“Long-Term Thinking for a Short-Sighted World” by Jim Brumm
When working with governments, many a time, we may find ourselves running against a clock to do more, to find solutions, and to make the term of whomever we are serving the most effective and successful as possible. Unfortunately, when working with governments, very often we are working against the interest of the people because the policies and solutions that eventually get implemented may get ripped down by the next administration. We find ourselves working in 5-year cycles, satisfying the immediate goals of a government administration instead of implementing long-term solutions that can stand the test of time against an inevitable change of government. When working in international relations and diplomacy, how do we ensure that we think long-term, whilst also meeting goals and objectives of more short-term perspectives? How do we stay effective, motivated and energised when the work we complete gets undermined by whoever runs the country next? How do you keep up with these unpredictable changes without it having a negative impact on you where you suddenly decide being complacent is easier than fighting against the tide?
To answer some of these common themes that is rarely spoken about, we recommend the book “Long-Term Thinking for a Short-Sighted World: Restoring Happiness, Balance, and Sanity to Our Lives and Our Planet” by Jim Brumm. This book is recommended as further reading to support Chapter 2 “Fit for a Global Profession” to help shape your thinking on tackling roots problems to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
In his book, Brumm says: “In today’s world we are grappling at every turn with an increasing energy shortage, food production systems that struggle to feed increasing millions, environmental problems that threaten our survival, a debt crisis that is crippling individuals and governments, and so much more. All of these problems come with their own unique challenges and examined on their own they may seem completely different from each other, but they share one common, rarely discussed hidden thread that runs through the center of each and binds them together: a lack of long-term thinking. We’re very bad long-term thinkers.”
So what does he suggest? Firstly to open our minds to a long-term view. The sad truth is society is short sighted and many people are unable to understand how human actions affect the planet and our population with a long term lens. It is evident in our history and our nature. When we look at the effects of climate change, it is clear that we are depleting Earth’s natural resources and destroying local communities for short-term gain. Humans are fantastic at devising solutions for specific problems but not great at coming up with long-term solutions. This is for many reasons. In prehistoric era, our basic instinct for survival made us focus on finding immediate solutions for shelter and hunger. Our myopia ensured our survival but we can’t think like this in our modern age where our needs have become more sophisticated and less primal. When humans settle, we also deplete the area’s natural resources, thereby causing our own downfall.
This is exactly what happened on Easter Island. Hundreds of years ago, a small group of Polynesians settled on this small and uninhabited island that was flushed with palm trees and rolling hills. The Polynesians made the fatal error of cutting down all of the trees, using it as fuel and carriers for giant statues to worship. The deforestation of the Island is believed to be a central reason for the obliteration of Easter Island’s population, leaving behind the giants that is now a major tourist attraction. Instead of learning from our mistakes, we continue to be shortsighted and cause devastation.
Another example cited by the author was when the World Health Organisation responded to the 1950s malaria problem in Asia. As a solution, WHO instructed for large areas of Borneo to be sprayed with DDT, a pesticide that is toxic to the malaria-carrying mosquitoes. While the action worked quite successfully as a short-term solution, it did not take into account of other wildlife affected by the pesticides. Geckos ate the contaminated insects and died of DDT poisoning. Any living creature that ate the geckos also died of DDT poisoning. The ecosystem was collapsing and led to WHO to find new solutions to bandage over the problem that they created.
The author suggests that our shortsightedness is reinforced by our focus on the clock. Everything we do is scheduled by a 24-hour timeframe. We have no choice but to work within this structure or our bodies will give way. We therefore lack understanding on deep time, which can span billions of years and can only focus on our own experience of time. As the author says: “If the entire time the Earth has existed was compressed into 24 hours, then the history of the human race would be only 1 second long”.
While we may lack our deep time understanding, we are excellent at maximising seconds and minutes but this produces long-term effects on our thinking. For instance, we are constantly under pressure to make snap decisions and provide fast turnaround. Everything needs to be at speed and we are becoming a society of impatience that responds to results as opposed to quality. This is why we have so many fad diets on the market that focuses on short-term fixes. The problem goes far beyond this though. As a result of travel convenience, wars have been waged in the name of the automotive industry who believe that everyone wants a car and needs to get to places fast. This means designing towns and cities with that assumption in mind. The book goes into incredible depth about the destruction of such resource that deserves further attention.
Our debt crisis is also a result of short-sightedness. Firstly, getting in debt is often the result of short-term thinking. Credit cards are a quick yet costly fix. By promoting credit cards, our financial system is encouraging the use of our short-term thinking and has increased in our accumulation of debt who use the “buy now, pay later” marketing gimmick. As of 2016, the United States stood at a national debt of about $3.4 trillion. When you think about the national interest, promoting consumerism is in the best interest of the economy but not of the people. If people don’t spend, companies lost money and employees get laid off, which leads to even less spending and more job loss. However, our economy cannot withstand with amount of debt and will lead to breaking point.
The changes we need to apply is ourselves and the choices we make on how we consume, choose, think, apply our actions and decision-making process. Who are you influences? Why do you need that eight pair of shoes? Are you shopping locally that helps your local neighbourhood or go straight to chain markets that line the pockets of capitalism? People need to realign their values with the things that bring them true, long-term happiness. The answer is not the accumulation of material objects. It is things like friendship, civil engagement, health, love. This may all sound cliche but those are the things you will focus are you start to age. From an international relations practitioner point of view, we need to think long-term for the sustainability of our planet too. When it come sto using unsustainable methods such as our food source, you will see how reliant we are on fossil fuels for energy production which has an expiry date. Every day, our reserves are being depleted.
We continue to go to extreme lengths for oil, fighting wars and using extraction methods like fracking which damages the environment and marine life. While nuclear power is an option, it comes with serious health risks. The health of our planet is our responsibility and we need to start taking action on the signs told to us by nature. There are basic rules we can follow. For example, we shouldn’t consume more food than we are able to produce sustainably. We need to remind ourselves that we are working with finite resources. We must also remind ourselves of our potential to change, starting off with our own choices before moving on to more wider contributions. There are people discovering and teaching ways to live sustainably and fighting to conserve our valuable ecosystems, but these typically don’t get reported with enthusiasm. We must all be proactive and pursue sustainable, long-term policies that will continue even after a change in government. Our individual welfare and prosperity depends on our planet’s health.
“Long-Term Thinking for a Short-Sighted World” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practicable worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register