It is said that among peoples of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederation, it was customary to have a spokesperson for future generations present for the deliberation of important decisions; someone to embody the concerns of descendants seven generations hence, at the far horizon of physical contact. (A youngster in the middle of a chain of seven generations could conceivably hold the hand of a great-great grandparent and then, in old age, the hand of a great-great grandchild.) That presence would provide emotional perspective, bringing the wisdom of hindsight perhaps, to a current challenge.
These days, we tend to invoke the seventh generation in the context of sustainability and taking care of the planet. ‘What impact would this action have for them?’ we wonder. ‘Them’ being future kin who share a heartfelt connection to this same land and its spirits, and who are no doubt dismayed by the despoilation we wreak on both.
I believe, however, that for peoples of the Haudenosaunee the power of the seventh generation was less about crafting sustainable outcomes than about activating bonds of kinship and connection across time and space. Injecting life into the four-dimensional commons that humans were known to share, as stewards of creation, so as to encourage well-grounded perspectives and good decisions.
In the natural course of things, the resulting way forward would in any case have been sustainable, but the exercise was actually, I like to believe, a matter of these people on this land agreeing – with help from their predecessors and successors – what is right in the here-and-now.
Now then, the global ‘we’ in the here-and-now of 2023 are not great at agreeing on the right way forward. For one thing, we don’t have a common understanding of what ‘right’ is. Also, too many of our perspectives are not well-grounded. To put it mildly.
We could use a future-oriented mindset to help break through, no?
My eyes lit up when I first read about something called ‘longtermism’. Yes! It appears that some tech-Utopians and the thinkers they patronize aim to embed a concern for future generations into present-day institutions and policymaking. They’re going to apply their mastery of digitally engineered social control and their superior ability to have good ideas – along with their disproportionate wealth and influence – to steer society in a way that benefits our descendants. Seventh Generation 2.0!
They say they’ve spotted a gaping hole in civilization – the failure of today’s political, cultural and financial institutions to properly prioritize the needs of future people – and they’ve concluded that their mission, as silicon-savvy superheroes, is to fill that hole.
My enthusiasm for their project lasted only minutes if not seconds. Here’s what I understand of it so far. Fair notice: this is going to be slanted.
In a nutshell, longtermism asserts that ‘preserving’ the benefit represented by the notional existence of 1058 notionally cognitively enhanced, notionally space-colonizing humans leading notionally happy and flourishing lives in a notionally deep future, should outweigh the real and present practicalities of life on Earth today. This is because there ‘are’ so many more future people than there are of us, and all you need to do is attach a hypothetical value to each of those hypothetical lives and to their hypothetical quality of life in order to prove that their total hypothetical potential ‘value’ exceeds by orders of magnitude the value of whatever we have going on here today. (Hypothetical, incidentally, means made-up.) Which is to say that the problems of 8 billion current humans and the catastrophic consequences of accelerating climate chaos and habitat loss, spurred by the structural violence of intensifying inequality and injustice, don’t amount to a hill of beans, hypothetically, because there is better – so, so much better – to come.
In best actuarial tradition, the unit of value in longtermist thinking is money, to begin with. (This is obviously problematic in the context of biotic interdependence, lived experience and spiritual connection but that’s glossed over so let’s move on.) Then comes the switcheroo – so casual it almost escapes attention – by which hypothetical economic value becomes concrete moral value, generating the conclusion that we have a moral obligation (buttressed by the sarcastically named discipline of ‘population ethics’) to reconfigure today’s world, even at cost to us, in such a way as to better the prospects for n zillion future human lives.
In this cooked-up scenario, the we elite who do the reconfiguring are not the same as the rest-of-the-world us who pay the cost in desperation, displacement, grief, failure, famine etc. (As one of the unspoken norms of extractivist colonial-capitalism and infinite-growth economics, this too passes with scarcely a mention.)
But it’s okay, because, in the words of one of the ideology’s eminences, catastrophes such as climate-change-accelerated civilizational collapse, “tragic as [they] are to the people immediately affected…are mere ripples on the surface of the great sea of life.” After all, “a giant massacre for man” is but “a small misstep for mankind.”
The inevitable conclusion – and to reach this conclusion you simply key in a few fanciful numbers, filter through smoke and mirrors then soak in sophomoric reasoning until the concepts of value, ethics and morality are diluted beyond recognition – is that “saving a life in a rich country”, with the positive knock-on effects this has for the species’ long term existence, “is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country, other things being equal”.
We know from history what waters are being tested by conjectures of this type, and what kinds of solution they pave the way for once political power and popular support swing behind them.
And this is where longtermism becomes more than just creepy.
It ought in my view to have remained a juvenile thought experiment for the college tutorial. One that illustrates the moral vacuity of thinking by numbers when nothing is at stake for the thinkers while everything is at stake for the living souls and life systems the numbers represent. But Big Money – headed by the usual tech/crypto billionaire halfwits – has already swung behind longtermism, dignifying it with research ‘institutes’ at prestigious universities, buying converts among the ultra-privileged, and whispering its toxic rationale into the ears of national and international policymakers.
(For a counterpoint, see The Case for Longtermism in the New York Times – though for me, the care and concern for the wellbeing of future people that the author professes, is chillingly empty, and the picture he paints of countless fantastically happy new people inhabiting that future, presumably far from the trashed remains of Mother Earth, is reminiscent of Big Oil’s clean energy commercials featuring children flying kites in spring sunshine as they bound across green fields. Also, the conspicuous omission of climate chaos and biodiversity collapse from the list of ‘existential risks’ – glancing reference is made in the Times piece to ‘carbon pollution’ but the chief risks are apparently A.I., pandemics and nuclear weapons – is revealing.)
There’s a moral blank at the core of longtermism – surely indicative of the anaesthetized souls who market it – and the future that the longtermist case is built on is just a hologram. That it should be granted intellectual credibility and invited into policy deliberations, is truly disturbing.
I decided to summon seventh generation voices for some grounded input. I had to dream up a bastardized version of the protocol – it isn’t set up to function within the confines of one person’s head – and the descendants weren’t overly impressed. But they did wish to be heard.
First, I sought guidance on tackling today’s cascading environmental polycrisis. Their comments:
It’s about equity, not technology
You guys drive too much
Teach the kids it’s an abundant planet, even with 8 billion of you, and with a commons-based model for sharing it rather than a greed-driven extractionist death spiral you’ll end up with a very different reality. A reality which we’ll be part of.
Then I asked what to make of longtermism. I might have heard a snigger before the great-greats turned to me with solemn faces – I am their ancestor after all – and said:
The people behind this idea: who are they? Where do they emerge from and what ground do they stand on? What is their claim on your attention?
If they speak like spoiled children; if reasoning is just a toy for them to burnish their self-esteem and a tool for elevating sterile abstraction over a world teeming with living spirits – then be wary. Interacting with them can only raise your blood pressure. If they appear as grown people, people of authority whose words merit attention, yet show themselves immature, like adolescents who’ve not yet learned to balance influence, responsibility and humility, and have no place in their hearts for the shimmering beauty and complexity of the earth that birthed them – then trouble’s brewing. Don’t do anything to feed their arrogance. And if they’ve arrived at adulthood, clothed in power and prestige but hollow inside, numb to the pulse of the universe and disconnected from the lived experience and sufferings of other beings and entities they share their time on earth with – then they cannot be helped. They are a danger to society and the world. Exclude them.
For spurious balance, I conjured up a longtermist in my imagination and asked for his (it’s a boy thing, in the main) take on seventh-generationism. He was nonplussed:
Seven’s an artificially low number. You need to start with the 1000th generation, or 100,000th, for decent data. And what’s with sitting around a fire trying to come to a decision? Make as much money as you can, pump funds into this list of organizations and researchers which I am giving you now – we call it ‘effective altruism’ – and let A.I. do the rest.
I tried to follow up with a question about why his movement’s tech-Utopian sponsors are furiously pouring money into A.I. at the same time as frightening everyone with warnings about its dangers, but at that the longtermist vanished with a squelch.
In sum, I’d always assumed that any approach which encouraged a future-friendly perspective on today’s daunting near-term challenges, had to be better than nothing. Now, not so much.
The intention of Seventh Generation thinking, as I see it, is to better relationalize our world – as in recognizing and pouring life into the organic links that connect everything to everything. I see in Seventh Generation a tried and tested way for encouraging ways of being, and ways of knowing, that are entwined with the living, breathing physical and spiritual reality we spring from – the four-billion-year hinterland of evolution and interdependence that makes today’s web of life possible.
This is a valuable approach because the less relational that our ways of being and knowing become – and this is surely the thrust of today’s technology-dominated way of life – the more we disconnect from physical and spiritual reality. Which, among other things, weakens our capacity for reality-based decisionmaking.
The intention of longtermism, on the other hand…. Well, I really wonder. There are good intentions in there somewhere, I expect, but overall it manifests late modernity’s characteristic disconnect from reality. Positive outcomes can hardly be expected from those who peddle it.
One Reply to “Seventh Generation vs. (sigh) ‘Longtermism’”
Great essay! One of my favorite recent Sci-fi series is The Expanse on Netflix, which more or less covers the same scenario as imagined by long term -ism. I suppose the best possible interpretation of long term ism is that it takes sci fi literally. And the dangers thereof, since sci-fi isn’t meant to be taken literally, but rather as a thought experiment. Trying to impose thought experiments onto reality has a less than perfect record of success!
I like that image you invoke of the outside possibility of holding hands across the seven generations.
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