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To make the present feel more meaningful, think beyond it

Building a longtermism that works for the people of tomorrow — and the people of today.

A view of a paved highway, empty of cars, leading to mountains in the distance. Getty Images/EyeEm

What do you call someone who’s not a longtermist? It might sound like the first half of a joke, but it’s a question that at first glance would seem to lack a satisfactory answer.

The proponents of longtermism — an offshoot of effective altruism (EA) — make their case based on three premises: future people matter, there could be a lot of them, and we can make their lives better or worse. This framing is all-encompassing, covering a lot of future, and it sets up what appears to be a dichotomy: if longtermism doesn’t appeal to you, then you must be for present-day people and causes instead. That would make you a “neartermist,” right? (Or more pejoratively, a “short-termist” — unable or unwilling to look beyond the moment — but no one wants to be labeled that.)

Within EA, neartermism would describe those who work on causes like disease or poverty in the developing world or ending factory farming, rather than working on efforts to ensure unborn people exist and flourish, such as reducing existential risk, or speeding up technological progress. Outside EA, neartermism would mean showing concern for the big, salient problems of 2023: climate impacts, social inequality, and all the other aching injustices in the world. Not to mention problems in one’s local community, like homelessness or pollution.

EA openly embraces the idea that some causes ought to be prioritized, based on factors like importance, neglectedness, and tractability. Building on those foundations, EA longtermists propose that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time — and in its strongest form, it becomes the key moral priority. This apparently zero-sum framing — present needs versus future needs — may go some way to explain why longtermism has attracted so much controversy in recent months (aside from EA’s other more recent scandals: financial, racial, sexual). In the eyes of critics, longtermist philosophy would seem to prioritize the aggregate well-being of 100 trillion-plus hypothetical people in the future over the actual living, breathing 8 billion people alive today.

Longtermists counter that the weaker versions of the philosophy are far less demanding, and that a lot of their efforts and spending — on say, reducing existential risk — are good for today and the future. If the world ends, the very real people of the present would be the first to suffer. But taken to an extreme, some critics fear the population ethics underpinning longtermism could lead to a form of mathematical blackmail, a bullet-biting justification for present-day neglect. Worse, that it could lead to real harm through fanatical acts to reduce tiny probabilities of danger sometime in the deep future. In EA parlance, this would be “taking the train all the way to crazy town.”

But does caring about the long-term fate of humanity and the planet need to come at the expense of the present? Is choosing one or the other inevitable? I do not believe so.

Over the past few years, I’ve been writing a book called The Long View. It’s about the benefits of extending one’s mind into longer-term timescales; not the days, weeks, or months we usually dwell in, but decades, centuries, millennia. Along the way, I’ve crossed paths with various “long-minded” individuals and organizations. I’ve met longtermists, but also those whose timeview is rooted in other values and habits: artists, scientists, anthropologists, historians, writers, Indigenous thinkers and more. (Disclosure: Open Philanthropy provided two career-development grants that supported The Long View, paid directly to the book’s research assistant and international publicist.)

Often these long-minded approaches speak different languages, with different priorities and values: some are transcendental and rooted in faith; others are secular and empirical. Some span timescales of centuries; others run to millions of years, many times longer than humans have existed. Some focus purely on humanity; others encompass the natural world too.

Encountering all these different perspectives has shown me that taking the long view can and should be plural and democratic. And crucially, they demonstrate that extending one’s circle of concern to tomorrow’s generations needn’t mean prioritizing the future above all. If anything, I’ve discovered that taking a longer view can often lend greater meaning to life in the present: offering perspective and hope amid crisis and difficulty, and a source of energy, autonomy, and guidance when it’s needed.

Over the course of writing the book, I’ve learned that I’m not a longtermist. But nor am I a neartermist either. So what are the alternatives?

Building a generational partnership

I began to think in earnest about longer-term time just under a decade ago, following a reflection about my daughter’s future. Not long after Grace was born in 2013, I realized something that I had never considered: there are millions of citizens of the 22nd century already living among us. They’re not time-travelers, of course. They are our children.

My daughter, to my astonishment, stands a pretty good chance of reaching 2100. She’ll be 86, just a few years more than the average life expectancy for a woman born in the UK. Her children, if she has them, could conceivably reach 2150 if future medicine allows. And, if the average lifespan rises and humanity doesn’t destroy itself, perhaps her grandchildren or great-grandchildren could end up seeing New Year’s Day of the 23rd century.

The apparently distant future, I realized, is far nearer and dearer to my own life than I thought. So I better do what I can to ensure it goes well.

This reflection about the long-term reach of my potential family ties, and my own ethical responsibilities, led me to the words of the 18th-century writer and politician Edmund Burke. In 1790, he wrote that:

Society is indeed a contract … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

This is an ethical view, centuries before effective altruism was even a notion, that acknowledges that future people matter: a sense of justice, equality, and beneficence toward tomorrow’s generations, built on the awareness of what our forebears did for us. You wouldn’t, however, call it longtermist.

Rather than a god-like population-ethics view — adding up the aggregate well-being of people across time within some utilitarian calculation, with the aim of engineering the most good — Burke’s framing emphasizes a partnership, situated in relationships, kin, society, and the connections that link one generation to the next.

This sentiment, that we hold a duty to posterity rooted in our generational ties, has come up time after time ever since. For example, in 1866, the British politician John Stuart Mill gave a rousing speech to Parliament about the world we inherit and the world we must leave behind: “It is lent to us, not given: and it is our duty to pass it on, not merely undiminished, but with interest.” In the 20th century, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about “economic possibilities for our grandchildren,” hoping for a world of abundant prosperity and leisure time for, well… us (shame that didn’t quite work out). And later, in 1992, the vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk framed our cross-generational obligations with a simple question: “Are we being good ancestors?

A couple of years ago, the writer and researcher Leopold Aschenbrenner — who co-wrote parts of William MacAskill’s longtermist book What We Owe The Future — proposed that longtermism could do more to embrace this approach. “Most of all, I hope that more will take seriously the long arc of time,” he wrote. “Our civilization is an intergenerational enterprise.” He suggested this cross-generational view of ethics might be called “Burkean longtermism.” But if anything, I would argue that longtermism is a modern variant of this long-held if oft-ignored moral principle — not the other way round.

Burke himself was not the first to identify the values of stewardship and benevolence toward future generations. Such thinking has emerged within societies and cultures for millennia; perhaps most famously as the Seventh Generation principle, which is thought to go back to the centuries-old Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy. It’s usually taken to mean making decisions that benefit the next seven generations, but for some Native American scholars, it could also be interpreted as respecting the span of seven generations from your great-grandfather to great-grandchild.

Another often-mentioned example is the Maori proverb Ka mua, ka muri, which translates as “walking backward into the future,” emphasizing how the learnings of past generations can provide a guide to what’s ahead. Respect your ancestors, goes the wisdom, and they can help you in return.

But there are other non-Western ethical frameworks that deserve to be more widely known. The researcher Cecil Abungu and his team have been collecting examples of long-term thinking in Africa, including Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and Uganda. He wanted to dispel a myth in 20th-century Western philosophical literature that traditional African communities lacked a conception of the future. “Very many communities did have words to describe the long, long, long-term future, even without knowing that something would definitely happen,” he told me recently. “And lots of communities have proverbs essentially saying that you have to take into account those who will come after you tomorrow.”

The project is ongoing, but so far Abungu has identified various examples of spiritual and ethical codes oriented to the future, evidence of the deliberate preservation of artifacts for tomorrow’s generations, as well as principles of land and resource stewardship.

One particularly intriguing case study came from the history of the Meru people of Kenya. Every year, he explains, the young men in the group were encouraged to raid the cattle of a neighboring community. It was half-necessary, half-pastime, he said, and while it admittedly involved theft, it was underpinned by an ethical principle oriented toward future people: the men understood that, even as they raided, they should leave some cattle behind. Why? So that the following generation could go raiding too, earning the same status. “It’s not a matter of survival, but more of a matter of flourishing, and living well,” Abungu said.

In other words, it was the belief that future people also deserve an opportunity to win praise from their peers and loved ones.

The politics and symbolism of time

Researching my book, I’ve encountered various other communities, campaigners, and nascent movements who strongly believe that future people matter, but wouldn’t describe themselves as either longtermist or neartermist. I’d suggest a better term would simply be “long-minded.” Again, these approaches have roots that go back decades, and they sit outside the world of analytic philosophy.

The ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, for instance, campaigned back in the 1990s for a Bill of Rights for future generations, writing that future people “have a right to an uncontaminated and undamaged Earth and to its enjoyment as the ground of human history, of culture, and of the social bonds that make each generation and individual a member of one human family.” Citizens in the present day, he said, therefore have “a duty as trustee for future generations to prevent irreversible and irreparable harm to life on Earth and to human freedom and dignity.” One supporter, Pierre Chastan, was so inspired that he fashioned a boat out of wood in France, and sailed it to the UN in New York to deliver a barrel of petitions — wearing a Cousteau-style red beanie hat for the trip.

Such politically flavored intergenerational justice efforts manifest today as reports like the UN’s 2021 Our Common Agenda, the appointment of a second future generations commissioner in Wales last December, and recent discussion of a future generations bill in the UK House of Lords. Meanwhile, political scientists like Simon Caney at the University of Warwick in the UK have been exploring political reforms and policy proposals, on both a national and global level, that would foster greater rights for future people.

Then there are the symbolic long-minded approaches that have emerged in the world of art. One example is the growing community of people around the Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library in Oslo, Norway. In a forest north of the city, a grove of trees is growing — now about 4 feet tall — that will be used to print a special series of books written for future generations.

Every year, an author is invited to write a story that won’t be published until the year 2114. They are kept in a small space in Oslo’s central library called the Silent Room, which was designed to echo the rings of a tree. The first author was Margaret Atwood, who wrote a story called Scribbler Moon. And this May, the Vietnamese American writer and poet Ocean Vuong and German writer and book designer Judith Schalansky will hand over their manuscripts.

To do this, the authors are invited to visit the forest for an annual ceremony. When I attended the 2022 handover event, with Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, it was amid 200 to 300 Oslo citizens: people walking their dogs, parents carrying children on their shoulders. They were all participating in a ritual act that encouraged reflection on legacy, art, and what we leave behind.

On the surface, there would seem to be a present versus future trade-off with the Future Library: after all, no one can read the books unless they live until 2114, and almost certainly, that won’t include any adult in attendance. But nobody I encountered in the Future Library community — writers, artists, local politicians, and members of the public — seemed to see this as a sacrifice. Rather, the project itself lends a sense of meaning. The act of spending that Sunday morning thinking beyond the salient distractions of the present, and doing so together, provided its own benefits.

Temporal virtues

What might strict longtermists make of all this? Are such approaches and timeviews compatible with the longtermism project, allowing for the pluralism and worldview diversification that some EA leaders have called for, or are they entirely separate? I’m a writer, not a philosopher or an EA, so that’d be for others to weigh in.

However, I would be intrigued to see more exploration of what happens when longtermism meets virtue ethics. The long-held moral principle of the duty to posterity is underpinned by what you might call “temporal virtues” — of benevolence, conscientiousness, temperance, and humility for the sake of future people. How these virtues fit (or not) with longtermism is something I’m not qualified to analyze, but I hope someone in that community, or an adjacent one, does.

What I can speak to, however, is how the long view has shaped my own personal perspective on the world. Through writing my book, I realized something counterintuitive: that taking the long view allows one to become more present-minded, able to see with far clearer sight what truly matters, what needs to change, what is dangerous and harmful — and what is worth enjoying and appreciating. Reaching for a longer view has provided a source of guidance and solace during some of the best and worst moments in my life: bringing a daughter into the world, and eight years later, losing a baby son.

The long view has also provided me with a clarity of purpose in the present, through the call to leave a better world behind for the following generation. Some might interpret that this means building a grand legacy, planning a utopia, or seeking to steer the trajectory of tomorrow. However, I believe any long-minded approach ought to be tempered by humility, democracy, and pluralism. The future, after all, belongs to everyone, and we can’t predict the needs and values of tomorrow’s generations any more than someone living a century ago could imagine all of ours today.

Instead, the greatest legacy we can seek to leave behind is choice. If we can ensure that people tomorrow have the ability and autonomy to decide their own path within a sustainable world, then that is enough. For me, that is what long-mindedness means — and it needn’t involve making a choice between whether you care for the near term or the long term.

Richard Fisher is the author of The Long View (Wildfire, March 30, 2023). He is an honorary research associate at University College London, and a writer for the website BBC Future.