How Best Help Distant Future?

I greatly enjoyed Charles Mann’s recent book The Wizard and the Prophet. It contained the following stat, which I find to be pretty damning of academia:

Between 1970 and 1989, more than three hundred academic studies of the Green Revolution appeared. Four out of five were negative. p.437

Mann just did a related TED talk, which I haven’t seen, and posted this related article:

The basis for arguing for action on climate change is the belief that we have a moral responsibility to people in the future. But this is asking one group of people to make wrenching changes to help a completely different set of people to whom they have no tangible connection. Indeed, this other set of people doesn’t exist. There is no way to know what those hypothetical future people will want.

Picture Manhattan Island in the 17th century. Suppose its original inhabitants, the Lenape, could determine its fate, in perfect awareness of future outcomes. In this fanciful situation, the Lenape know that Manhattan could end up hosting some of the world’s great storehouses of culture. All will give pleasure and instruction to countless people. But the Lenape also know that creating this cultural mecca will involve destroying a diverse and fecund ecosystem. I suspect the Lenape would have kept their rich, beautiful homeland. If so, would they have wronged the present?

Economists tend to scoff at these conundrums, saying they’re just a smokescreen for “paternalistic” intellectuals and social engineers “imposing their own value judgments on the rest of the world.” (I am quoting the Harvard University economist Martin Weitzman.) Instead, one should observe what people actually do — and respect that. In their daily lives, people care most about the next few years and don’t take the distant future into much consideration. …

Usually economists use 5 percent as a discount rate — for every year of waiting, the price goes down 5 percent, compounded. … The implications for climate change are both striking and, to many people, absurd: at a 5 percent discount rate, economist Graciela Chichilnisky has calculated, “the present value of the earth’s aggregate output discounted 200 years from now is a few hundred thousand dollars.” … Chichilnisky, a major figure in the IPCC, has argued that this kind of thinking is not only ridiculous but immoral; it exalts a “dictatorship of the present” over the future.

Economists could retort that people say they value the future, but don’t act like it, even when the future is their own. And it is demonstrably true that many — perhaps most — men and women don’t set aside for retirement, buy sufficient insurance, or prepare their wills. If people won’t make long-term provisions for their own lives, why should we expect people to bother about climate change for strangers many decades from now? …

In his book, Scheffler discusses Children of Men … The premise of both book and film is that humanity has become infertile, and our species is stumbling toward extinction. … Our conviction that life is worth living is “more threatened by the prospect of humanity’s disappearance than by the prospect of our own deaths,” Scheffler writes. The idea is startling: the existence of hypothetical future generations matters more to people than their own existence. What this suggests is that, contrary to economists, the discount rate accounts for only part of our relationship to the future. People are concerned about future generations. But trying to transform this general wish into specific deeds and plans is confounding. We have a general wish for action but no experience working on this scale, in this time-frame. …

Overall, climate change asks us to reach for higher levels on the ladder of concern. If nothing else, the many misadventures of foreign aid have shown how difficult it is for even the best-intentioned people from one culture to know how to help other cultures. Now add in all the conundrums of working to benefit people in the future, and the hurdles grow higher. Thinking of all the necessary actions across the world, decade upon decade — it freezes thought. All of which indicates that although people are motivated to reach for the upper rungs, our efforts are more likely to succeed if we stay on the lower, more local rungs.

I side with economists here. The fact that we can relate emotionally to Children of Men hardly shows that people would actually react as it depicts. Fictional reactions often differ greatly from real ones. And I’m skeptical of Mann’s theory that we really do care greatly about helping the distant future, but are befuddled by the cognitive complexity of the task. Consider two paths to helping the distant future:

  1. Lobby via media and politics for collective strategies to prevent global warming now.
  2. Save resources personally now to be spent later to accommodate any problems then.

The saving path seems much less cognitively demanding than the lobby path, and in fact quite feasible cognitively. Resources will be useful later no matter what are the actual future problems and goals. Yes, the saving path faces agency costs, to control distant future folks tasked with spending your savings. But the lobby path also has agency costs, to control government as an agent.

Yes, the value of the saving path relative to the lobby path is reduced to the degree that prevention is cheaper than accommodation, or collective action more effective than personal action. But the value of the saving path increases enormously with time, as investments typically grow about 5% per year. And cognitive complexity costs of the lobby path also increase exponentially with time, as it becomes harder to foresee the problems and values of the distant future. (Ems wouldn’t be grateful for your global warming prevention, for example.)

Wait long enough to help and the relative advantage of the saving path should become overwhelming. So the fact that we see far more interest in the lobby path, relative to the savings path, really does suggest that people just don’t care that much about the distant future, and that global warning concern is a smokescreen for other policy agendas. No matter how many crocodile tears people shed regarding fictional depictions.

Added 5a: The posited smokescreen motive would be hidden, and perhaps unconscious.

Added 6p: I am told that in a half dozen US it is cheap to create trusts and foundations that can accumulate assets for centuries, and then turn to helping with problems then, all without paying income or capital gains taxes on the accumulating assets.

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