Can timefulness equip us for the climate crisis?

As people, we enjoy the amenities from our land, and ransack all the bounties, without paying attention to the ancient language and wisdom of the land. The view that we can carry on forever at increasing levels of consumption opposes every signal we receive from the land; ranging from increasingly frequent natural disasters and the mass extinction of species in our shared environment. In pressing forward on how we might become better ancestors, we dive into why the psychology of “timefulness” should be harnessed as a long-term planning tool for tackling the climate crisis.

Striving for timefullness.

Does it puzzle you that policy makers commonly refer to people in the land as customers instead of citizens? A citizen implies someone lives in a place over time, in proximity to others, establishing reciprocal relationships between the natural environment and local communities. On the other hand, customers imply that we are merely consumers, as if our sole purpose is to take everything we can, with thought of future generations.

"Awareness of the rich natural history that envelopes us. A sense that we too live in geological time and are part of the continuum from the planet's past into its future" — Marcia Bjornerud, author of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

Marcia Bjornerud (geologist) illustrates that many environmental challenges we face today are the result of short-term thinking from the early-to-mid twentieth century. Our past innovators did not anticipate how their technological advances from the internal combustion engine, antibiotics, chemical fertilisers and plastics might interact with complex evolving natural systems. More worrying is the fact that we haven’t learned from the unintended consequences of using these technologies beyond their intentional implementation. 

Escaping the “Tyranny of the now”.

At the systems level, businesses find it difficult to dedicate bandwidth to think beyond the next quarter performance and politicians hold back policy planners from looking beyond the next election cycle. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost as if there was nobody there. Tomorrow’s generation is not here to challenge the pillaging of their inheritance and are rendered powerless.

“This is the age of the tyranny of the now.” — David Ehrenfeld, author of Becoming Better Ancestors

David Ehrenfeld (biologist) illustrates that we need to embrace new cognitive tools to boost long-term thinking for countering this “tyranny of the now”. Amitav Ghosh (author) highlights in the book, The Great Derangement, that most western societies do not have the appetite for stories without individual protagonists. The title has two separate, but highly relevant meanings. Firstly acknowledging the derangement we have caused to nature, and secondly the derangement in the belief that we are outside the narrative of nature.

Marshmallow brain vs Akon brain.

In a survey with 200 students, Robin Wall Kimmerer (botanist and poet) asked students to rate their knowledge of positive interactions between people and land. To her surprise, the median response was zero. Majority of students, who had selected a career in environmental protection, could not even imagine what beneficial relationships between their species and others might look like. We live in a time where short-termism has become the dominant fabric of society today and belief that we can create change is incomprehensible.

The “marshmallow brain”, as made famous by the marshmallow experiment, is the part of the brain that focuses on instant rewards and short-term gratification. Interestingly, the answers to get better at long term thinking also lies in the human brain, in what is referred to as the “akon brain”. As humans, we are already extremely gifted long-term planners, with the capability to save for our children’s education, voyage into space, and sometimes, even plan on what songs to play at our own funeral. The big question we need to start asking is how can we switch on this long-term planning brain for our current climate crisis and become better ancestors for the future generations.

Bottom line - What's the Capability, Opportunity and Motivation for behaviour change in the climate crisis?

The path forward to solving the climate crisis, acknowledging it is a complex system, needs long-term planning. Our brains are CAPABLE of this naturally — working with the grain. The MOTIVATION for long term planning needs to involve planting seeds for future generations to believe in collective action. The OPPORTUNITY can emerge from appreciating our reciprocal relationship with the land over time — this is "timefulness".

Three book recommendations for a deep dive.

Bjornerud, M. (2018). Timefulness. Princeton University Press.

Krznaric, R. (2020). The good ancestor: how to think long term in a short-term world. Random House.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions.

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