Here are three major considerations that we must keep in mind when we evaluate a decision with a long term perspective.
The first is sustainability. The best plans and ideas, no matter how profitable, or altruistic, or wonderful they may be, are doomed to eventual failure if the processes driving them are not sustainable over time. Long-term thinking and sustainability inexorably go hand in hand; they are the two sides of the same coin, and it’s the coin we should be using to fund our future. In practice, however, the question of sustainability rarely comes up when making decisions. Governments and elected officials rush into new policies and pass laws that will temporarily please their constituents and earn them some votes, or will give momentary upper hand in some political situation. Often they find that what they put into motion comes back to bite them, as when we trained and armed the Taliban to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, only to find them years later using their training and weapons on us. We typically only question the sustainability of a situation when we realize—too late—that’s it’s not in fact sustainable.
Because of the worldwide Green Movement, sustainability is a concept that has gotten more attention of late. It’s bandied about in all areas of the social and business spectrum, from corporate marketing to political activism. But what, exactly, does “sustainable” mean? My sister, Susan Brumm, a writer who has covered sustainable farming methods in the wine and food industry, provided the best definition I have heard for the word sustainable. It’s very simple and elegant: Able to continue without lessening. I don’t think we can improve on that. It’s something you may find yourself holding up against decisions in your own life. When the decisions we make and the things we do and take for granted are looked at through the filter of this simple phrase, it can be a real eye-opener. Using that definition, the disconcerting fact that much of what we’re doing in today’s world is not sustainable is obvious to anyone who pauses and asks themselves, can this last? Can we keep this up indefinitely? Usually the answer is a big, fat no.
The next consideration we need to have at the forefront when making decisions is this: How will what we’re planning affect everything else? There is a desperate need for whole-system thinking in our world. Naturalist John Muir pointed out that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Thinking beyond the boundaries of the immediate situation is vital. Like good chess players, we must do our best to think many moves ahead when altering any part of our environment, and try to create room for and ways to mitigate the inevitable cascade of collateral change which will occur. Often we behave like the man in the fable who climbs a tree and begins sawing off the limb on which he’s sitting. A passerby calls up, “If you keep sawing that limb you’re going to fall.” The man in the tree ignores this and continues to saw until he cuts through the limb and falls with a crash, thinking to himself, “That guy must have the gift of prophesy.” As you read this we are blithely sawing away at the limbs which support our entire culture and environment, and it doesn’t take a prophet to tell us that if we keep it up, we’re going to come crashing down. Many of our best ideas have turned out to be huge problems in the long run. A little foresight may have helped a lot to offset much of what we face today.
A third consideration is to be sure, when we’re problem solving, that we’re actually solving the problem, not just hiding the symptoms. We often can see the problems and the bad results we’re getting but instead of trying to fix the root causes of the problems, which would often cost more, take longer, or require deeper thinking, we take the easier, short-term route and chase the symptoms instead. This sort of thinking permeates our society. Commercials on television show people suffering from terrible indigestion from eating poorly, then push antacids to relieve the symptoms, never for a moment suggesting that, I don’t know, maybe less pizza is in order? Insects are eating too many of our crops? Don’t promote biological diversity. Douse them with pesticides. Dissatisfied with your life? Don’t try to discover the underlying cause of your dissatisfaction, buy this new car or this new gadget instead. Can’t cope? Take this drug called COPE. It’ll fix the symptom, at least for a while. Nearly all over-the-counter drugs treat symptoms instead of causes. But, as my sister used to say, you don’t have a headache because of a lack of aspirin. When I was a kid there used to be commercials for a type of detergent that was supposed to be great at cleaning men’s shirt collars. These commercials showed distraught housewives upset and ashamed because their husband had “ring around the collar” and they were so happy to have this new detergent that would end their shame. When these commercials came on, my mother would yell at the TV (really), “Hey lady, try telling your husband to wash his neck!” Now that’s getting to the root of the problem.
Even if we honestly couldn’t have predicted the problems some of our decisions would create in the past, we can at least start now to honestly acknowledge that the problems do in fact exist and take measures to correct them. But too often we have in gotten so deep that fixing the problem seems worse than ignoring it; the cure scares us more than the disease. Many of the worst problems we face today are things that are so deeply intertwined in our economy that even the thought of changing them causes panic. We are so afraid of affecting the economy, of losing jobs, of changing the status quo or the balance of power that we will ignore something that is obviously going to blow up in our face down the road in order to continue to benefit in the short run. We pretend it isn’t happening and just pass it on to the next administration or the next generation. In therapy they call this denial.
Denial has become necessary for us to get up in the morning and go about our business as though everything is going to be okay. Because if we were to face reality, we would be forced to see that there are many, many things that demand our attention, things that are going to bite us badly when they reach the point where we can no longer deny them. When it comes to facing the fact that we are rapidly approaching peak oil and a post-carbon world, that our environment is degrading faster than it can repair itself, that our obsession on growth and profit is unsustainable, for a long time we have been collectively sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, la, la, la… In his excellent and funny book, Farewell, My Subaru, Doug Fine called this “the societal equivalent of not thinking about dying.” But our way of doing things is dying, and denying it won’t make it go away. The good news is that if we are willing to stand up together and tackle these problems head-on, we can solve them. We have the intelligence, the know-how, and the technology. We just need to find the desire and the will.