Short Term Thinking

Make no mistake. Millions of water drops cause more damage than gigantic tsunamis.

Billions of plastic items, cigarette butts and wrapping papers litter land on the US, Europe and elsewhere each year. This environmental mess does not make it into the headlines of the New York Times or the BBC News. On the other hand, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill made it big time. 8,000 animals were reported dead just 6 months after the spill. Yet still, many more birds are being killed every year due to our plastic waste everywhere. They go unreported.

Repetitive low impact events go by unnoticed even if, in the long run, the damage caused is far more reaching. Some of today’s new problems, like global warming or littering, are not the product of gigantic and visible tidal waves. They are, on the contrary, the product of billions of tiny water drops over the course of long periods of time.

In 1918 the Spanish Influenza killed strong young men and women in less than two weeks. More than 650,000 Americans died during the pandemic. The flu was feared by all. Still is. Today we all know that smoking reduces our life span. Smoking causes 440,000 premature deaths per year in the US alone. Some people keep smoking. Why? Because, unlike the Spanish Influenza, smoking takes years to kill.

Littering takes time to show. One empty can of beer tossed in the ditch doesn’t seem like much. Some people don’t see the harm. It goes unnoticed. The Primitive Thinker is short-sighted. He seems to miss that millions of other Primitive Thinkers will follow. They are not the only one. In the meanwhile, the damage, drop by drop, is being done.

The greenhouse emission problem is exactly the same. CO2 emissions go unnoticed. It will take years to kill. But it will.

Part of the problem lies within the very nature of the Primitive Thinker. Human beings are designed to think short term.  Thousands of years ago the goal was to pass through the winter, and then, we were ready for another cycle. Some quick-witted people were capable of thinking beyond one single winter. Not many.

But today’s problems require longer time frames of thinking. Human actions have long term consequences. Just the gesture of discarding a simple plastic bottle in the ditch has long lasting consequences. It may last up to 400 years.

We must think long term. We cannot expect the average individual to think long term. After all, he or she is just the product of millions of years of short term survival needs. But world leaders must do it. Policy makers must think long term, 50 year cycles, century-long cycles, thousands of year cycles. We cannot afford electing Primitive Thinkers. We already have far too many in Congress.

A four-year cycle democracy doesn’t work. It does not resolve today’s long term impending problems. Voters have a hard time with long-term strategies. Voters lose faith quickly when results don’t show immediately. We must reward long-term thinking politicians. How?

To be continued.

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