Roman Krznaric’s book The Good Ancestor advocates looking seriously long term to think about the legacy we will leave the planet
The Good Ancestor is a brilliant, concise treatise on time that makes a persuasive case for radically rethinking the timescales over which we are accustomed to think and plan. It is essential reading for any architect concerned with what it means to be contemporary.
The book starts with a figure familiar to architects – Jonas Salk who founded the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences designed by Louis Kahn – and suggests that his question ‘Are we being good ancestors’ could turn out to be his greatest contribution to history. Salk was convinced that as a civilisation, we ought to be thinking about the impacts of our actions decades, centuries, and millennia from now. Krznaric asserts that: ‘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.’
In starting to address this challenge, the author concurs with HG Wells that ‘human history is, in essence, a history of ideas’ and contends that whether or not human civilization can be pulled back from collapse depends substantially on a battle of ideas: between short-term thinking and ‘a culture of longer time horizons’. A substantial chunk of the book expands on six aspects of long-term thinking: Deep time humility, Legacy mindset, Intergenerational justice, Cathedral thinking, Holistic forecasting, and Transcendent goal.
In the chapter on ‘Deep time humility’ the author describes how, since the 18th century, an expanding sense of deep time fuelled by advances in geology, battled against a growing dominance of short-term thinking. The first clocks marked only the hour then subsequently the minute and ultimately the second – by the end of the second millennium much financial trading depended on microseconds. Countering this dominance, the author celebrates artefacts like the 10,000-year Clock of the Long Now currently under construction in Texas and the artist Martin Kunze’s ‘Memory of Mankind’ project which is conceived with a one-million-year time frame in mind. He argues that deep time humility can also be cultivated by experiences that convey just how short human history is compared to planetary history, and by contemplating living organisms such as bristlecone pines that are almost 5,000 years old or specimens of olive tree that have been bearing fruit for over 3,000 years.
In ‘Cathedral thinking’ we learn that long-term projects are perhaps more common then we might think: Ulm Minster took over 500 years to complete, the Ise Jingu shrine in Japan has been rebuilt every 20 years for over a thousand years, the polder water management system in the Netherlands was started in 1533 and continues to this day. In other realms of human endeavour, long-term public policies on health and scientific research have contributed immeasurably to our current quality of life. Many architects will remember the nadir of short-term thinking as being the late 1980’s when scarcely any client would contemplate long-term life-spans for buildings, let alone accept payback periods for green technology. Krznaric gives enough examples to persuade the reader that attitudes have already begun to shift. In 2007, for instance, North Vancouver extended its city plan from 30 to 100 years and in 2008 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was opened with a planned lifespan of over 1,000 years.
Given its philosophical subject matter, the book is, in appropriate places, surprisingly practical, for instance in describing workshop exercises that can be used to cultivate a ‘legacy mindset’. For the reader, these help to embed some of the more abstract concepts and could readily be applied on design projects or in business planning. One particularly memorable exercise involves a series of steps that connect you, as the participant, to past generations and then your task is to imagine a young person in your life on their 90th birthday giving a speech about the legacy you left them. The final stage in the exercise is to write that speech.
Anyone frustrated by writers who wallow in endless nuance will find a refreshing directness about Krznaric’s style. The widely accepted idea of ‘discounting’, by which economists make value judgements about the future, is described as ‘a weapon of intergenerational oppression disguised as a rational economic methodology’. The arguments of those who advocate escape to other planets, or transhumanism, as worthwhile long-term purposes to aim for, are dismantled with clinical efficiency. This may be a sign – and a welcome one in my view – that a degree of didacticism is increasingly recognised as useful in an emergency (as the book points out, we are edging ever closer to collapse if we continue with business-as-usual). The result is that Krznaric has no qualms about arguing for ‘one-planet-thriving’ as the only telos (an ultimate goal or purpose) that is consistent with being a good ancestor. He refers to a quotation from biologist and Biomimicry Institute co-founder Janine Benyus about biomimicry (a discipline still misunderstood by many architects as an aesthetic) as a unique insight into long-term thinking: ‘that it can be pursued by stepping outside the realm of time itself, and that it is about caring for place as much as rethinking time’.
The final section of the book is titled ‘Bring on the time rebellion’. It focusses on people who have championed forms of long-term thinking, often against the odds. Approaches that extend conventional democracy to far more participative approaches are presented along with evidence to show that these can help to overcome short-termism. Pioneering work by Herman Daly on ecological economics in the 1970’s is traced through to the clear and compelling ‘Doughnut economics’ model by Kate Raworth. This section also addresses ideas of an ecological civilisation and cultural evolution.
The concluding chapter addresses the key barriers to long-term thinking and contends that the solution lies in the power of ideas made manifest through collective action. Just as Milton Friedman’s ideas of free-market thinking transformed the 20th century and contributed so detrimentally to a shortening of time horizons, the author asserts that we must be equally ambitious in cultivating Salk’s idea of being a good ancestor.
While the book was written before the pandemic, it includes one sentence that now feels particularly apposite: ‘Throughout history, long-term planning has frequently emerged from moments of crisis, especially when it has affected those in political and economic power.’
It’s a terrific read and, consistent with the spirit of the book, I hope the author will revisit it every 5-10 years to provide new examples of long-term thinking, to continue to decolonise the future and to chart a course towards one-planet thriving.