Public holidays are dangerous because they give you a chance to think. When you step outside your usual routine, you see how it might be possible to live differently. You start making plans for change, or ambitious New Year's resolutions. Mine is to take a cerebral sort of work-out: to try to start thinking long term.
This isn't easy for a capitalist piglet, programmed to live in the perpetual present. It means closing your ears to the shrill imperative of the here and now. It means ignoring what everyone from psychoanalysts to shopkeepers have been telling us: Live in the moment! Be spontaneous! Enjoy impulse buys! Thinking long term means getting off this merry-go-round of novelty and instant gratification.
It means kicking back against the waste of built-in obsolescence: in architecture, in appliances, in new technology. It's about consumer power: rejecting empty commercial innovations. It's about finding different modi operandi: making and mending, saving and waiting. Planting seeds, even though you won't live to see the forest. Old-fashioned habits, but perhaps they will quench the hunger for something wholesome after the sugar rush of disposable pop culture.
What else does "long term" mean? Gordon Brown is fond of the phrase, but in politics it seems dangerously like shorthand for "give me five more years in power". Long term does not equate with another term in office. It means thinking about the face of the daughter of the daughter of my daughter, to quote Joanna Newsom's lovely lyrics. You have to resort to poetry because everyday speech doesn't look far ahead enough.
So much of our political discourse is stuck in the present. It lays out the cost of global warming in sterling, as if our own currency is all we understand. Yet it is surely unbelievably small minded to quantify the destruction of the ecosphere in terms of pounds and pence. Even more ridiculous was Alan Johnson's statement this year describing obesity as a problem "on a par" with global warming. To think long term is to imagine this planet beyond the extinction of our own species; to have the humility to acknowledge that we are temporary custodians.
That is the macrocosm. The microcosm is our own back yard, where we have to decide what to do about that tiny patch of building on the green belt, or ordering cod for supper. Here it helps to be optimistic.
Thinking long term can mean not doing something; a useful sort of inactivity. It can mean deciding not to excavate the Villa of the Papyri in Pompei because you trust the descendants of today's archaeologists to have developed much more sophisticated techniques than ours. It means exercising adult qualities: hope, patience, a respect for generations to come. Thinking about the distant future isn't always a bullet train to nihilism and depression. When it comes to the everyday choices we face, having faith in the future can be a means of helping us to make the right decision, a small nudge in the direction of conservation.
Optimism is much better at motivating us than despair. This, at least, is what I am going to tell myself this year.
"Long termism" is such an ugly construction. It smacks of the John Prescott school of grammar. Yet it is hard to find a suitable linguistic alternative. To resolve to "avoid myopic thinking" makes you sound like an optician. The Greeks equipped us so well with phrases to describe anteriority, but the future is much harder to discuss. It is almost as if, mentally, we have made a pact not to go there. We even call future outcomes "imponderables".
And no wonder, because thinking long term is scary. It is often counterintuitive. It is a leap of imagination: it means privileging something we can't see or feel over something we can. To think in the long term often contradicts our most basic instincts.
Our impulse to go forth and multiply simply isn't sustainable if we want our children to have the same access to resources that we have enjoyed. Gone are the days when we could have a huge brood with impunity. Loving future generations means trying not to be selfish about your own reproductive choices.
It also means looking at immediate and dramatic dilemmas from all sorts of different angles. Imagine yourself in San Diego zoo. The Siberian tiger is about to charge. It occurs to you that there are only 600 such tigers in captivity, while you are one of 6.6 billion. And yet the impulse to shoot is strong in us all. Long-term thinking, if it is not to involve huge amounts of self-sacrifice, must be about planning ahead, and about making compromises the tranquilliser dart school of thought, if you like.
For me, thinking ahead will consist of nothing more dramatic than taking a train instead of a plane to Venice, taking plastic bags with me wherever I go and resisting the lure of air-freighted raspberries in January. Small, mundane things, but what else can we do?
These are what matter, in the end, because they accrue into eternity. As Emily Dickinson had it: "Forever is composed of nows."Reuse content