Short-term needs vs the long-term

President Obama promised to save the branch. My promise to you is that there will be plenty of firewood for you and for your family.
h/t Ugo Bardi

Romney’s ‘joke’ about how Obama promised to heal the planet, while Romney would promise to help you and your family was quickly and deservedly mocked by many as a perfect example of someone simply not getting the importance sustainability.

But while mocking Romney for his colossal miss-understanding of why we care about sustainability, and why we are distressed that we aren’t even close to a path that might lead us in the right direction, might be amusing it misses a bigger issue. A conflict that is often forgotten about when speaking about sustainability but is perfectly illustrated in the following comic:

Click to enlarge
This comic has no guarantees of historical accuracy
By Marc Roberts

We might laugh at the bunnies who want to cut down the last tree; we see the certain doom that lies at the end of that path but take a step back and think about why they feel the need to cut it down. Why are the bunnies holding a sign that says JOBS, NOT TREE?

The answer is obvious, they need the job in order to make enough money to feed their families. Of course the comic perfectly highlights why this is a problem.

But take a step away from Easter Bunny Island and back to the real world. In the real world this conflict is less obvious but just as important. Here we often are forced to make decisions that benefit us in the short-term while at the same time cost us in the long-term.

People concerned about sustainability, almost by default, are looking at our long-term trajectory and are rightly concerned about where it is taking us. The people Romney was targeting with his joke were (aside from the obvious deniers in the crowd) were likely more concerned about the short-term.

People are generally more concerned about feeding their children today, than the ability of their children to feed themselves decades in the future. This opens the door for Romney (who I don’t think is being genuine here) to exploit their short-term worries and say: “Vote for me and for the next 4 years I’ll work to help you and your family survive, that other guy doesn’t care about the difficulties you and your family are facing today”.

This isn’t meant to be a defense of Romney, far from it, he deserved the mockery he got, but rather as a defense of the voters who perhaps by necessity are forced to focus on the short-term even at the detriment of the long-term. These people aren’t wrong to focus on the short-term. Science doesn’t dictate what the correct trade-off is between short-term and long-term thinking.

People barely getting by simply might not have the luxury of thinking about the long-term. They might not be able to put money away for retirement, or purchase insurance or worry about the devastation that awaits us if we don’t make the difficult and expensive move away from fossil fuels. But it sometimes feels like those pushing for more long-term thinking, myself included, ignore this simple fact (which is much more pronounced in countries less lucky than the US).

But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, and only serves to turn people off the long-term thinking that is vitally important to ensure a bright future. It opens up the door for cheap jokes at our expense and makes implementing polices that focus on the long-term even more difficult.

What is needed is a greater understanding, by people concerned about the long-term, about the importance of the short-term.

7 thoughts on “Short-term needs vs the long-term

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  1. Way back in the usenet days I once wrote an argument that we are over-reliant on cars and should redesign our landscapes so that there was much less need for them.

    I got a vehemently angry reply from someone who insisted that if he didn’t have a car, he couldn’t get to his job.

    I don’t recall whether or how I replied. What I should have said is just “yes, that’s exactly the problem”.

    I think your complaint cuts both ways. People used to long-term thinking can ignore the short term, but people used to short term thinking can also ignore the long term. And the short term usually wins, which means that the long run prognosis gets worse and worse.

    There are limits to what gradualism can achieve. An ancient proverb says “you cannot leap a chasm in two jumps”. Too much attention to the marketplace makes certain leaps unavailable.

    1. That is exactly the problem, unfortunately, and it’s really because, in the US at least, mass transit and the infrastructure to support it just don’t exist in a fashion that allows for people to go without cars.

      Good jobs are all too often in places where it’s simply too expensive to live close by.

      And the problem is not, of course, limited to the US. Even in Japan, where the mass transit is, frankly, outstanding, workers in Tokyo cannot afford to live close to their jobs. The primary difference there is that, due to the limited space available, car ownership often isn’t an option for commuting. Hence the excellent mass transit; it’s simply necessary.

    2. People who only think of the short-term are guaranteed to do poorly in the long-term, but so are people who only think of the long-term. Neither should be ignored.

      Some chasms can’t be leaped in one jump they are simply too wide.

    3. Maybe people should be thinking more about how to navigate around the chasm rather than leaping it. Or at least finding the way to where it’s narrower.

      People who worship the “free” market seem to think that it will always allocate resources properly, but people here seem intent on replacing it rather than setting up factors that will incent it to move in the direction they prefer.

      For that matter, it seems to be moving that way “on its own”: take a look at the increasing proportion of people working from home (via the internet). And it can reasonably be expected to continue: why drive to your job driving a bulldozer when you could be supervising/driving a “smart” bulldozer from home over the internet? And it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition: specialized jobs for specialized employers that can’t be done from home might be done at local general-purpose offices with the necessary communication facilities, which could be distributed within walking distance in most communities.

      This can be generalized to the point that many “problems” people point out will eventually become “non-problems” simply due to technological progress.

    4. In keeping with the chasm analogy, I suggest a bridge. Something that gradually takes us from one side of the wide chasm to the other.

      Your car problem is a perfect example. People need to get to work. You can’t (at least not in a democracy if you want to say in power) taker peoples’ cars away until a suitable alternative has been developed.

      But if you want to reduce the use of cars (ie get to the other side of the chasm) then you need a bridge. This bridge might become obsolete once you have made it to the other side and thus be a waste of resources but with out it you would have never crossed the chasm.

    5. Well, I suppose we can up our comment count by arguing with each other on the site, but in this case I think we’re just arguing about how far to push the analogy.

      The trouble with bridges as opposed to leaps is that it takes a while to build a bridge, and that has up-front costs ahead of the benefits. Which means it requires long-term thinking, because while half a bridge may be less stupid than half a leap, stopping at halfway across still doesn’t achieve anything.

      The real bridge to build is between short term and long term thinking. On this we agree.

      Some claim that economics has already achieved this, but I claim that even the whole language of it (“net present value”) is immediate; there is no place in it for responsibilities to future generations, never mind to polar bears and suchlike. It’s all what it’s worth in the marketplace today.

      See Paul Baer’s “The Worth of an Icesheet”.

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