Sustainability needs near-term benefits to engage people

By Derek Charter,

  Filed under: Opinion
  Comments: None

“People love chopping wood. In this activity one immediately sees results.” – Albert Einstein

Clearly, over the long-term, not acting sustainably is self-defeating. However long-term thinking is difficult when it’s the short-term expectations of shareholders and quarterly reports that drive behaviour. The fact is, as the Nobel prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, we just aren’t evolved to think long term. Our early ancestors evolved brains that focused on the here and now, time horizons defined by the seasons. Today our atavistic mental processes still favour intuitive and instinctive conclusions over the burden of considered reasoning.

When faced with a question about how we think the world will look in 30 years time we unconsciously substitute that complex question with the heuristic “what does the world look like now”. We do it without being aware of the process and our substitution makes it hard for us to connect our behaviour with how it might affect the future.

The challenge then is to shorten the pay back period of our interventions and understand the negative consequences of actions (or inactions) in a more measurable way. Partly because of the way climate science is developing and also because we can identify other associated near term benefits of longer term actions, this is beginning to happen more frequently.

The key then to improving sustainability is to show that it pays to do so over a short enough and measurable time period. That way we can substitute the difficult question about the future with certainty in positive outcomes in the present and still get to where we want to be in 30 years time.

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