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Lack of Concern About the Future

There are many indications, ranging from reluctance to invest in infrastructure and education to the popularity of living in the moment, mindful only of the present, that people are neglecting the future. Such a tendency is evident in decreasing willingness to invest in fundamental research that lacks an identifiable near-term payoff.

Decades ago, corporations were more willing to engage in Level 1, moonshot research. Bell Labs supported the work that led to the transistor when it was far from clear that there would be a market for it; Xerox supported research into the ‘‘windows’’ style of computing years before the market existed for such an interface. But in the last few decades, the vista of corporate R.& D. has shrunk as markets and executives have focused more on short-term profit, says Marc Kastner, an M.I.T. physicist. The far-off research questions have been left to university labs, though they struggle, too: The percentage of the federal budget devoted to basic research is about half of what it was in 1968.
- Clive Thompson, Uber Would Like to Buy Your Robotics Department, New York Times, Sept. 11, 2015


Mindfulness, the ancient practice of focusing non-judgmental awareness on the present moment, is increasingly recognized in today’s scientific community as an effective way to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, enhance emotional intelligence, and effectively manage painful thoughts and feelings.
- 7 Happiness Habits, Project Happiness


We’re essentially in a race between our potency, our awareness of the expressed and potential ramifications of our actions and our growing awareness of the deeply embedded perceptual and behavioral traits that shape how we do, or don’t, address certain kinds of risks.
- Andrew Revkin, Confronting the ‘Anthropocene’, NYT, May 11, 2011


"There are powerful institutional incentives in the Congress to adopt a short-term horizon: the budget cycle, the end of the fiscal year, the next election. Our daily schedules are so cram-packed with meetings on one short-term problem after another, we scarcely have time to even consider the long-term future."
- Al Gore, quoted in Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, Wilson Center, Oct. 1, 2002


Though we have thousands and thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students of history, working upon the records of the past, there is not a single person anywhere who makes a whole time special job of estimating the future consequences of new inventions and new devices. There isn't a single professor of foresight in the world. But why shouldn't there be? Isn't foresight as important as history? ... Isn't it plain that we ought to have, not simply one or two professors of foresight, but whole faculties and departments...?
- H. G. Wells on the Future, BBC, 1932


There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.
- CATHY O’NEIL, The Ivory Tower Can’t Keep Ignoring Tech, NYT, NOV. 14, 2017



On the other hand, professor of psychology Martin Seligman and science writer John Tierney congratulate humans on their habit of thinking about the future:

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation.
- MARTIN E. P. SELIGMAN and JOHN TIERNEY, We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment, NYT, MAY 19, 2017


Unfortunately, as a species, humans are notoriously inept at acting in our own long-term interest.
- KIM TINGLEY, How to Make Cars Cooperate, NYT, NOV. 9, 2017


Elected officials may be busy arguing about whether global warming is real. But most scientists are having other arguments entirely — about whether danger is imminent or a few decades off; about whether our prospects are dire or merely grim. ...
Over the course of the earth’s history, seas have risen drastically whenever ice sheets suddenly collapsed. And that’s precisely what’s happening now. Greenland is melting at a furious rate... and so are the ice shelves of Antarctica.
Many of our climate reports, including the one that formed the basis of the 2015 Paris Agreement, hadn’t predicted this. Their authors assumed that the most the sea could rise by 2100 was three feet, two inches. Now many scientists believe that estimate is too low. Some say the sea could rise as much as six feet; others say even more than that.

“For anyone living in Miami Beach or South Brooklyn or Boston’s Back Bay or any other low-lying coastal neighborhood,” [Jeff] Goodell [author of “The Water Will Come”] writes, “the difference between three feet of sea level rise by 2100 and six feet is the difference between a wet but livable city and a submerged city.”

Goodell has been writing about climate change for many years. ... In “The Water Will Come,” ... he visits cities in peril around the globe: New York; Lagos, Nigeria; Norfolk, Va.; Miami; Venice; Rotterdam. He speaks to a great many politicians, including Barack Obama, eventually asking some version of, “Given what you know, aren’t you scared out of your wits?” (Obama’s response: “Yeah.”) ...Goodell buttonholes an influential developer in Miami, Jorge Pérez, and asks several variations of the same question. Pérez insists he’s unworried. “Besides,” he adds, “by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”
- JENNIFER SENIOR, Not if the Seas Rise, but When and How High, NYT, NOV. 22, 2017


What explains the lack of action to stave off climate change at the global level and to address issues of resilience and adaptation at the local level? Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, suggested it goes back to a fundamental human flaw.

Long-range planning is necessary to confront the threat of climate change, but “psychologically, we’re just not designed to do that,” she said. Humans are most acutely attuned to immediate threats, she added: “We are evolved to run away from the bear, not plan for long-term food supply.”
- John Schwartz, Humans Are Making Hurricanes Worse. Here’s How., NYT, Sept. 19, 2018


The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future. To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense. We are innately inclined to ignore any distant possibility not yet requiring examination. It is, people say, just good common sense. Why do they think in this short-sighted way? The reason is simple: it is a hard-wired part of our Paleolithic heritage.
- Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (p. 40). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


This chilling prospect is described in a paper published Monday in Nature Climate Change, a respected academic journal, that shows the effects of climate change across a broad spectrum of problems, including heat waves, wildfires, sea level rise, hurricanes, flooding, drought and shortages of clean water.

Such problems are already coming in combination, said the lead author, Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. ...
People are not generally attuned to dealing with problems like climate change, Dr. Mora said. “We as humans don’t feel the pain of people who are far away or far into the future,” he said. “We normally care about people who are close to us or that are impacting us, or things that will happen tomorrow.”

And so, he said, people tend to look at events far in the future and tell themselves, “We can deal with these things later, we have more pressing problems now.” But, he added, this research “documented how bad this already is.”
- John Schwartz, ‘Like a Terror Movie’: How Climate Change Will Cause More Simultaneous Disasters, NYT, Nov. 19, 2018


Average incomes for the richest 1 percent of French households doubled between 1983 and 2015, while the bottom 99 percent saw incomes rise by only one-fourth, according to the French economist Thomas Piketty. ...
Ms. Bonnin was provoked into joining the Yellow Vests by the same measure that mobilized much of the country, a tax on gasoline that was to take effect in January.

Mr. Macron promoted it as a means of adapting to climate change. Outside major cities, where people rely on cars to get nearly everywhere, it supplied proof that the president was indifferent to the working class. “Macron is concerned with the end of the world,” one Yellow Vest slogan put it. “We are concerned with the end of the month.”
- Peter S. Goodman, Inequality Fuels Rage of ‘Yellow Vests’ in Equality-Obsessed France, NYT, April 15, 2019


Joe Rogan: "...when it comes to tax dollars people get super pragmatic and they go why do we need to go to Mars now..." Neil Tyson: "...NASA's budget today is four tenths of one percent of the federal budget.... is this where you really want to pull the money from when it's the only thing that has us thinking about tomorrow, has us thinking about a future."
- Joe Rogan Experience #1159 - Neil deGrasse Tyson, Youtube, streamed on Aug. 22, 2018, 30:10 - 31:45


Her Brexit strategy has left the country in dire straits: Its populace is poisonously divided, its two venerable parties are gravely damaged, and her likely successors are pushing the hard-line fantasy of a no-deal exit. ...
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University, was unsparing, calling Mrs. May’s time in office “a complete and utter waste, an exercise in futility.”

“She will be seen as one of the worst-performing prime ministers ever to occupy that office,” he said. ...
At the outset of the negotiation, she accepted the assurances of leading Brexiteers that the negotiations would be easy.... ...
After that, Mr. Wilkins said, Mrs. May’s team was focused on the everyday crisis of her political survival. ...
At the outset of the negotiation, she accepted the assurances of leading Brexiteers that the negotiations would be easy, and, as a negotiating tool, declared that she was prepared to leave without a deal, said Chris Wilkins, who worked as her speechwriter and chief strategist for her first year in office. ...
In a major policy speech in January 2017, she promised to break free of the European Union’s economic structures and to exit the European Court of Justice, and promised that, if necessary, she was ready to leave on March 29, 2019, with no agreement in place. That pledge — “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain” — was a victory for hard-line Brexiteers, bringing their thinking into the Tory mainstream.
“It was very important, and it wasn’t one speech; she said it consistently,” said John Redwood, an anti-Europe voice in Parliament for decades.

But Mr. Wilkins, who helped to write the speech, said little deliberation went into that line.

“That wasn’t done on the basis of a great deal of evidence,” he said. “It was done on the basis that this was something we had to say.” ...
“She doesn’t think strategically,” he said. “It was all about how do I get through today and still be here tomorrow.” ...
In the soaring rhetoric of the referendum, they had glossed over a stubborn problem: Leaving the European customs union, which eliminated tariff barriers on goods, would mean creating a physical border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a member of the European Union.

Nearly two years would pass before Mrs. May made public her solution to the border conundrum. The so-called Irish backstop would keep the country inside a customs union — with Northern Ireland subject to additional European Union regulation — until a better solution was found, most likely new technology or another form of trading arrangement.

This compromise was reviled, by Remainers and Brexiteers alike, as the worst of both worlds, a Britain that was neither in, nor fully out, of the European Union. ...
She also made it clear, to her party and to the country, that she was not ready to guide Britain into a no-deal exit.

This was the result of a set of briefings presented to her around six months ago by the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, who laid out the political and economic consequences — including to the Conservative Party — of a sudden exit.

“Since then, everything has been about excluding no-deal,” Mr. Wilkins said. “She is desperate to avoid it now. For the sake of the country, she now thinks it is the wrong thing to do.” ...
Boris Johnson, favored by many to succeed Mrs. May, declared in January that a no-deal exit “is closest to what people actually voted for.” Nigel Farage, at the helm of the surging Brexit Party, rolled out the slogan “No deal, no problem.”

Her departure, as a result, nudges the country toward an outcome that she dreads.
- Ellen Barry, ‘Red Lines’ on Brexit Became a Trap for Theresa May, NYT, May 24, 2019


...we too often optimize based on immediate cost and acceptshort-term gains instead of long-term solutions. This is a national cultural malady that can only be reversed if the public demands a change in policy.
- US Army Corps of Engineers, Performance Evaluation of the New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Protection System: Final Report of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, Volume I - Executive Summary and Overview, June 2009, p. I-9


The best drivers don't focus on the future or the past. The best drivers focus only on the present.
- Trailer for Disney's movie The Art of Racing in the Rain, 6/8/19, at 1:10.


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