Thinking about long-term futures
For a number of reasons I’ve been thinking about long-term futures recently – beyond the 50-year mark and out to 100 years or more. So I pricked up my ears when I was at a concert and heard a singer, while introducing a song about the poet John Clare, talk about the ‘seventh generation’.
John Clare was born in the late eighteenth century, and his poetry is, in some senses, about the loss of the common land to the vast enclosure movement of the period – 5 million acres, or 21% of English commons fenced off by the new landowners. The phrase used by the singer, Chris Wood, was that “it takes seven generations for the things we do today to work themselves through” – which allowed him to make a connection to the present day, just about seven generations later. How is the great enclosure movement linked to our social behaviour now? That is worth more time than I have here, but it sparks new connections; for example the contrast between English rootlessness, for example, and the French sense of the pays.
The origin of the idea, now common in the sustainability movement, seems to be from the Iroquois Indians:
“In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
This suggests a two-hundred year timescale, which chimes elegantly with Elise Boulding‘s idea of the “two hundred year present” – the idea that at any present moment you needed to be looking both one hundred years forward and one hundred years back. The two hundred year present overcomes one of the difficulties of imagining the longer future by locating it in a way that can be understood in terms of one’s own family; my current two hundred years goes back to a time when my grandparents were small children, and its future potentially, to my potential grandchildren or great grand-children.
The other famous futures project to try to look at the long view is The Long Now, Stewart Brand’s scheme to build a clock which will last 10,000 years. One convention they have is to add a zero in front of the year (so 2007 becomes 02007) to remind the reader of the span of time. Brand’s book on the project adapts a model originally devised by the physicist Freeman Dyson of different speeds of change, running from the fastest, fashion and media, through business and infrastructure, to governance, culture, and nature, the slowest, with a cycle of thousands of years. (Lincoln – the English city – slightly surprisingly uses the model as a frame to explain its regeneration plans in this pdf). The specific nature of social change, Brand suggests, can be understood in the way that these different layers, with their different relative speeds, interact with one another. Governance is probably closest to a 200-year cycle, so it is noteworthy that the notion of the seventh generation came from a governance document.
Chris Wood was the warm up – and also a member of the band – for The Imagined Village concert at the Royal Festival Hall last night. I may come back to them – they’re interesting for other reasons. [Update: I came back to them here.]