Ancestry and future planning
“If we want to be good ancestors, we should show future generations how we cope with an age of great change and great crises.” —Jonas Salk
My maternal grandmother showed up in a dream the other night. I can safely say I can’t remember ever dreaming about either of my grandmothers, but here was Grandma, standing behind me as I turned around and giving me a big hug and smiling and talking, which, for anyone who knew her, was very out of character.
Grandma was born and raised in Ohio in 1912 but spent the last forty or so years of her life in Great Falls, Montana, separated and then divorced from my grandfather, the man she’d met while in graduate school and with whom she’d probably imagined a very different life than isolation and motherhood on his family’s Montana homestead and eventual descent into alcoholism (his, though she did like her two or three glasses of scotch in the evening). She was not, to put it mildly, a hug-giving cookie-baking type. I think she made microwave brownies once. Or maybe I made them. She talked sparingly and read books almost not at all. She liked small dogs and swimming and playing bridge and volunteering weekly the Soroptomists and watching bull-riding competitions. She’d once been a pilot and flew competitively. I loved her very much though can’t say I ever really knew her. We got along well because I was tidy and not much trouble and liked to go to church with her. She died two days before my first baby was born.
I’ve been reading Roman Krznaric’s book The Good Ancestor and haven’t gotten to the “prescription for long-term thinking” part of the subtitle, but have been thinking a lot about elders and ancestry. Maybe that’s why I dreamed about my grandmother.
But maybe not. It’s hard to grasp what our relationship was, since she really did talk so little, especially about her life, and didn’t like children all that much. I don’t know how she would have coped with the realities of climate change and rising white nationalist movements and bewildering fake news saturating the internet. Probably calmly (though she had a healthy dislike of Donald Trump, even back in the 1980s). She didn’t like fuss any more than she liked cats (she deeply disliked cats).
I was listening to an audio version* of this piece on short-term thinking from MIT Technology Review this morning, and found myself irritated not just by the title—“Humanity is stuck in short-term thinking. Here’s how we escape,” by BBC journalist Richard Fisher (not that I blame him for the title since writers never write headlines)—but by the foundational idea behind it. It’s well-meaning, and presents a not-too-bad acronym idea for what keeps society stuck in short-term planning, but when it comes down to it I’m not sure I really buy the drumbeat claim that humanity as a whole is incapable of thinking and planning in the long term.
We hear this all the time, especially when it comes to climate change: humans are wired for short-term thinking, short-term benefits, short-term results. Thinking in longer generational or century terms is beyond us.
The more you look at human history, and even human present, though, the less realistic that claim seems. Yes, we have trouble refusing salt, sugar, and fats that are bad for us, even when we’re taught the long-term effects on our bodies, but plenty of people work and plan in the hopes of providing a good future for their children and grandchildren. You can find examples of long-term thinking all over the place without even starting to look at the ample evidence of societies that have made decisions for centuries based on some version of the seventh-generation concept.
I’m not so sure that humanity is incapable of working to build a world that will benefit our great-great-grandchildren so much that it’s in the interests of capitalism to convince us that we’re incapable of it. People get a sense of satisfaction from knowing that they’re benefiting a future they’ll never see all the time. My husband and I planted a number of trees last year that we know won’t provide shade and shelter until we’re old, but we take pleasure in knowing that future people will benefit from them, and we’re hardly examples of enlightened holistic futurism. Corporations dependent on short-term profits, however, are also dependent on convincing us that this kind of investment is an aberration.
Many of us have been persuaded to believe in a “fact,” even though it might not be true, simply because those who control the narratives profit when we’re convinced of its veracity. They then push the narrative further to convince most people that if they don’t grab resources for themselves—minerals, water, education, power, whatever—someone else will. Humans suck at long-term thinking; therefore, we have no chance of changing the course of a planetwide climate catastrophe, plus people are greedy and you can’t trust them, QED, so why bother?
My grandmother was a practical person who had no real trouble planning for the future or thinking about what to leave her grandchildren. Years before she died, she gave my older sister her flatware set, my younger sister her locket, me her own grandmother’s diamond pin, and that was that. She also believed in education and working hard and saving money and contributing to her community. She believed, I think, in creating a good future for future generations, even if she wasn’t one to talk much about it.
As Grandma might have said if she’d bothered to opine on anything at all, face the future, don’t make a fuss, and get on with it.
*I enjoy podcasts, but also use an app called Curio, which helps me stay away (most of the time) from news addiction by providing in-depth news stories from a variety of outlets—Aeon, The Economist, Financial Times, The Guardian, and several others—read aloud and beautifully by professional journalists. It costs about $8 per month (I have the beta version, so pay less than that, but I think I’d still subscribe at this level.) That’s where I listened to the MIT Technology Review piece, which I think is available to read only for subscribers.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Origin Stories, the podcast from The Leakey Foundation, recently had an episode featuring a lecture by paleobiologist Dr. Nina Jablonski on the evolution of human skin color. Many of us have learned that darker skin has more eumelanin (melanin) than lighter skin, providing natural UV protection, but I didn’t know that part of this evolution might be to protect folate metabolism (a crucial B vitamin that protects against birth defects like spina bifida), or that people who ended up depigmented, with lighter skin, at northern latitudes still couldn’t absorb enough Vitamin D and so had to supplement with a fishy diet. There’s a lot in this lecture, including how NASA helped map shifts in ultraviolet radiation over deep time, and I highly recommend making the time to listen.
The Origin Stories episode pairs well with this article from Nautilus on how deeply eugenics and statistics are intertwined, and on how early eugenicists forced categories of difference—inventing the concept of “statistical significance”—onto “races” that they helped invent, simply because they were certain those differences should exist: “Pearson’s statistical work was inseparable from his advocacy for eugenics.” (Insert me swearing a lot at these people throughout.) It’s no surprise that these early pseudoscience statisticians were deeply racist, nor that their influence has proven difficult to uproot. I am reminded again of the gazillion thistles in my yard.
How Jakarta, long at risk from plate tectonics and volcanic activity, is working to save itself from sinking into the ocean by relocating 1,250 miles northeast: “The primary danger is not the changing climate, although that is a grave threat, too, but a potent yet lesser-known peril called subsidence, in which the combined forces of urbanization and plate tectonics push these vulnerable metropolises into the ocean.” From Steve LeVine on Medium’s magazine GEN.
I really, really liked this essay in Aeon by Hayden Kee on how empathy makes us human.
FUN! Following on the adventures in baking with ancient Roman yeast, Sapiens found some archaeologists making beer using 3,000-year-old yeast scraped from ancient jugs. The most interesting part about this was the theory put forth that agriculture might have developed from cultivation of grains for booze, not bread.
MORE FUN! While I am an unabashed Trekkie, I am not really a pop culture aficionado. However, I am such a Trekkie that I delight in reading Vulture’s recaps of Picard and Star Trek: Discovery (plus, Vulture generally has quirky, entertaining writing about TV—it was only by reading their recaps of each week’s episode beforehand that I got through the first two seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale.) “The reigning organization protecting Earth [in Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, in which the crew of Discovery has jumped 900 years in the future to find the Federation pretty much wiped out] is the United Earth Defense Force, a protectionist super-agency whose charming demeanor brings to mind the likes of the IDF or ICE, and they are not interested in making friends. One of its leaders, Captain Ndoye, gets on the horn and immediately negs them for still using space Zoom (viewscreens) before telling them to GTFO or die. Welp!”
Hi Antonia, your writing is excellent and challenges me (ie. long vs short term thinking is a good example), I love that. And such breath - techie economics to philosophy to geology and more, wonderful! Loved your example of the trees, funny my wife and I did something similar :-). To go even deeper, read a book (I have several recommendations if interested) on the death of the Universe as we know it now (hint - Thermodynamics rules :-)) and if everything is gone, why bother? Some wonderful thoughts from cosmologists about this. I like your Grandma, btw - I try and live by this: "Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can". Thanks for your recommendations on what to read/listen to! Have you heard of or listened to Dr. Osterholm relative to the pandemic? What about Mark Manson? Would love to draw a Venn diagram of who we read/listen to! Finally, I am an unabashed Trekkie, but for the original TV show and some of the movies (so glad my son also likes the original series). Live long and prosper (and keep writing! Is your book out?). Best Paul
So, so en pointe: "I’m not so sure that humanity is incapable of working to build a world that will benefit our great-great-grandchildren so much that it’s in the interests of capitalism to convince us that we’re incapable of it."
Thank you, Antonia, for this food for thought. I look forward to each new essay!