Is Humanity Actually Able to Successfully Plan for the Long-Term Future and Avoid Crises?

Is Humanity Actually Able to Successfully Plan for the Long-Term Future and Avoid Crises?

Crises can be opportunities – but only if they are navigated wisely.

While the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unclear, it is certain that they are a profound shock to the systems underpinning contemporary life.

The World Bank estimates that global growth will contract by between 5% and 8% globally in 2020, and that COVID-19 will push between 71-100 million into extreme poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to be hit hardest. In developed countries health, leisure, commercial, educational and work practices are being reorganised – some say for good – in order to facilitate the forms of social distancing being advocated by experts and (sometimes reluctantly) promoted by governments.

Each of us has been affected by the changes wrought by COVID-19 in different ways. For some, the period of isolation has afforded time for contemplation. How do the ways in which our societies are currently structured enable crises such as this? How might we organise them otherwise? How might we use this opportunity to address other pressing global challenges, such climate change or racism?

For others, including those deemed vulnerable or “essential workers”, such reflections may have instead been directly precipitated from a more visceral sense of their exposure to danger. Had adequate preparations been made for events such as COVID-19? Were lessons being learnt not only to manage crises such as these when they happen again, but to prevent them from happening in the first place? Is the goal of getting back to normality adequate, or should we instead be seeking to refashion normality itself?

Such profound questions are commonly prompted by major events. When our sense of normality is shattered, when our habits get disrupted, we are made more aware that the world could be otherwise. But are humans capable of enacting such lofty plans? Are we capable of planning for the long-term in a meaningful way? What barriers might exist and, perhaps more pressingly, how might we overcome them in order to create a better world?

As experts from three different academic disciplines whose work considers the capacity to engage in long-term planning for unanticipated events, such as COVID-19, in different ways, our work interrogates such questions. So is humanity in fact able to successfully plan for the longterm future?

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, argues that our obsession with short-term planning may be a part of human nature – but possibly a surmountable one. Chris Zebrowski, an emergency governance specialist from Loughborough University, contends that our lack of preparedness, far from being natural, is a consequence of contemporary political and economic systems. Per Olsson, sustainability scientist and expert in sustainability transformations from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, reflects on how crisis points can be used to change the future – drawing on examples from the past in order to learn how to be more resilient going into the future.

We are built this way

Robin Dunbar

COVID-19 has highlighted three key aspects of human behaviour that seem unrelated but which, in fact, arise from the same underlying psychology. One was the bizarre surge in panic buying and stockpiling of everything from food to toilet rolls. A second was the abject failure of most states to be prepared when experts had been warning governments for years that a pandemic would happen sooner or later. The third has been the exposure of the fragility of globalised supply chains. All three of these are underpinned by the same phenomenon: a strong tendency to prioritise the short term at the expense of the future.

Most animals, including humans, are notoriously bad at taking the long term consequences of their actions into account. Economists know this as the “public good dilemma”. In conservation biology, it is known as the “poacher’s dilemma” and also also, more colloquially, as “the tragedy of the commons”.

If you are a logger, should you cut down the last tree in the forest, or leave it standing? Everyone knows that if it is left standing, the forest will eventually regrow and the whole village will survive. But the dilemma for the logger is not next year, but whether he and his family will survive until tomorrow. For the logger, the economically rational thing to do is, in fact, to cut the tree down.

This is because the future is unpredictable, but whether or not you make it to tomorrow is absolutely certain. If you die of starvation today, you have no options when it comes to the future; but if you can make through to tomorrow, there is a chance that things might have improved. Economically, it’s a no-brainer. This is, in part, why we have overfishing, deforestation and climate change.

The process underpinning this is known to psychologists as discounting the future. Both animals and humans typically prefer a small reward now to a larger reward later, unless the future reward is very large. The ability to resist this temptation is dependent on the frontal pole (the bit of the brain right just above your eyes), one of whose functions is to allow us to inhibit the temptation to act without thinking of the consequences. It is this small brain region that allows (most of) us to politely leave the last slice of cake on the plate rather than wolf it down. In primates, the bigger this brain region is, the better they are at these kinds of decisions.

Our social life, and the fact that we (and other primates) can manage to live in large, stable, bonded communities depends entirely on this capacity. Primate social groups are implicit social contracts. For these groups to survive in the face of the ecological costs that group living necessarily incur, people must be able to forego some of their selfish desires in the interests of everyone else getting their fair share. If that doesn’t happen, the group will very quickly break up and disperse.

In humans, failure to inhibit greedy behaviour quickly leads to excessive inequality of resources or power. This is probably the single most common cause of civil unrest and revolution, from the French Revolution to Hong Kong today.

The same logic underpins economic globalisation. By switching production elsewhere where production costs are lower, homegrown industries can reduce their costs. The problem is that this occurs at a cost to the community, due to increased social security expenditure to pay for the now redundant employees of home industries until such time as they can find alternative employment. This is a hidden cost: the producer doesn’t notice (they can sell more cheaply than they could otherwise have done) and the shopper doesn’t notice (they can buy cheaper).

There is a simple issue of scale that feeds into this. Our natural social world is very small scale, barely village size. Once community size gets large, our interests switch from the wider community to a focus on self-interest. Society staggers on, but it becomes an unstable, increasingly fractious body liable at continual risk of fragmenting, as all historical empires have found.

Businesses provide a smaller-scale example of these effects. The average lifetime of companies in the FTSE100 index has declined dramatically in the last half-century: three-quarters have disappeared in just 30 years. The companies that have survived turn out to be those that have a long term vision, are not interested in get-rich-quick strategies to maximise returns to investors and have a vision of social benefit. Those that have gone extinct have largely been those that pursued short term strategies or those that, because of their size, lacked the structural flexibility to adapt (think holiday operator Thomas Cook).

Much of the problem, in the end, comes down to scale. Once a community exceeds a certain size, most of its members become strangers: we lose our sense of commitment both to others as individuals and to the communal project that society represents.

COVID-19 may be the reminder many societies need to rethink their political and economic structures into a more localised form which is closer to their constituents. Of course, these will surely need bringing together in federal superstructures, but the key here is a level of autonomous community-level government where the citizen feels they have a personal stake in the way things work.

The power of politics

Chris Zebrowski

Where size and scale is concerned, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Rideau canal. Stretching over 202 kilometres in length, the Rideau canal in Canada is regarded as one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century. Opened in 1832, the canal system was designed to act as an alternative supply route to the vital stretch of the St Lawrence river connecting Montreal and the naval base in Kingston.

The impetus for this project was the threat of resumed hostilities with the Americans following a war fought between the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies from 1812-1815. While the canal would never need to be used for its intended purpose (despite its considerable cost), it is just one example of human ingenuity being paired with significant public investment in the face of an uncertain future threat.