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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.


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