Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Long View

I have read two books recently that, although on quite different subjects, share underlying themes about sustainability and "the long view" (looking both deep into the past and into the future). One of the books is the Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand and the other is The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson.

The Clock of the Long Now is about a project to build the world's slowest computer--a super-slow astronomical clock--to embody the idea that sustainability begins with taking a long view of our past and our future and adjusting current activities in accordance. The slow clock, and an associated "library of civilization," aim to be massive tourist attractions on the scale of Mt. Rushmore, a way to help shift our cultural perspective away from habitual short-term thinking and historical amnesia.

The "Long Now" is a phrase coined by British musician Brian Eno. It refers to the idea that in some cultures the word "now" refers not to the immediate moment, as it does in our culture, but to a day, a year, or even 10 generations backward and forward. In Central Upstate New York, the Haudenosaunee nations might say their long now is seven generations backward and forward—the commandment to think of the effects of present actions on the seventh generation hence is written into their democratic constitution, and "seventh generation thinking" is a fundamental element of their culture.

If we (somewhat arbitrarily) define a generation as 25 years, then seven generations back puts us at about 1835, when the Empire State was expanding and the Erie Canal was coming into its own. The financial instruments (stocks, bonds, etc) created to pay for C19th empires--and the necessary gunboats, soldiers, engineers, bureaucrats, and infrastructure--are the subject of The Ascent of Money. Niall Ferguson wishes today's financial "Masters of the Universe" had a long now going back to the mid-C18th or mid-C19th, or at least to the mid-1980s!

Ferguson explains that historical amnesia is rife in the financial world, not just for the financiers and regulators who repeat mistake after mistake (thus allowing the Savings and Loans crisis to return as today's Credit Crunch) but for ordinary citizens who struggle with financial literacy and who always prefer making a quick buck over the slow return of compound interest, stock portfolios, and boring 30-year mortgages.

Of course, the sustainability movement has a mountain to climb if it wants to lengthen the now of our culture from "asap" to "anything from 1835 to 2185." But thinking about this problem did make me think of several living cultural institutions (i.e. not museums) in which long now thinking does feature ...
  • Sports, especially baseball—the history of this game is very much sanctified and tradition is appealed to, especially when players and teams transgress. (In 1835, baseball was evolving as its own distinct sport and the first true baseball games were being played.)
  • Colleges—again, these are often "living museums" of history and tradition that always need to think for the long term. (To be pedantically accurate, Tulane University was one college founded in 1835.)
  • Music—esp. Classical music, but any old form that is kept alive as a living institution: blues, jazz, folk, chant. (Felix Mendelssohn is just one Romantic composer at the height of his powers in 1835, whose music is still played regularly by symphony orchestras.)
But how can we leverage the habits and processes of this long now thinking and transfer them into areas such as building practices, finances, land use, energy independence, and resource exploitation?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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