What is Longtermism?
At its most basic, Longtermism is the view that taking into account the long-term consequences of our current actions and seeking to positively influence the long-term future is a key priority of our time. What exactly ‘long-term future’ means can vary wildly depending on the context, with timescales ranging from hundreds to thousands to millions of years into the future.
Longtermism in Institutions
While individuals often naturally focus on immediate challenges from a short-term perspective, institutions by their nature can be designed to operate on much grander scales. In the political sphere, functional and effective institutions can often last hundreds of years, undertaking projects on behalf of generations that will not live to see their completion, for the benefit of generations who are not yet born. Yet, as the question of what world we are leaving behind for our children becomes an ever-more troubling concern, some have suggested reforming democratic institutions to better represent these future generations within the political process. What institutional design options are available to us? How effective might these be?
With the advent of Nuclear weapons and the emergence of the climate and ecological crises, security challenges have taken on a global scale. At the intersection of security and Longtermism is the field of ‘existential risk’ – the study of global risks that pose an existential or otherwise catastrophic threat to humanity as a whole. While pre-existing institutions such as the United Nations struggle to respond effectively to these challenges, new institutions with a long-term focus have been established to improve global civilisational resilience, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores over 4.5 million unique seed samples and conducts experiments lasting centuries.
The climate and ecological crises are an acute example of the severe limitations of short-term approaches to civilisational design, and so it is natural that the global turn towards sustainability is deeply rooted in and empowered by 'longtermism'. Sustainable policies emphasise our future world as the core reference point for evaluating our actions today. In practice this often means adopting near-term future milestones such as 2030 or 2050 to highlight the importance of action today in service of a better version of tomorrow. Sustainability is inherently longtermist, emphasising the systems-thinking principles of management and stewardship of complex systems which need to be balanced in perpetuity. At an institutional level, the UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to establish sustainable polices covering the entire range of global economic, political, technological, and social areas of action. However, all those goals can only be translated into results if we have the ability for long-term policy-making, planning, regulation and action. What gives an institution these capabilities? How can we improve them?