How to be a Good Ancestor: Book Review

July 31, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I owe Roman Krznaric – his brilliant 2008 paper How Change Happens, written as input to a long-forgotten Oxfam book called ‘From Poverty to Power’, got me thinking about change as a process, a thing in itself. Eight years later (my brain takes its time) I nicked his title for a book.

In the intervening years, Roman has become a pretty famous ‘public philosopher’ and his latest book, The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World, shows why.

The book tackles a big hairy problem, what he calls ‘Cathedral Thinking’. How do you get people to shift from the short-term rabbit hole of the next tweet, pay cheque, opinion poll or even election, to making the necessary decisions and sacrifices to save the planet and leave something worthwhile for unborn future generations (like building a Cathedral over centuries)? I’ve occasionally rambled about that challenge on this blog, but Roman takes it to a whole new level.

‘The moment has come, especially for those living in wealthy nations, to recognize a disturbing truth: that we have colonised the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please.’

The answer is a shift to long-term thinking, to making decisions based on ‘being a good ancestor’. But he worries that there is an intellectual vacuum on how to do this. Hence the book.

To try and deal with the ‘conceptual emergency’, he offers six ‘visionary and practical ways to cultivate long-term thinking’ – the ‘foundations for creating a ‘long now civilization.’

His cautious optimism that this can be achieved and apocalypse averted, is based on the emergence of what he calls ‘time rebels’, whether in economics (notably his partner Kate Raworth), politics or culture. These examples show that we are not entirely enslaved to our ‘marshmallow brains’, always grabbing the next sugar rush. Instead, we are developing our ‘acorn brains’, with the promise of mighty oaks in the centuries to come.

There are some lovely ideas in here – on how the invention of the clock was a disaster, changing people’s notion of time from cyclical to linear creating, in Charles Dickens’ words (about the clock in the office of Mr Gradgrind), ‘a deadly statistical clock, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin-lid.’

Or the idea of enshrining the rights of future generations in law, by analogy with the way slaves eventually won recognition of their individual rights. He even puts it into practice at home – he and Kate discuss the election manifestos with their 11 year old twins, then take instruction on how to vote from them, as custodians of the future (I wonder what would happen if they answered ‘UKIP’?)

The discussion of the spread of future thinking in literature (mainly, but not only, through sci-fi, now rebranded as ‘speculative fiction’) and the arts is excellent, as you would expect from someone who came up with the brilliant idea of an ‘empathy museum’, including a set of refugees’ discarded shoes, which visitors can slip their feet into. ‘We are beginning to breath the air of long-term thinking’, he concludes.

I hope he’s right, but I some doubts and questions.

Firstly, the book prefers to stick to the rather simplistic comfort zone of venal capitalists v heroic campaigners and futurists, pursuing obviously correct solutions free of contradictions and trade-offs. For example I got excited when, using the Intergenerational Solidarity Index, he identified some countries that have managed to combine democracy and long-termism, but instead of then digging into the real life messiness of how change happened in those positive outliers, he veers off onto his own recipe for how to make politics more long-term, clutching at a few hopeful, but pretty small, experiments such as citizens’ assemblies. That reflects his general preference for big sweeping new ideas and ‘clean’ experiments over understanding the messy compromises of incremental, but significant, progress.

Linked to that is the issue of ‘we’. Who is the ‘we’ in phrases like ‘how we can design an evolutionary learning capability into our political, economic and social systems’? That sounds a bit like some kind of platonic guardian/green technocrat that is suddenly placed in charge. But how do they take power, and what if they disagree with each other about the best way to be a good ancestor?

And linked to that, Roman triggered my scepticism on planning. He’s big on planning (though also on systems thinking). He reckons that being a good ancestor is something that must be consciously planned and built, which inevitably brought us back to the China problem. How does the environmentalists’ fascination with the good bits of Chinese innovation and long termism square with concerns over human rights and rising neo-colonialism?

In short, do books need their own theory of change? I raised some similar concerns when I reviewed Doughnut Economics. Since then, Kate Raworth has well and truly shut me up by setting up the ‘Doughnut Economics Action Lab’ and getting cities like Amsterdam to adopt the model. Looking forward to the Good Ancestor Lab following suit……

And Roman is quite clear – what he is really putting out here are new ideas, and the ideas here are big (huge, even) and crucial. This is a significant book.

Here he is summarizing the book in a 3m animation

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July 31, 2020
Duncan Green