Short-termism - the greatest threat for our future?

May 4, 2021


Photo by @john_cameron on Unsplash.


Do you ever think about the legacy you’ll leave to future generations? Do you care about the prospects of your children’s children? 

According to evolutionary biologists, in the Pleistocene our ancestors developed “mental time travel” - the capacity to reconstruct events from the past, as well as to imagine possible scenarios in the future. That set them apart from other animals and gave them the ability to conceptually manipulate time.

The individualistic societies of the last two centuries have brought huge concentrations of wealth, but they also moved us closer to social, political and environmental collapse. 

Despite all our technological progress, our societies remain vulnerable. Our world is so interconnected that a catastrophe couldn't hit any region without its consequences cascading globally. It's likely that nuclear detonation, for example, could trigger a food crisis, economic depression and world war. Climate change impacts people’s health and  availability of food and causes population movements, within and across borders,  which could contribute to rising national and global conflict and insecurity. The changing climate could also create favorable conditions for outbreaks of vector-borne diseases.

Pandemics not only spread fast and spread globally as they didn't in the past, but they cause far worse societal breakdown. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that interdependence of our social, physical and political systems left us more vulnerable. One of the illustrations  was the supply shock that started in China in February 2020 and the demand shock that followed as the global economy shut down. It resulted in shortages of pharmaceuticals and critical medical supplies worldwide.

Global threats raise important issues about global governance and power structures and how these relate to existential risk more generally.

Prof Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, who authored the book “Our Final Hour” in 2003 and more recently “On the Future: Prospects for Humanity” in 2018, gave civilization a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century, an estimate he reached after surveying all the ways humanity could destroy itself.

Toby Ord, Oxford University existential risks researcher, places the risk of our extinction during the 21st century at one in six. He considered natural risks, such as asteroids, super-volcanic eruptions, and stellar explosions, and those we created ourselves, such as the nuclear war, climate change, pandemics (including engineered ones), as well as empowered AI that is unaligned with universal moral  values shared by all of humanity, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion etc.

The fields of existential and global catastrophic risk studies have really taken off in the last five years or so with an increased realization that environmental threats like climate change and loss of biodiversity are no less urgent than the technological concerns.

Why are we so unprepared? 

Often humans tend to have local focus and tendency to live in the moment, while sometimes people live “in denial” and dismiss real threats such as climate change. While searching for forces of short-termism, some point out to the Internet, 24-hour news media and politics that encourage decision-makers to focus more on current headlines and pollings than to prospects of future generations. In politics the dominant time frame is a term of office, for corporations it's a quarter, on the internet - minutes or seconds, and on the financial markets mere fractions of a second. 

Back in 1978, the sociologist Elise Boulding diagnosed the problem of our time as “temporal exhaustion” - “if we are mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” She even proposed a simple solution, to expand our idea of the present to two hundred years - a hundred years forward and a hundred years back.

Will the COVID-19 crisis encourage policymakers to pay more attention to other known, but poorly managed risks? 

Hopefully yes. In 2021 we should try to exploit a moment of opportunity to get policymakers to take the neglected risks more seriously. The pandemic should raise concerns about human-induced risks from bio error and bio terror. In the longer term, it could be possible to design viruses that combine high lethality with the transmissibility of the common cold. We should be more aware of risks related to antibiotics resistance, nuclear terrorism, brain-altering bioweapons, mass surveillance through DNA databases and many others.

How to push against short-termism and quick fixes?

Rather than starting with the present, what if we imagined new desirable futures? We should engage in futures thinking widely and incorporate future-oriented and collective thinking into our daily work. When we think collectively we examine the issues we face from more than one perspective and embrace multiple points of view, without allowing any point of view to dominate, to come up with a more sophisticated approach to wicked problems, such as global warming.

We need to seek for the ‘nudges’ of the future that we might not quite be paying attention to, those that could redirect our ideas of development. Solving big problems requires setting goals and maintaining the constancy and patience. It’s a matter of mindset and culture. 

Current governance models are not based on our collective aspirations for a sustainable future. We need new proactive and anticipatory governance methods that pursue an experimental and deliberate approach to uncertainty and complexity. Sustainability is a lens through which one must view the entire agenda—including economic development, social policy, environmental protection, and security—in order to develop integrated, coherent strategies. 

As the ideology of technology has evolved over decades, the belief that with the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind's problems is understandable, but it’s also an utopia. Not jumping to solutions (or quick tech fixes) holds the space for discovery. Complex problems in international development are neither neat problems with definite, computable solutions nor transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized. Dealing with these problems, we need to embrace complexity and uncertainty, take them as given and design for them. Instead of single solutions, we need to design a portfolio of interventions, where the key is in the connection between the solutions and how they create new realities by hitting on multiple issues at the same time. That will enable us to continuously learn and adapt towards the preferred outcomes.

This is what UNDP is focused on through the work of the network of 91 Accelerator Labs, globally connected and sharing knowledge and insights, created to explore new possibilities, experiment and continuously learn, perceiving and shaping the future.