LIVING WATER SMART IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: “Society tends to neglect the future in favor of the present. Positive change is the result of long, hard work by thinkers and activists. We can be pivotal in steering the future onto a better trajectory.” – Dr. William MacAskill, philosopher, author and professor with the Global Priorities Institute, University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (September 2022)
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In the edition published on September 27, 2022, the Partnership introduced readers to Dr. William MacAskill. He is a proponent of what’s known as longtermism – the view that the deep future is something we have to address now. The storyline also interweaved the writings of Eva Kras about reconciling the disconnect between short-term and long-term thinking.
“The world’s long-run fate depends in part on the choices we make in our lifetimes,” the philosopher William MacAskill writes
In August 2022, author William MacAskill released his new book, What We Owe the Future. “He is a proponent of what’s known as longtermism – the view that the deep future is something we have to address now,” summarized Andrew Anthony in an interview published in The Guardian newspaper.
“Although most cultures, particularly in the west, provide a great many commemorations of distant ancestors – statues, portraits, buildings – we are much less willing to consider our far-off descendants. We might invoke grandchildren, at a push great-grandchildren, but after that, it all becomes a bit vague and, well, unimaginable,” he added.
A key takeaway from the Guardian interview is that “in societies undergoing rapid change, we feel more disconnected from the distant future because we struggle to conceive what it will be like.”
“Something I love about longtermism is that it is really just built on three sentences. Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives better,” stated Ezra Klein, NY Times columnist, when he welcomed William MacAskill to The Ezra Klein Show podcast.
Optimism is core to the concept of longtermism. Psychologically, you can’t generally expect a positive future to be the result of a negative approach to the present.
“Longtermism, is an Indigenous teaching, think about how your own actions may affect your nation seven generations from now,” notes British Columbia’s Michael Blackstock, the driving force behind Blue Ecology, a water-first approach to interweaving Indigenous knowledge and Western science in order to do a better job of managing water resources in a changing climate.
“Retirement planning is something that most people understand and do intuitively,” stated Metro Vancouver’s Robert Hicks at a Partnership for Water Sustainability forum in 2005. “So why is it that when it comes to community and/or resource planning, we are seemingly incapable of overcoming the gap between long-term and short-term thinking?”
“We struggle to make long-term decisions related to dealing with uncertainty and managing risk when it comes to sustaining the very infrastructure that our communities depend upon for life support. This disconnect in thought between retirement planning and water management is a conundrum.”
“After reflecting on the picture that William MacAskill paints, my colleague and mentor Eric Bonham pointed out the parallels with Eva Kras – visionary, scholar, university professor, lecturer, traveler and author. Her knowledge and wisdom have influenced the work of the Partnership, especially after she and her husband retired to British Columbia in 2014,” stated Kim Stephens, Waterbucket eNews Editor and Partnership Executive Director.
“Eva Kras wrote THE BLOCKAGE–Rethinking Organizational Principles for the 21st Century, published in 2007. Her last book, Future for Youth Employment: New Changes in Approaches to Business, was published in 2018. For the best part of a decade, Eva Kras was a key contributor to the Partnership’s “convening for action” initiative on Vancouver Island.”
“Eric Bonham and I believe that Eva Kras would have enjoyed meeting William MacAskill. They would have had much to share about reconciling the disconnect between short-term and long-term thinking.”
HOW WE THINK: How it affects sustainability
“At an international business conference in 2015, Eva Kras built on brain research findings by Ian Gilchrist, renowned psychiatrist and thinker. He defined the two types of thinking processes as The Master and his Emissary. Eva Kras created an intellectual bridge between his research and the potential for its application in the world of business.”
“She characterized the Left Hemisphere (Emissary) as ‘short-term + pragmatic = show me the money thinking’. The Right Hemisphere (Master), she said, is ‘long-term + holistic = leap of faith thinking’.”
“It seems that only Left Hemisphere logical, rational thinking has been accepted as valid,” explained Eva Kras in her paper. “Both ways of thinking are important, but the sad part is that we have convinced ourselves that the Left Hemisphere can do EVERYTHING.”
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William MacAskill: Reflections on how future generations will remember us
New Yorker Magazine describes William MacAskill as the “reluctant prophet of effective altruism”. Born in 1987, he grew up in Glasgow and attended a vaunted private school. He excelled at almost everything and won a place to read philosophy at Cambridge.
In 2015, William MacAskill was hired as an associate professor at Oxford and, at age twenty-eight, was said to be the youngest such philosophy professor in the world. One of the main focuses of MacAskill’s research has been the issue of how one ought to make decisions under “normative uncertainty.”
“We are often unsure about what we ought to do. This can be because we lack empirical knowledge,” explains William MacAskill. “It can also be because we lack normative knowledge, such as the relative moral importance of the interests of present people and the interests of future people.”
“The question of how one ought to act under normative uncertainty is comparatively neglected. My research attempts to address this gap.”
A selection of quotable quotes that help us understand what “longtermism” means
Next, we present a selection of “William MacAskill quotable quotes”. Our hope is that these will provide readers of Waterbucket eNews with context and insight regarding his thinking as a philosopher, ethicist and author. These reflections on core concepts are extracted from his essays which the NY Times newspaper and The Atlantic magazine published in August 2022.
“It took me a long time to come around to longtermism. Over the past 12 years, I’ve been an advocate of effective altruism — the use of evidence and reason to help others as much as possible,” William MacAskill says.
“But some simple ideas exerted a persistent force on my mind: Future people count. There could be a lot of them. And we can make their lives better. To help others as much as possible, we must think about the long-term impact of our actions.”
“Longtermism is about taking seriously just how big the future could be and how high the stakes are in shaping it. What we do now will affect untold numbers of future people. We need to act wisely. We aren’t helpless in the face of challenges. Longtermism can inspire concrete actions, here and now.”
“But society tends to neglect the future in favor of the present. Future people are utterly disenfranchised. They can’t vote or lobby or run for public office, so politicians have scant incentive to think about them. They are the true silent majority.”
“We can at least give them fair consideration. We can renounce the tyranny of the present over the future and act as trustees for all of humanity, helping to create a flourishing world for the generations to come.”
“If we are careful and farsighted, we have the power to help build a better future for our great-grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren in turn — down through hundreds of generations. But positive change is not inevitable. It’s the result of long, hard work by thinkers and activists.”
“Does longtermism imply that we must sacrifice the present on the altar of posterity? No. In fact, as I’ve learned more about longtermism, I’ve realized that there is remarkable overlap between the best ways we can promote the common good for people living right now and for our posterity.”
“When future people look back on us, they are bound to notice our disregard for another disenfranchised group: them. It’s easy to imagine that in the year 2300, our descendants will deplore our failure to take their interests into account. And the stakes of this potential failure are incredibly high.”
“I’ve come to believe that protecting future generations should be a key moral priority of our time. When we consider which groups we’re neglecting, it’s all too easy to forget about most people who will likely ever live. But with hard work and humility, we can steer toward a future that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be glad to inherit.”
“What will future generations think of us? Perhaps they will see us as selfish and myopic. Or perhaps they will look back on us with gratitude, for the steps we took to leave them a better world. The choice is ours,” concludes William MacAskill.
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