Short Term Thinking | 2409

I propose that everything that occurs between the decision to plant a tree and the full expression of its canopy is short-term thinking.

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Short Term Thinking

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

An old building, hundreds of years old, needs its roof beams replaced. The building’s custodians panic, unsure of where trees of sufficient size and quality might be found. Only to uncover some hitherto forgotten tale of foresight and planning.

Stewart Brand – known for the Whole Earth Catalog and Long Now Foundation – recounts a version of this story.

Something like this: Oxford University in the 1800s discovered that its ancient dining hall needed new oak beams. And a Junior Fellow suggested they check the college’s lands scattered across the country for some worthy oaks. The College Forester was then asked if there might be any suitable oaks. And he replies, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

As it turns out, when the dining hall was built, they planted a grove of oaks specifically to replace the dining hall beams. The plan passed down through generations of Foresters for over five hundred years with the instruction: “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Or remember the viral clout posts that appeared online after the Notre-Dame fire. About how the French supposedly planted a row of oaks at Versaille, should the cathedral roof ever need repairing. 

Problem is … neither are true.

The curious thing I think, is that we want them to be true. We want to believe that those with power, both then and now, are capable of such acts of deep foresight. We latch on to them because it’s a farsighted vision that feels rare in today’s world. Which is exactly why Brand tells the story.

However, in contrast to fake stories about oak beams and church fires, planning and planting trees for shipbuilding is actually real. Not as an act of long-term foresight but instead, as pragmatic, short-term decisions taken to ensure future resources. If you want to build a ship from scratch, first you need to plant a tree.

Oaks planted during the reign of the Stuarts built the ships that fought the battle of Trafalgar 200 years later. Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood – Nelons friend (and man with a great name) – knowing this, encouraged the landed gentry to plant oaks to secure the future of the Navy. In Denmark, following the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807 the king ordered oak forests be planted to replace the lost ships. Of course things changed, but the trees matured nevertheless. At the turn of the millennium, 90,000 oaks were ready for use. 

“Long-term thinking” or rather, the concept of  “Longtermism” has recently come under suspicion. Effective Altruism has been put under the spotlight after the trial of Sam Bankman-Freed. In fact, Alice Crary, writing in Radical Philosophy Journal, recently called EA’s Longtermism a ‘toxic ideology’. Concerned with safeguarding humanity’s future in a manner that leaves current harmful socioeconomic structures unexamined. Which is fair enough. Yet culture still faces a critical problem: the seeming complete lack of ability to effectively plan and execute on, well, anything. 

Instead of focusing on “long-term thinking,” I propose we reframe what the “short-term” is.

What do we need to do today, to lay down frameworks for the people of the future? What will be useful?

I would like to propose that everything that occurs between the decision to plant a tree and the full expression of its canopy is short-term thinking.

In regenerative agriculture, when farmers convert fields over to mixed use agroforestry, they design for the full canopy height first. Other species will then get interplanted between the trees of the final overstory. Which, let’s assume, is oak, which is slow growing. So in between the oaks you plant a shorter lifespan species like a nut tree. And between them, faster 30-year fruit trees, and below them all fruit bushes. Life cycles within life cycles. Everything between you and the oaks is ‘short-term’. Which is a nuanced relationship to time that far outstrips our current culture of quarterly reports and yearly planning by a long long way.

Landscape restoration also deals in systems that unfold over centuries. Experts warn us of the β€œthousand-year mistake”. Archaeology can still identify 1000-year-old ditches in subsoil for example. The digging swales or the building of ponds, permanently impacts a landscape’s hydrology. So it matters where you put them. 

Other mistakes also occur across shorter timescales: Consider the needs of a natural windbreak. To be most effective they need a 45Β° angle ramp on the windward side. So you plant bushes, then small trees, then larger trees, to get the right angle right.

Now imagine it’s planting day. There’s a pile of unlabelled whips of the largest tree on the ground. Then someone carrying another bundle of sticks of the shorter variety drops them on top of the existing pile. Mixing and confusing them – but the planting must happen. The consequences of that split second of inattention may echo in the landscape for a century.

We have no idea what 2124 is going to be like. We also know that we can’t fix everything today. But we do know when an oak planted today will reach its full height tomorrow. And that every action that we take today shapes the world of tomorrow.

Short-term pragmatic actions taken right now are gifts to the future. For people will never meet and never know. In this new short-term we must create frameworks for the future that others can build on. I call these gestures ‘keystones of continuity’.

Because you can’t move a tree once planted, only cut it down.

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