For years, I have warned individuals, organizational leaders and government officials that they are most likely to run out of energy before they run out of opportunity. I further caution that the incessant urgency of the immediate inhibits and even destroys the strategic pursuit of the most important future priorities.
Sociologist Elise Boulding said is this way, “If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.”
There is a type of exhaustion that comes from constantly being out of breath over the present that inhibits deep, forward-looking thinking. National media that breathlessly reports on every angry, angst-filled and divisive political comment cannot create space for citizens to imagine the future. A president who breathlessly tweets about every slight, criticism or comment made about him ensures there is no energy within the administration to imagine the future. Politicians on both sides of the aisle who cannot see past their own re-election give little to no attention to issues that will impact the generations to come.
Those same politicians who breathlessly strive to create social media moments to propel their popularity, raise campaign cash or weaponize the words of an opponent have no energy to find common ground or build a better, more united future. Individuals who are obsessed with social media and the need to rapidly reply with the most pithy and biting response to someone they disagree with never have energy for an elevated conversation that would lead to future solutions. Organizations of all kinds who fool themselves by breathlessly chasing endless meetings or checklists keep themselves a safe distance from applying the principles, defining the strategies and implementing the tactics that would actually shape their future.
An old proverb says, "A society grows great when old men (and women) plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."
Those consumed with the rat race and chase of the present are rarely capable of envisioning the possibility of providing shade trees to future generations.
A society “growing great” should be the objective of every leader at every level of government, business and community. Growing great includes the kind of prosperity that strengthens the institutions of civil society, increases opportunity and maximizes upward economic mobility. Such greatness is only to be had when "old men" (which includes women and men currently leading) put long-term, future-focused policies ahead of their own interests.
The BBC has launched a series of stories and articles focused on the need to take the long view of humanity. Its aim is “to stand back from the daily news cycle and widen the lens of our current place in time."
Roman Krznaric, a public philosopher and former political scientist, is challenging citizens and political leaders around the world to abandon the short-term obsession of modern politics in favor of a true long view. He wrote for the BBC:
“The time has come to face an inconvenient reality: that modern democracy — especially in wealthy countries — has enabled us to colonize the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please. When Britain colonized Australia in the 18th and 19th Century, it drew on the legal doctrine now known as terra nullius — nobody’s land — to justify its conquest and treat the indigenous population as if they didn’t exist or have any claims on the land. Today our attitude is one of tempus nullius. The future is an ‘empty time’, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants. Like the distant realms of empire, it is ours for the taking.”
To combat the short-term-itis of current politicians and legislative bodies, some countries are beginning to create ombudsman-type positions within government to ensure someone is looking out for the generations yet unborn.
Sen. Mike Lee has been such a voice for future generations when it comes to America’s $22 trillion national debt. Currently, that amounts to a bill of approximately $50,000 for every single citizen. He regularly calls out the fact that a child born in America today starts out with a baby blanket and a hefty government liability — a bill that was created by the short-sighted and reckless spending of politicians — debt that was incurred before that child’s parents had even met. Lee cites this as the ultimate example of taxation without representation.
Politicians have become all too comfortable with tempus nullius — by spending for short-term political gain without worry or obligation for what happens down the road or who will have to pay for or clean up the mess. Experts, including people in the military, decry America’s national debt as the number one national security threat and clearly the greatest threat to future generations.19 comments on this story
To win the immediate election or political battle, it is easy to breathlessly proclaim short-term and often short-sighted policy proposals. It is easy to declare a prospective tax cut. It is easy to excitedly promote the interests of well-funded special interests to secure campaign donations. It is easy to passionately proclaim freebies, including college tuition, health care and guaranteed income. But if our leaders are “mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with their present political problems, there is no energy left for truly imagining America’s future.”
If we want America to continue on the path of “growing great,” we all need to focus on long-view efforts that will “plant trees whose shade we know we shall never sit in.”