In times of ever-shortening attention spans and increasingly threatening crises, British geologist turned science writer Richard Fisher’s book is a welcome antidote to doomism.
Essentially, it is a cultural history of our relationship with time. But the book’s focus is on the growing philosophical movement of longtermism, and Fisher builds a convincing, and very readable, argument for adopting a longer perspective to improve our chances of tackling slow-burning threats such as climate change and ecological collapse collectively and fairly. As an added benefit, we might gain a more optimistic outlook in the present.
If you stop long enough to take notice, it’s obvious that we have surrendered to short-term thinking. It’s reflected in politics driven by election cycles rather than issues, economic strategies defined by quarterly targets and annual profits, and constant multichannel information flows that rarely slow to reflect.
Fisher argues that many of us, at least in the West, have embraced a blinkered, present-focused approach to life, with little time to learn from history and at best muted awareness of how our collective actions shape the future.
Among the almost inevitable consequences are rising levels of anxiety, a sense of helplessness and, for some, a creeping feeling of shame about the malignant heirlooms we’re leaving for future generations.
He offers relief. The Long View is a thoroughly researched and well-told exploration of the benefits of a deep-time perspective, both to learn from the geological past and to anticipate a future that becomes more open once we allow for a multitude of possible outcomes. It’s an invitation to step off the treadmill of short-term incentives – akin to a societal marshmallow test in which forgoing quick rewards now brings more satisfying outcomes later.
The concept of a long outlook doesn’t necessarily come naturally, though, and the longtermism movement has drawn sharp criticism for being too detached from suffering in the present. In particular, its techno-utopian branch (perhaps most prominently represented by Elon Musk and other Silicon Valley billionaires) has triggered alarm that it could lead to an elitist, even misanthropic future dominated by artificial intelligence.
Fisher is well aware of this tension and has structured his book to ease the reader into the ideas behind longtermism, starting with a brief history of our sense of time. Just reading about people whose rhythms were guided by the seasons and who embarked on centuries-long projects to build churches and monuments slows the heart rate. The invention of time-keeping devices feels almost like a regrettable mistake – even more so the ultimate commodification of time that came with labour being paid by the hour. The machine that drove the industrial revolution may not have been the steam engine but the clock and its synchronisation of people’s time, he writes.
Rather than proselytising the benefits of longtermism, he introduces examples of how we are already practising it to our shared benefit: in religions, with their reliance on ritual and stories of transcendence; in philosophy and discussions about the ethics of altruism; in science, with its models that use the past to project the future; in indigenous cultures built on intergenerational reciprocity and a sense of oneness with the natural world; and, of course, in the arts.
Fisher is an exceptional storyteller. So much so that stories carry the entire book. From contemporary longtermist philosophers who pledge to give away some of their earnings to long-gone corporate protagonists who put worker welfare before profits and Bronze Age people cutting the White Horse of Uffington into the hillside, people come alive through his storytelling.
Even more relatable are the personal stories he intersperses throughout, including generational time markers such as the death of a parent and the birth of a child, which have stretched his own time horizon. Though acknowledging the controversies surrounding the more tech-based aspects of longtermism, Fisher’s focus is on “cathedral thinking” and being a good ancestor – arguably the biggest challenge of our time.
The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time, by Richard Fisher (Wildfire, $39.99).