What is long-term thinking?

Post by Jenny Seifert

Humans are a global force. We have been changing our planet for millennia. The extent of our influence has warranted the consideration of calling it a whole new geological era, the Anthropocene.

In a recent essay, ecologist Erle Ellis examines the question of why the human species is unique in this power to transform earth systems, for the better or the worse. In short, he says this power has been an evolution of our “ultra-social” capacities. He concludes with a call to use our social and cultural capacities to build better societies and a better future, to intentionally evolve toward a good Anthropocene.

One capacity we possess that is essential to this task but remains underutilized and, thus, underdeveloped is long-term thinking. Building this capacity is a goal of the Water Sustainability and Climate project.


But what exactly does it mean to think in the long term? What’s more, how can we integrate this mindset into our everyday lives, when there are so many forces and temptations that work against it?

Here I offer some tenets of long-term thinking, or at least ones that lie behind our lens to the future of the Yahara Watershed. Since long-term thinking has a pretty vast intellectual terrain, this post gives just a bird’s eye tour of some major landmarks.

In short, long-term thinking means an intentional consideration of 1) what might happen in the future, 2) what are our choices for affecting the future, and 3) what do we know (or not know) about the consequences of those choices. All of these considerations must be part of building a better future.

What might happen?

Long-term thinking is considering plausible pathways to the future. Scenarios, such as Yahara 2070, are essentially an exploration of these pathways and to where they could lead us.

5th-scenarioThese pathways start in the present and meander forward under the influence of drivers of change, or the forces and trends that shape the future. In the scenarios world, these are typically thought of in terms of the acronym STEEP, which translates as the Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political trends or forces.

Of course, these forces don’t work independently of each other, and the boundaries between them can sometimes be fuzzy. For example, land use is a significant driver of change in the Yahara 2070 scenarios, but land use is altogether social, technological, environmental, economic, and political.

Moreover, what might happen is not necessarily what is likely to happen. Long-term thinking is intended to force us out of what I call the likelihood trap.

There is a difference between plausibility and likelihood. Plausibility has to do with what is possible based on the rules of nature, whereas likelihood is often based in what we are experiencing today and influenced by our worldviews. A lot can be plausible in the natural world, even if it doesn’t seem likely given today’s culture or politics.

Long-term thinking requires us to break free from the “likelihood trap,” which can stifle our creativity. We must look beyond what seems likely or unlikely given the current state of affairs and, instead, keep our minds open to what is possible, even if the possibility seems remote from today.

Thinking about what might happen also requires us to allow space for uncertainty and surprise. As smart as humans have become, we still can’t predict the future. We still don’t fully understand how earth systems work, and human systems are even less predictable. Both systems are full of surprises.

There are many “might happens” under climate change, for example. Allowing space for this uncertainty could mean strengthening the resilience of our communities and ecosystems so they can better withstand even the biggest surprises.

What are our choices?

Futurist Wendy Schultz said it well: “While the future is uncertain and much of it is beyond our control, we can control many aspects of it. We choose our future: we create it by what we do or fail to do.”

The future is not predetermined. The world is a mix of the predictable and the unpredictable, the things we can’t choose and the things we can.

We can’t choose exactly how climate change will affect our communities—that’s up to forces of nature that are far beyond our control. But we can choose how we prepare for and respond to the range of risks we face. We could choose to just ignore them, or we could choose to do any number of things about them.

Branch-PointsTime is riddled with these collective forks-in-the-road, or branch points, when our options could lead us down different pathways with different future implications. Choosing the right path is not easy, but weighing our options might illuminate the next step.

What could be the consequences?

Anticipating the consequences of our choices includes recognizing what we know and what we do not know about these consequences. So often we make decisions based on immediate needs, with little forethought about how they might play out in the long-term or what we don’t know about how they might play out. This can lead us to unintended and, sometimes, undesirable consequences.

To boot, some of these undesirable consequences may be irreversible, such as the demise of the dodo bird, passenger pigeon, and other species that have disappeared due to a collective human “whoops.”

But what if we reprogrammed our minds to think ahead about the long-term consequences we want—and those we want to avoid—and gave them more weight in the choices we make today? What if we became more mindful about the undetermined consequences of our choices through mental frameworks like the precautionary principle? Perhaps our collective decision-making patterns would be better suited for sustainability.

Long-term thinking is not a magical trick for getting everything we want in the future, however. The consequences of our choices often have tradeoffs. For example, in the Yahara Watershed, our research has shown tradeoffs between high dairy production and good water quality, begging the question of whether it is possible to have clean lakes and (cheap) ice cream, too.

Of course, making collective decisions about whether we’d prefer two scoops or swimmable lakes is not easy, especially in the summertime. What’s more, asking people to give up something they enjoy today for a future outcome they may never benefit from will probably not make you popular, at least in today’s culture. There are certainly mental and cultural hurdles to overcome for long-term thinking to become part of the collective human psyche, but that’s a blog post all its own.

Which brings me to how we even go about integrating long-term thinking into our daily lives. I can say that awareness of what it even means to think long term, as this post attempted to raise, is a step. My own mental framework has changed immensely through my work with Yahara 2070. I now think in scenarios.

I’d argue another important step is accepting the slow pace of change…and being patient. Many of the changes we want—cleaner water, a stable climate, social equality—take time. They will be neither instant nor easy. We’ve grown accustomed to a quickened pace of life. Embracing slow change is going to require social evolution.

It took millennia of human development for us to get to where are today. It’s fun to imagine what more we can do in the millennia to come. Adopting a long-term lens is an opportunity for socio-cultural evolution to make sure we like where we’re headed.

What do you think?

What does long-term thinking mean to you? How could we better incorporate it into our daily lives and collective decision-making processes? Comment with your thoughts!

Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project.

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