Evaluating Decisions and the Long Term Perspective

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.

Jim Brumm lives in Santa Rosa, CA and has a blog about long-term thinking. He can be reached at: JimBrumm@comcast.net. Read other articles by Jim, or visit Jim's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on July 28th, 2009 at 10:18am #

    jim brumm, well said,
    politicos and priests need dummies desperately.
    doctors need sick people to make an excellent living.
    pharmaceutical industry need sick ‘believers’ in order to make a good living
    media, entertaiment, military, teachers, professsors, advertisers also need dummies desperately.

    steps are taken to ensure that they become dummies [note: not are but became].
    then, everything is great in america, including america. And you are sick, unhappy, poor, etc., are you?
    to bad! You are lazy, unmotivated; you want s’mthing for nothing.
    well, that’s not how america achieved greatness.
    so, stop complaining or move to s’mwhere else. tnx

  2. kalidas said on July 28th, 2009 at 12:51pm #

    “A society of cheaters and the cheated.”

  3. Don Hawkins said on July 28th, 2009 at 1:47pm #

    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…

    And the new thing is and they will get better at it is not la la la but keep taking COPE and listen to your leaders and take more COPE. The climate change bill called cap and trade is called la la la and so far not even illusion of knowledge. It will not pass and we are told because it will hurt the little people the average Joe and Jane. Forget la la la they know we can’t do a damn thing about what the deciders decide. Cap and trade will not work but it’s the best they can do kind of a lack of will wouldn’t you say. Has the decision been made to not try? They the deciders know how serious the problem is yes they know and they also know what it will take to try and slow the problem. So why is it that they tell us don’t worry we are in control of an out of control system and just take more COPE. Because they are wimp’s and not only lack will but gut’s but they do dress nice and they know we can’t do a damn thing about what they decide. Granted a large rock could hit the Earth at 60,000 mph and there is not a damn thing we could do about it as the people looking for those rock’s only number about 15 people Worldwide and no systems in place to stop one because it doesn’t make something called profit. I guess we need more bombs and missiles for war as all the nuclear weapons we have enough to destroy every human on the Earth three times over is still not enough and let’s not forget profit. Yes we need more cars but not new energy sources or people keeping an eye on those rock’s just make more hamburgers and super size those fries we are talking profit. It appears these so called leaders elites in charge of what we are suppose to think and how we are to act don’t even bother to bullshit us anymore and remember take your COPE. Now we get our COPE from the health clinic and on the street and the so called leaders, elite’s get there COPE from us the little people and that private doctor who works for profit. I think the COPE they get from us the little people is very powerful and very addictive and they will do anything to keep a supply on hand and don’t even bullshit us anymore on what they are doing. What do you think for a long time we have been collectively sticking our fingers in our ears and singing, la, la, la… Two million to start Capital one voice calm at peace still time or maybe it’s just better to listen to the wimp’s who lack will and gut’s and take our COPE.

  4. David said on July 28th, 2009 at 2:47pm #

    Mr. Brumm:

    There is a fourth consideration. How do you suggest that we motivate a sufficient number of people on this planet to embrace long-term thinking? (Even by using the Pareto 80-20 rule, this would involve over 140 million people!)

    And, as a fifth consideration, how do you suggest that we train a sufficient number of people to guide us toward long-term sustainability?

    And, a sixth. Is there enough time?

    For every thing that you choose to do on a planet-wide (or even a community-wide) scale, the number of variables and their attendant impacts is enormous. This vast complexity is why people embrace short-term thinking or simply let someone else make their decisions for them.

    Only by returning to a more simple lifestyle will we survive as a species. But, of course, doing this, too, involves an imponderable number of variables as well. No need to worry, though. Mother Nature will make this decision for us.

  5. Melissa said on July 28th, 2009 at 3:08pm #

    I really appreciate this article.

    Getting out of denial and working towards sustainable, pared down life requires a willingness to assume personal responsibility, and the real labor that follows. That has been a very difficult hurdle to overcome in my community. There is a mantra of helplessness to overcome, as well as a mantra of entitlement to others fruits of labor.

    We have to stop making excuses for people who avoid productive endeavors, whether they are at the “top” of the chain, or the “bottom”. Enabling takers is only making the mantras more entrenched. There is no broad swath, only case by case basis. There is plenty of non-paid work to be done, and only some of us do it while others are idle. We have created some real parasites in ALL CLASSES.

    I believe this should be a part of the long-term thinking.

    Peace, Resistance, Hope,

  6. Don Hawkins said on July 28th, 2009 at 3:09pm #

    David there is still time but not on the path we see now. It should be a total focus to leave the fossil fuels in the ground. Total focus. So far our so called leaders seem to be blind. I can’t see I can’t see. Well open your eye’s. Simple

  7. Don Hawkins said on July 28th, 2009 at 4:16pm #


    2007 was record ice melt and look where we are all going. The Northwest passage will be again open and just think in a few years we can go up there to get the oil, gas and gold. What would Wall Street want to do? Go get the oil and gas and gold. Profit. Yikes

  8. lichen said on July 28th, 2009 at 7:48pm #

    Actually, it is better to do nothing, as a human – to not take up a “productive endeavour” since 9 times out of 10 that ends up being an extremely destructive one that is leading us all to ruin – to not drive your car, to not eat meat, to not waste or improperly divert water, to not raise more than one child, to not use or produce pesticides, plastics, oil… “Productivity” and “growth” are the problem; “hard work” is the problem.

    The sheer scale at which we are heading for serious disaster is extreme; the misuse, the outright robbing of water from irreplaceable, nearly exhausted rivers and aquifers threatens our entire planet; to give a popular example for this website, Israel diverts the Jordan river to it’s massive rows of hundreds-thousands of greenhouses, stealing water from Palestine and other nearbye nations not to feed itself, but to export fruits and vegetables to Europe for profit. Our planet could turn out looking like Venus; and if you look at pictures of the alberta tar sands and virginia’s exploded mountains, you’ll see that it has already begun. The fish have been killed to exhaustion in the oceans, the corals are dying out; the forests are shrinking and shrinking, the human population is growing bigger, wiping out other essential species; mowing down the rainforests for palm-oil monocultures and places for cows to gorge themselves.

    Yes, Don, the northwest passage will open and then the methanic permafrost will begin to melt and it will be the end of ships, the end of travel, the likely end of humanity.

  9. Don Hawkins said on July 29th, 2009 at 3:32am #

    Instead governments are retreating to feckless “cap-and-trade”, a minor tweak to
    business-as-usual. Oil companies are so relieved to realize that they do not need to learn to be
    energy companies that they are decreasing their already trivial investments in renewable energy.
    They are using the money to buy greenwash advertisements. Perhaps if politicians and
    businesses paint each other green, it will not seem so bad when our forests burn.
    Cap-and-trade is the temple of doom. It would lock in disasters for our children and
    grandchildren. Why do people continue to worship a disastrous approach? Its fecklessness was
    proven by the Kyoto Protocol. It took a decade to implement the treaty, as countries extracted
    concessions that weakened even mild goals. Most countries that claim to have met their
    obligations actually increased their emissions. Others found that even modest reductions of
    emissions were inconvenient, and thus they simply ignored their goals.
    Why is this cap-and-trade temple of doom worshipped? The 648 page cap-and-trade
    monstrosity that is being foisted on the U.S. Congress provides the answer. Not a single
    Congressperson has read it. They don’t need to – they just need to add more paragraphs to
    support their own special interests. By the way, the Congress people do not write most of those
    paragraphs – they are “suggested” by people in alligator shoes.
    The only defense of this monstrous absurdity that I have heard is “well, you are right, it’s
    no good, but the train has left the station”. If the train has left, it had better be derailed soon or
    the planet, and all of us, will be in deep do-do. James Hansen

    So is the only thing we can do is worship at the temple of doom? Why is cap and trade a monstrous absurdity and why is it the best they can do? We could write a million words on why the reason is easy to understand it’s no great mystery. Am I going to worship at the temple of doom? No I am sure not and I will keep trying. To not try means I am no better than these people who tell me to worship at the temple of doom a place I am not going thank you. First we have the climate bill in the Senate a joke on the human race a monstrous absurdity then Denmark more illusion and we will be told see we are trying? To try is a tad bit harder than we are told now isn’t it. People of Earth we are in deep do do could be helpful.