I studied Chemical Engineering during the 1970’s and we did not discuss climate change. It was a well-known fact that depositing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, waterways, and soil was harmful. But the fact that burning hydrocarbons in vehicles or for electricity generation would contribute to raising the earth’s temperature was not fully understood during my engineering studies and during most of my career. There might have been scientists who published climate change theories, but it was not widely disseminated until this century. The rise in the earth’s average temperature has produced recent meteorological events such as large-scale forest fires, floods, hurricanes, and deep freezes. Personally, I witnessed the 2021 Texas winter storm and the 2022 record summer heat wave. Climate change is real and affecting our lives today.
When I was trading energy, my company paid bonuses based on how an individual and their business unit performed against plan. Compensation increased as net margin increased against plan. However, only part of the bonus was paid after the year ended. Traders had to wait another 3.5 years to receive their remaining compensation. Why? Because my company rewarded long-term results. Three additional years of excellent trading financials were required before the remaining compensation was paid. My company wanted their employees to have a long-term focus and valued longtermism.
What we do today matters because it impacts future generations. When I was a child, I watched my father pour refined solvent on weeds that grew in sidewalk and driveway concrete cracks. The solvent killed the weeds, enabled my father to remove them easier, and keep the weeds from returning for a longer period than simply pulling them by hand. Today, people buy products, such as Roundup, to accomplish the same thing. We now know that refined solvents migrate into ground water which animals and plants consume. This practice harmed future generations. A quick short-term solution created long-term problems. Therefore, governments created regulations to stop harmful short-term practices. Good governments protect future generations and should focus on longtermism.
I have discussed several examples related to hydrocarbons, but longtermism applies to many facets of our lives. Adults make choices about reproduction which have profoundly impacted the planet that we occupy. Overpopulation and the resulting strain on food and water supply is a world problem. The political and religious debates on abortion, contraception and human sexuality typically skirt the problems of human population growth. Whatever side one takes on this issue, sexual reproduction freedom has greatly impacted our planet. I love my children and do not believe that governments should impose population controls like performed in the People’s Republic of China. However, individuals need to consider how their individual behaviors affect future generation. Individuals should embrace longtermism.
The problem with longtermism is that the benefits are not fully felt by today’s generation. For example, when a higher education Board hires a University President, it normally judges the President by emphasizing short-term goals: fundraising for new construction, increasing student entrance requirements and retention, and raising faculty compensation. Most of these goals require near-term funding which stresses current finances and endowments. The President gets rewarded during his and her tenure, but the next President is sometimes left with financial deficits to fix. Board members are supposed to protect universities from only focusing on the short-term, but in practice, they rarely intercede before major interventions are required.
Protecting future unborn generations is difficult as we may not know the long-term effects of current practices, or the current harmful effects are not yet felt. What you can’t see, feel, or hear today is out-of-mind right now. For example, a teenager who smokes their first cigarette does not think of the cancer risks, the accumulated financial burden of buying tobacco products and health care, or future physical pain and suffering. The teenager makes a short-term decision because the current harmful effects are small. Gradually removing tobacco products from the market may be the only way to solve the problem as education has not stopped people from buying tobacco products. Nearsightedness blurs and distorts longtermism.
Christianity involves the past, present, and future. We study Scripture that was written two thousand or more years ago and learn from past writings. Scripture also relates to our present lives. The preached Word reveals how to live our lives today. The Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds to new paths and possibilities. Scripture points to the future and new creation. Christians are people of the resurrection and eternal life. We look toward God’s renewal of the world. God commands Christians to embrace longtermism.
How Christians live their lives matters today and in the future. What we do in our work, home, and community life must benefit our world today and in the future. Disregarding future generations is just as sinful as harming the world today. Christians are called to practice longtermism.