Longtermism – A case for the collective future of humanity
Priya Bhatkar – Student, Kautilya
Future lives matter. A leading proponent of longtermism, scottish philosopher William MacAskill, stated in 2019 that “the lives of people who live in future eras matter just as much, morally, as the lives of those who live today.” With this perspective as a guiding principle, the philosophy of longtermism states that proactively planning and determining our long-term future should be the top moral focus of the existing generations of people today. The broad objectives of longtermism are illustrated below.
The three objectives longtermist policies should focus on. Objectives 1 and 2 serve as foundations for the direct objective(s) above them.
Given these objectives, it becomes pertinent to determine how far ahead in the future the “long-term” really is and the number of future lives in question. To estimate this consider the following three images –
Image 1. A brief history of Homo sapiens
Image 2. The life span of a typical mammalian species (approx. 1 million years)
Image 3. Earth’s habitable potential on the time scale
(image courtesy for all three images)
On the timeline of humanity, Homo Sapiens evolved approx. 300,000 years ago, and the industrial era started only nearly 250 years ago. Thus, all the ensuing modern technological innovations have occurred over the course of only three human lifetimes. The typical mammalian species have a lifespan of roughly one million years. Given technological advancement, even with a 10% probability of surviving until the planet is no longer habitable in five hundred million years; the human race has a life expectancy of over fifty million years. Additionally, if the global population continues to increase, there will be 80 trillion additional individuals after us, outnumbering us 10,000 to 1.
The Silent Billions
Whether future generations thrive or falter depends significantly on what we do today. However, future generations are essentially disenfranchised. They cannot hold us accountable for our actions in our lifetimes and also have no vote in the decisions being taken today, which will have significant implications for their lives. Many of our most pressing global policy issues do not draw projections for their impacts on the generations in the distant future. The following paragraphs present a few pertinent cases to understand this.
Consider the current climate crisis. All existing economic and policy evaluations concerning climate change focus on its possible impacts only in the next century. Current global carbon emissions are estimated to have an atmospheric lifespan of only 30,000 years. However, the trail remains long even after the oceans reabsorb most CO2 in a few centuries. 7% of the CO2 we emit today will remain in the atmosphere 100,000 years from now. Even if all contributors to global warming are curbed today, the sea levels will continue to rise for another 1000 years, by which it will be approx. 7 meters (approx. 2 storeys) higher than current sea levels.
Next, let us consider the existential threats posed by nuclear and biological weapons. After living through 77 years of unusual peace since 1945, the undercurrents of nuclear warfare remain a looming threat as the destructive capacities of weapons of mass destruction continue to increase.
Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 Pandemic, it is interesting to note that the ‘biological weapons convention,’ responsible for the continued prohibition of bio-weapons, in 2020, had an annual execution budget less than that of an average McDonald’s restaurant. While germ theory of disease proves that risks of global pandemics have reduced significantly owing to vaccines and anti-retroviral therapy etc., the ever-expanding field of synthetic biology and its capacity to create novel pathogens continues to pose threats.
Future generations count, but we seldom do.
There is an urgent need to adopt the lens of longtermism in global policies pertaining to the most pressing issues of our time. Nudges with the support of value change theories can be used globally to achieve this perspective in policy making. These will include establishing longtermist institutions such as Ministry for the future and future assemblies. Further, institutions such as the Global Priorities Institute and Future of Humanity Institute can be established with a complete focus on future generations. Policy interventions will also need to be optimized for achieving longtermist objectives. Additionally, altruistic philanthropy for the generations in the distant future is also a breakthrough philosophy for achieving the goals of longtermism.
In essence, the enormous size of the potential population of humankind as well as the possibility of impacting their lives for good constitutes the core aim of longtermism. It is logical to prioritize the second problem if two issues are equally tough to solve but solving the first impacts 100 people while solving the second impacts 1 billion people. Thus the magnitude of the impact we’re attempting to make should be taken into account while deciding how to do the best. This prospect of how our decisions now might be felt, in a meaningful sense, by trillions of people yet to be born looks amazingly significant when we truly take the time to grasp what we might accomplish in the long run.