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Review - The Voices of Future People

To what extent are we responsible for the wellbeing of future generations? How can we make sure that the people of the future don’t suffer as a result of our way of life? How can we be good ancestors? These issues are of great significance in current debates about dealing with climate change, and the latter is the central topic in public philosopher Roman Krznaric’s most recent book The Good Ancestor. Furthermore, it was the main question in the lecture by Krznaric, organized by Radboud Reflects, in cooperation with the festival Nimma aan zee in LUX, about climate change and art. The lecture consisted of a conversation by livestream, moderated by philosopher Lisa Doeland and by sixteen year old Wissal El Hajji: two interviewers from two generations. The audience was invited to participate in the conversation by submitting questions.

The motivation behind the book

In The Good Ancestor Roman Krznaric writes about how we can get better at thinking long-term in our current short-term world. Before publishing this book, he wrote about empathy. The Good Ancestor is, according to Krznaric himself, an extension of his earlier work. ‘This is about: How do we step in the shoes of future generations?’ Krznaric then reminisced about the first time he empathized strongly with future generations. As part of a workshop several years ago, he was told to image what his daughter would write in a speech about him on her ninetieth birthday. When he tried to picture this, he got goosebumps, as he realized that the future is not science fiction, but an intimate family fact. ‘That was really the root of this book for me. Reflecting on my children and the reality of the life they might face.’

Good ancestry across generations

Krznaric then talked about the way long-term thinking is linked to phases of life. In the 2019 UK general election, Krznaric and his wife offered their votes to their children, given that the election decided their future. Although he let his children vote, Krznaric argued that lowering the voting age is not going to solve the current problem, as politicians are still caught in short-term electoral cycles. He suggests we should make more use of citizens assemblies, as these have shown to be better at thinking long-term than politicians. ‘We need to integrate this more direct side of democracy aside our existing representative democracy so the young voices really count.’

Elaborating on how phases of life relate to long-term thinking, Krznaric talks about the idea of generativity, coined by psychologists in the 1960s:  ‘When human beings reach mid-life, they start thinking about their own deaths and what legacies they might leave beyond their own lifetime.’ This can result in oligarchs building stadiums with their names on it, but most people think about their children and grandchildren. According to Krznaric, the next step is to transcend this individual perspective and start caring about the universal strangers of the future.

Individual self-reflection and collective action

After this, Roman Krznaric and the two moderators Lisa Doeland and Wissal El Hajji elaborated on how to become better ancestors. Krznaric believes our current situation is not hopeless: ‘Nothing in history is inevitable until it happened.’ But do we have to wait for disaster to strike, before people come together to solve a problem? Krznaric stated that disaster itself does not suffice to bring about change: ‘You need real crises like floods, and a sense of crisis created by social movements.’ As an example he gives the crash of Wall Street in the 1920s, that only resulted in the New Deal due to worker’s unions actions.

Krznaric explained that individual self-reflection is pivotal to being a good ancestor. ‘That is what I think the struggle of living is about: realizing things about who you are and who you could be, and trying to close the gap.’ This being said, Krznaric does consider this individual self-reflection to be strongly connected to collective action. ‘We have moments in our lives where we start seeing ourselves in different ways, but it is often in collectivity that we have these realizations.’ We change who we are together, Krznaric argued. While everything starts with individual reflection, we need collective movements to hold polluting corporations accountable. We need to move beyond the hyperindividualism of our current world, to solve an issue like climate change. To Krznaric this is all about changing the stories we tell ourselves about human motivation. Currently, many people assume that our brains are egotistical and focused on short-term gratification, whilst missing its potential for great long-term thinking.

A new kind of democracy

At the end, Krznaric answered two audience questions. Would he still have let his kids vote, if he had known that they were going to vote different from him? Krznaric answered that he would have. To him, this is a matter that is at the heart of our democratic ideal: we need to put faith in young people. ‘I don’t believe in the rule of the expert, in the sense of technocratic elites ruling society. I do believe we have to put faith in democracies, in the deepest sense of individuals in a society holding those in power accountable.’

To the following question Krznaric had a similar answer. Shouldn’t we first take care of people living right now? ‘We need to do long-term investments in healthcare and education. There is an overlap in the needs of present and future generations when it comes to the basics of life.’ When we think about morality, Krznaric argued, time is irrelevant. If you place a bomb in a train carriage full of children, it doesn’t make a moral difference whether the bomb goes off in 10 minutes, 1 hour or 10 years. ‘So let’s debate that and not just wipe those future generations away. Let us, like many indigenous cultures say, bring the living, the dead and the unborn into the room.’

By: Ellen Theuws