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Is “longtermism” the cure or the sickness?

This article was first published by ABC Religion and Ethics here.

Central to my work in recent years has been an anguished concern that our species and our political and economic systems are dangerously short-termist.

I contend that we need to become long-termist. We need to practice precaution, looking before we leap. We need to plan for the seventh — and, indeed, the seven-hundred-and-seventy-seventh — generation. And so we need to overcome the tendencies of politicians to look no further than the next election (or even the next news cycle), of companies to look no further than the next quarterly report, and increasingly of Stock Market investors to look no further than the next few seconds.

And yet, at the very moment when the need for long-termist thinking and planning is most urgent, the very idea of “longtermism” has been almost captured by an interpretation of the term which is potentially dangerous. As Phil Torres has recently argued, what has come to be called long-termism is in fact a “dangerous secular credo”.

What is this credo? It is the notion that what really matters is humanity’s alleged very long-term potential — which is allegedly post-human, and/or will involve colonising the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. Once one starts to think this way, then almost any sacrifice or crime is justified in order to keep alive our species. Or, to be more precise: to keep alive that part of our species and of our planet which is betting everything on Big Tech, space-exploration, cryogenesis, and so on. From this perspective, the priorities of someone like Elon Musk — who is a major funder of “longtermist” initiatives — begins to make a bit more sense.

I find Torres’s argument wholly convincing, exposing as it does the way that proper concern with the existential risks confronting humanity is morphing into a means of perpetuating the very system that created those risks in the first place. So, as Torres documents, major advocates of “long-termism” have even argued that starvation in the “developing” world doesn’t matter so much, as long as there remain incubators for the inventions that are purportedly going to save humanity in the future. Thus the influential young “longtermist” Nick Beckstead can assert, in his doctoral thesis:

Richer countries have substantially more innovation, and their workers are much more economically productive. [It] now seems … plausible to me that saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country.

A kind of Big-Tech/industrial/academic complex has sprung into existence, which is sucking up money and attention that could be directed toward thinking about how we could become genuinely long-termist, and is instead preoccupied with the idea that the best way to prevent us from destroying ourselves is to have much more tech, much more growth, much more government — much more of the very things that, one might naïvely point out, brought us to dire straights in which we find ourselves.

Another critic of what has come to be called “longtermism”, Luke Kemp, has argued that we tend dramatically to underestimate the threat posed to the human future by powerful agents such as militaries (particularly in the form of the “military-industrial complex”), the fossil fuel and plastics industry, and Big Tech. Much attention gets paid to the (retail) threat posed by non-state terrorism, but comparatively little to the (wholesale) threat posed by state equivalents to it: the terrifyingly ill-controlled power of surveillance states (think China, but also the United States), of nukes that are on a hair trigger, of the climate apocalypse. Kemp calls these forces “agents of doom”.

What I would like to propose is that there is now an overlap between Torres’s “longtermists” and Kemp’s “agents of doom”. How so? The so-called “agents of doom” carry around what my colleague Nassim Taleb calls “silent risk”: in trying to buttress their own power, and even in trying (I am sure, with the best intentions) to decrease the long-term existential risk to our species, they themselves pose a terrible risk to civilisation, and perhaps to life on Earth. They pose such risk by commission — by, for instance, favouring extreme-surveillance that carries its own carbon and ecological, as well as very high social and political, costs, which may hasten the very collapse they claim to be determined to prevent — and they pose it by omission — in that they tend to downplay the ongoing climate breakdown.

Much of my work lately has been concerned with how poor we have been at thinking and planning for the long-term (or, as I like to put it, precautiously). I identify as a long-termist and wish many more of us did, and I am deeply critical of the rationalist conception of “longtermism” (I prefer the term “technotopian”) which has come to be quite influential over the last decade. This latter conception sees climate breakdown as only a minor issue, because it puts all its egg in the basket of technological innovation sprung from within the rich world as the way to save us from ourselves. It is imperative that the billionaire-backed “existential-risk industry” doesn’t redound into making the very idea of thinking long-term seem dangerous.

In contrast to what has come to be called “longtermism”, I want to hold open the following possibility: that global ecological catastrophe (including, but by no means restricted to, climate breakdown) is the white swan existential threat we face, and that the wisest way to be truly long-termist might even be a possibility virtually uncontemplated by most “longtermists” — the deliberate reduction of our techno-power. Ultimately, a relocalised small farm future practicing democratic control over what technologies get developed, in something like the way Hannah Arendt envisioned. Such a future is never contemplated because “longtermists” are overwhelmingly well-off technophilic, techno-assuming persons from the global North (which might also have something to do with sources of funding: if you can get paid for investigating whether interstellar travel will save us, but not for investigating whether the world’s richest men will sink us, then someone’s going to take that first dollar).

We need to care more about what the world will be like in hundreds of years’ time — after, on our current climate trajectory, most of the world’s ice will have been melted. What we need is for a wide coalition to assemble for radical action on climate and ecology if we are to have a future. The current situation is even worse when one realises that most of those who now call themselves “longtermists” do not even regard climate breakdown as a very serious threat, because they do not take it to be an existential threat to our species.

Perhaps the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought that the modern human obsession with progress was culturally catastrophic and deeply delusional. I would argue that the obsession with ultra-longtermism, with its improbable fantasy of endless technological progress, might eventually become the greatest existential risk facing us. It would be a terrible irony if a misinterpretation of what long-termism ought to mean ended up making it impossible for us to flourish, long-term, on this beautiful living planet.