d like them to be able to tell to their grandchildren: the story where it all goes right.
RK: It won’t all go right. At it’s very best, it will be a mess, a struggle, full of crises and tragedies along the way.
The story they tell will undoubtedly be one of rebellion. It is very rare, historically, for major transformations of rights or justice to occur without disruptive social movements cracking open the social and political order from below. Slavery wasn’t abolished in British colonies in the 1830s simply because paternalistic parliamentarians like William Wilberforce were successful lobbyists—it would never have happened without the great Jamaica slave revolt of 1831. The Suffragettes wouldn’t have got very far without the militant actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903, whose members chained themselves to railings, broke windows of public buildings, set post boxes on fire and went on hunger strikes.
My grandchildren will tell stories of the twenty-first century rebels who were part of this grand historical tradition. There will always be people working within the system, trying to reform it from the inside of traditional institutions – political parties, business and so on. But the story the future will tell will be that their actions would have had limited impact without the radical flank movements who shook up the system, who changed the public conversation, who finally switched on our acorn brains.
And there was a rousing call that became their motto and that was never forgotten: Time Rebels of the World, Unite!
CALL TO ACTION:
On his website www.romankrznaric.com, Roman Krznaric presents a list of over 50 time rebel organisations dedicated to intergenerational justice and taking the long view, from Afro Rithms from the Future to Doughnut Economics Action Lab. Look up three of them and asking yourself what you can do in practice to promote their cause.
Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher who writes about the power of ideas to change society. His latest book is The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short Term World. His previous international bestsellers, including Empathy, The Wonderbox and Carpe Diem Regained, have been published in more than 20 languages. After growing up in Sydney and Hong Kong, Roman studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, where he gained his PhD in political sociology. He is founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and is a Research Fellow of the Long Now Foundation and a member of the Club of Rome. Roman Kznaric acknowledges the Darug and Guringai people as the traditional custodians of the land where he grew up.