Long-terms, short-terms and short-termism in the Anthropocene

So much of what we hear and read sounds like short-termism. Why aren’t more people taking the long-term seriously? What’s with all this short-term thinking that avoids or willfully ignores the drivers of Anthropocene crises?

Think of short-termism as the preoccupation with a present differentiated as in: right now, now this hour, now today, or some such nearer term. Long-termism is the preoccupation with a past or future outside the confines of that presentism. Just as minutes, hours, days and weeks are conventionalized units, so too past and futures are denominated into decades, centuries, millennia, and so on.

Equally important, the latter long-terms are almost all further differentiated. British historians are apt to talk about the long 19th century as a less arbitrary unit running roughly from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Some Western historians are also apt to talk about short 20th century running from 1914 (the start of World War I) to 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall). Whether broad generalizations based in any of these versions of the 19th or 20th centuries are a kind of short-termism or long-termism depends on whom you ask and the trends or patterns they take for the points being made by their periodization.

–If so, you then can think of the “preoccupation” side of preoccupation-with as short-termism or long-termism roughly independent of the “with” side, the object of which can and is denominated in different ways.

For example, short-termism for me is captured by: “Our inability to forecast the future is the mess we are in right now.” Long-termism, in turn, is captured by: “In the long-run there is just another short-run.” Both views are consistent much of this blog.

But you, the reader, come with different preoccupations-with. Yours may be more akin to: “There is every reason to believe the present can’t continue this way indefinitely.” Or your preoccupation with a longer term is more in line with: “It isn’t a question of if it will happen but when it happens.” Other long/short/ism orientations are possible (e.g., those “middle-range views”), but these illustrative four are sufficient to make the following case.

–It seems to me that when it comes to complex policy and management crises it is not the “long term versus short term,” but rather some crises are pegged to or differentiated by more than one of these orientations. Take the healthcare crisis, at least as I understand it in the US.

Start with “the present rise in healthcare costs can’t continue this way indefinitely”. Now rescript the healthcare crisis through the other three orientations: “The current crisis in healthcare is that we can’t predict future healthcare needs with the kind of specificity we need for taking effective action now”; “Healthcare continues to be characterized by seriatim hardware and digital upheavals, one after another”; and “It’s not if, but when the next pandemic of an unknown virus will happen.”

In this rescripting, “the healthcare crisis” not only reflects multiple but different orientations are at work but also a major way the passage of time is differentiated and tracked (i.e., “the COVID pandemic has been its own healthcare crisis”).

–Another implication is subtler but more important for rethinking the complaint about short-termism with respect to crises: In all four orientations, the future is a hypothesis we have yet to finish with. Hypothesis? A core urgency moves to the fore when we focus on the nature of the present in any orientation: Where, specifically, does “not-knowing the present” come into play in each of the four?

Whatever the specific answer, one point is clear: Conventional short-termism—the present matters more than the future, period—requires more certainty and confidence than warrantable for the hypothesis. That there are more orientations–and competing preoccupations–than my four ones serves to nail home this point further.

The virtue of center-staging not-knowing is to remind those preoccupied with variously denominated short-terms and long-terms that predicting the future can be difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require stability in objectives, institutional memory, fall-back reserves in case something goes wrong, and low environmental uncertainty, among others. But we are in the Anthropocene: none of these conditions prevail.

–Did I say “the virtue of center-staging not-knowing”? For many, the absence of preconditions for predicting the future and learning from the past is outright negative. For me, it is positive to start from the fact that not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty are as variable as each is.

This becomes clear when we move to the more granular case level. Some regional climate change modeling is of such a high resolution today that model results can be and are in some cases disaggregated in ways of use to critical infrastructures. For example, it’s now possible to project estimates for rising sea-levels, storm surges and inland flooding in, say, 20-year increments to better reflect already existing near- and longer-term cycles for infrastructure depreciation and forward investments, among others. The latter can be updated in light of the projections from the former. Do such modeling results reduce the pre-existing uncertainties related to depreciation and investment cycles? No. Do modeling results increase confidence that action with respect to these cycles can be taken nevertheless? Now: possibly.

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