Looking long is scary

Back in the day the clergy planned for the tools to awe the masses that would appear long after they were dead. Humanity needs some of that forward-thinking right now.

The great Christian cathedrals and churches around Europe that tourists flock to see are masterpieces of construction designed to awe the people to the power of the Almighty. 

Given the age, size, and grandeur of these buildings, it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that many took hundreds of years to complete — York Minster 252 years, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome 120 years, and the Dior Modi Milano approximately 600 years. 

fascade of the Dior Modi cathedral in Milan, Italy
Photo of the Dior Modi Milano by Sean Jahansooz on Unsplash

The architects and the builders who began constructing these impressive edifices knew they would not see the finished article.

They poured over their blueprints and watched the workers at construction tasks well aware that future generations, not themselves, would see the glory and the benefits. 

They had to be satisfied with their contribution to a long process and only imagine the glory of their finished visions.

Looking long has gone

In our modern-day, that ability to look long is gone. 

For billions of people, the immediate is a matter of survival, a daily struggle for food and services to support themselves and their families. There is very little time to speculate on the far future. 

Concern for immediate prospects overrides anything in the future. 

Similarly, human economic and political systems are locked in the capitalist profit imperative best served in the immediate. No matter that some of the economists who founded this neoliberal thinking suggested that by now, economic growth should have enabled us to work for small amounts of time. By now, we should be kicking back a bit on the success of growth in delivering wealth. 

Instead, we are stuck in the growth trope and have allowed a handful of people to concentrate most of the wealth. This concentration into a small number of people is a result that many of the original economic thinkers were unable to predict or chose to ignore. 

Essentially a handful of people acquire most of the wealth in the world, leaving the majority to struggle for some redistribution.

Inequity is a symptom of the long term too.

But I digress. 

The inability to see what the finished cathedral will look like and its effect on the people who see it is the issue here.

In an article on thinking beyond our own lifespans journalist, Sonia Sodha has a peek into the future.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, unless we find a way to think differently about consumption, wellbeing and sustainability, humans will be responsible for our own extinction. And it should be clear by now that crises – extreme weather, pandemics, financial crises – are never going to be the wake-up call that forces us to confront our own fragility. A good crisis inevitably goes to waste, and it is lazy and irresponsible to think otherwise.

Sonia Sodha, Guardian columnist

Extinction is the scary word here. 

Extinction means the termination of a kind of organism or of a group of kinds (taxon), usually a species. The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, although the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point

That is extinction, gone, finished, all over, kaput…  forever!

Maybe the prospect of extinction is one reason we are stuck in the immediate. Any long view that shows us our demise is one to avoid. Few clicks, no customers and so no economy is just scaremongering.

The idea that Sonya Sodha suggests is that the current global crisis of a pandemic that is supposedly an opportunity to change the way we view our future and how we deal with the present is a crisis wasted. An opportunity to see the finished cathedral.

And unless we think differently about consumption, particularly as it impacts the planet’s health, then we are looking at our extinction. 

What ecology tells us

At sustainably FED we agree with the missed opportunity and the likelihood of humanity bringing itself down.

A collapse from overexploitation of resources is actually standard ecological theory. 

When an organism finds a resource that it can utilize it will convert it into the next generation through more making – making more genetic copies of its genome.  

Sooner or later that resource is used up by the expression of that genome and the organisms alive at that point must do one of three things.

  1. Shift to an alternative resource
  2. Move away to find more of the original resource
  3. Go extinct

Time and again ecologists have observed this pattern in nature. 

Growth, collapse and stability are at the core of a whole sub-branch of the discipline, population ecology, observing the patterns in populations over time.

Resource exploitation in nature is also a driver of evolution because genes do not want option 3. Instead, they combine into organisms that have a chance at survival through options 1 and 2. 

Humans are the most adaptive species the planet has yet seen. 

We are genius-level at finding and exploiting alternative resources, especially energy. In the past, we were also rather good at option 2 — from a slow start in Africa, Homo sapiens have outcompeted all the other Hominids and accommodated ourselves across the entire planet. 

However, we have only one planet and even our stupendous technologies are not going to take us to another one anytime soon. 

So the moving option is not available to human beings anymore. We have populated everywhere there is to populate.

We could shift to alternative resources and we have been extremely good at that over the millennia, so much so that we can now have a burger that tastes like a burger, looks like a burger, smells like a burger, and has never been anywhere near a cow. 

So yes, we can still shift to alternative resources to an extent and our technology will enable us to meet many of the demands for food and nutrition, water and shelter over the coming decades. 

How long we can keep that going depends on how much we innovate and how much of the resource base we choose to retain for future generations. 

Again, the look long option, rather than the short-term gain. 

Photo by Matt Burke on Unsplash

The white rhino is the only one of the five rhino species that is not endangered. Around 18,000 animals exist in protected areas and private game reserves.

Option 3 

And the third option is, of course, that we go extinct. 

Like all other species on earth, we are prisoners of this basic ecology. The three ‘choices’ are all that we have.

And unless we begin to look long, unless we can think more like those builders of ancient Cathedrals, we will be unable to buy ourselves the time to avoid option 3 through more sustainable use of resources.

What we need are people with the ability to look long. 

We need minds that can predict possible futures from understanding the present.

Minds that see trends from the past that brought us to today.

We need people who understand time.

Hero image modified from photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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