How Long-term Thinking Can Help Earth Now

An interview with Vincent Ialenti, author of Deep Time Reckoning

Inside Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear waste repository, 1,500 feet underground. Photo Credit: Peter Guenzel

Vincent, thanks for sending over a copy of your new book. And thanks for making time to unpack some of those ideas with me here for The Long Now Foundation and our members around the globe.

I’m curious: what drew you to study long-term thinking in the wild?

Vincent Ialenti: In 02008, I was a Masters student in “Law, Anthropology, and Society” at the London School of Economics. I had a growing interest in long-term engineering projects like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the Clock of the Long Now. I decided to write my thesis (now published here) on the currently-defunct U.S. Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository’s million-year federal licensing procedure.

Early on in the book you introduce and discuss “the deflation of expertise.” Could you tell us what you mean by this phrase and how you see it shaping long-termism?

We’re witnessing a troubling institutional erosion of expert authority in North America, Western Europe, and beyond. Vaccine science, stem cell research, polling data, climate change models, critical social theories, cell phone radiation studies, pandemic disease advisories, and human evolution research are routinely attacked in cable news free-for-alls and social media echo-chambers. Political power is increasingly gained through charismatic, populist performances that energize crowds by mocking expert virtues of cautious speech and detail-driven analysis. Expert voices are drowned out by Twitter mobs, dulled by corporate-bureaucratic “knowledge management” red tape, exhausted by universities’ adjunctification trends, warped by contingent “gig economy” research funding contracts, and rushed by publish-or-perish productivity pressures.

I was heartened each time you pointed to the importance of multidisciplinarity, discursive diversity, and strategic redundancy for doing things at long timescales. Our experience has borne this out, as well. How did you arrive at an emphasis on these themes? What are some of the pitfalls of homogeneity? What about generational homogeneity?

The Safety Case project convened several teams of experts — each with different disciplinary backgrounds — to pursue what my informants called “multiple lines of reasoning.”

Throughout the work you describe long-term thinking as an imaginative exercise — a “calisthenics for the mind.” This suggestion floored me when I read it. I just couldn’t agree more. And earlier this year, prior to reading your book, I even published an essay arguing for that same interpretation. What do you think makes exercise such an apt metaphor for understanding this phenomenon we’re discussing?

We all need to integrate a more vivid awareness of deep time into our everyday habits, actions, and intuitions. We need to override the shallow time discipline into which we’ve been enculturated. This requires self-discipline and ongoing practice. I believe putting aside time to do long-termist intellectual workouts or deep time mental exercise routines can help get us there.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while working on this book?

Early on, I decided to end each chapter with five or six takeaway lessons in long-termism. I call these lessons “reckonings.” As I wrote, however, I was surprised to discover that, even as I engaged with very alien far future Finlands, most of the “reckonings” I collected ended up pertaining to some of the most ordinary features of everyday experience. These include the power of analogy (Chapter 1), the power of pattern-making (Chapter 2), the power of shifting and re-shifting perspectives (Chapter 3), and the problem of human mortality (Chapter 4). I found that these familiarities can be useful. Their sheer relatability can serve as a launching-off point for the rest of us as we pursue long-termist learning. The analogical exercises I mentioned previously are a good example of this.

It’s been so exciting for us to see this next generation of long-term thinkers publishing excellent new books on the topic — from your penetrating work in Deep Time Reckoning to Long Now Seminar Speaker Bina Venkataraman’s encompassing work in The Optimist’s Telescope to Long Now Seminar Speaker (and author of the foreword to your book) Marcia Bjornerud’s geological work in Timefulness to Long Now Research Fellow Roman Krznaric’s philosophical work in The Good Ancestor. What role do you think books play in helping the world think long-term?

Those are important books! I’ll add a few more: David Farrier’s Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, Richard Irvine’s An Anthropology of Deep Time, and Hugh Raffles’ Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time. These pose crucial questions about time, geology, and human (and non-human) imagination. An argument could be made that there’s sort of a diffuse, de-centralized, interdisciplinary “deep time literacy” movement coalescing (mostly on its own!).

In closing, I’ll mention that, thanks to you, I now know there is no direct way for me to say “Someday we will have an in-person discussion about all this at The Interval” in Finnish because Finnish does not have a future tense. And yet here we are, discussing Finnish expertise at thinking about the future. What’s up with that?

Hah! Yes, that’s right. There’s no future tense in Finnish. Finns tend to use the present tense instead. There is something sensible about this: all visions of the future are, indeed, tethered to the present moment. Marcia Bjornerud cleverly linked this linguistic quirk to my book’s broader arguments:

From all of us at and around The Long Now Foundation: thank you for your time and expertise, Vincent.

And thank you! I’ll get back to reading your essay on long-termist askēsis. Keep up the great work.

Learn More

  • Read Long Now Editor Ahmed Kabil’s 02017 feature on the nuclear waste storage problem.
  • Read Vincent Ialenti’s 02016 essay for Long Now, “Craters & Mudrock: Tools for Imagining Distant Finlands.”
  • Watch Ralph Cavanagh and Peter Schwartz’s 02006 Long Now Seminar on Nuclear Power, Climate Change, and the Next 10,000 Years.

Fostering long-term thinking through projects like the 10,000 year clock; Rosetta Disk; Revive & Restore; Seminars, videos, podcast . longnow.org

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