Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thinking Long Term

Yeah, I know I gotta get back to Whiplash. I've got a whole second blog post pretty much mapped out in my head. For the moment, however, I have something much more critical on my mind: This whole lack of ability on the part of the human species to think long term.

Seriously, this is and has been a real issue for most people, and it seems to be standing in the way of our ability to deal with some of our most important problems.  We don't seem to get that putting money in an IRA will lead to a better standard of living when we're older; we want to spend the money now. We don't want to consider whether the guy waving the flag up on the podium is going to be good or bad for the country over the next four years; we just want a new president now. We don't grasp the whole global warming thing, because that's hundreds of years in the future (or maybe only fifty, but we don't grasp fifty any better than we grasp hundreds).  We want to dig all the oil up and burn it now.  Screw the atmosphere, the grandkids, the environment and the eventual fate of humanity; what are we going to tell our stockholders?

Evolutionarily speaking, though, long-term planning really isn't hardwired into us.  Why should it be? We need solutions now. As cave people, we hunted mastodons because we were hungry at that moment.  It never would have occurred to us that we'd eventually drive the mastodons to extinction because of overhunting.  Why should it? That didn't matter today, in this moment. (Sorry, mastodons.) Really, if you look at this on a global scale, it's kind of amazing that we ever managed to invent farming at all. Dig furrows? Sow seeds in a field?  Water them, keep pests away? So they'll grow over the next four or five months into edible plants? What for? (Of course, the invention of pancakes followed soon after, which made the whole thing worthwhile, but we hadn't thought up the pancake when we first sowed the seeds.  How we invented farming without knowledge of pancakes is a great mystery.)

Which brings us to the present moment, a very important concept in Buddhism generally and the philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh in particular. If you're not in the present moment, you're not experiencing life. Which means millions upon millions of people aren't experiencing life, because I dunno about you, but I can't focus on anything for more than a few minutes without wondering how this came up in the first place and where it's eventually going.  (Yes, meditation has helped; it used to be a few seconds.) Distractable? Oh yes. Which is why I say I'm a bad Buddhist.  If you keep your focus on the present moment, do what you need to do next, and do this consistently, you end up a lot happier.  And why not?  Mulling over the past or fearing the future isn't exactly good for being happy in the present.

What I can't figure out is where long-term planning enters into the picture. One of the things I do at work is long-term planning, where the term is anything from a few months to three or four years.  I draw maps and charts and determine the critical path between here and there, where "there" is anyplace we want to be and "here" is what we have to begin with.  (And you know, figuring out the actual "there" is usually the hardest part.  Everybody has an idea of where we're going, and sometimes they clash rather violently with each other.  Just pinning people down as to where they want to end up is half the battle.) So if you're planning in the present moment, I guess you can put all your focus on planning. But that seems kind of following the letter of the law and not the spirit. By definition, planning means you're not in the present moment.

I'm just guessing here, but I imagine there are not many mindfulness-meditation focused Buddhist chess grandmasters.

So okay, if we're supposed to focus on the present moment, and if human beings are hardwired not to do long-term planning anyway, how are we supposed to solve problems like global warming? That calls for serious long-term planning. If I were going to draw a critical path between here and there, it would have things on it like increasing the number of solar, nuclear and wind powered energy plants. Phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles in favor of electric ones.  (My boss has a Tesla. I got a ride in it yesterday. Awesome.)  But it would also, by necessity, have to have things on it like, reduce the oil companies' influence on politicians. Convince Exxon and Shell and BP that they need to diversify into renewable energy. Oh, and avoid the coming economic crisis that may hit when oil companies realize they can't pull the rest of their future holdings out of the ground, which is what they base their value upon, which would of course crash their stock prices, which--well, it would be ugly. I can imagine how popular this critical path would be in Washington right about now. And here we come back to the hardwiring.  Politicians want to know how to curry favor with their major constitutents (like oil companies) today. They really don't care who's going to vote for their grandchildren, if there are grandchildren, fifty years from now.

Anyway, if anybody has any ideas, let me know.  For now I think I'll focus on the grandkids.  Even right-wing nut jobs want their grandkids to have good lives, don't they? (Oh God, I'm echoing Sting: "I hope the Russians love their children too...")

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