Time Horizons

We seem to think of the future, and perhaps the past, in terms of decades.  We likely recall our grandparents and, of course, our parents.  We consider our own lives and those of our children in terms of employment, education and eventually retirement.  Our overall time horizon for planning is likely 20-40 years.

Our plans inevitably are premised on explicit and implicit assumptions.  We expect that our society and economy will be pretty much as we have experienced them over the past decades.  That seems like a reasonable assumption, but it is not, as explained by famous fund manager Ray Dalio in Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

He looks back 500 years and characterizes the successive dominance of the Dutch, English, Americans and Chinese economies.  He argues there are 200 year cycles, plus or minus 150 years.  The phases of each cycle are new order, the rise, the top, the decline, and another new order.  The rise is characterized by strong leadership, inventiveness, education, strong culture, and economic growth.

The decline begins with decreased productivity, becoming over-extended, losing competitiveness, increasing wealth gaps, and large public debts.  This sounds pretty familiar to me.  Coming out of the Great Recession and the Coronavirus Pandemic, the US in exhibiting these symptoms.  China, in contrast, is on the rise.  So, our assumptions about the future US economy may not be warranted.  We may be the next United Kingdom.

What if your perspective is not centuries like Dalio, but millennia as considered by David Graeber and Davis Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).  They take a 30,000-year perspective, far beyond our usual time horizon, but nevertheless very interesting, Mostly because they show that history was not just a junior version of today.

They argue that “The prevalent ‘big picture’ of history – shared by modern-day followers of Hobbes and Rousseau alike – has almost nothing to do with the facts.”  ‘When it came to violence in pre-state peoples,’ writes the psychologist Steven Pinker, ‘Hobbes and Rousseau were talking through their hats: neither knew a thing about life before civilization.’

I had never really thought that these famous writers were articulating their perspectives, not reporting evidence-based truths.  Their frameworks were reasonable but unsupported by meaningful evidence.  Rationalization of colonial behaviors was pervasive.  “Colonial appropriation of indigenous lands often began with some blanket assertion that foraging peoples really were living in a State of Nature – which meant that they were deemed to be part of the land but had no legal claims to own it.”

We tend to consider civilization to be driven by the agricultural era.  However, “Farming often started out as an economy of deprivation: you only invented it when there was nothing else to be done, which is why it tended to happen first in areas where wild resources were thinnest on the ground.”  The key point is that agriculture was not the central force in the development of social systems.

Graeber and Wengrow ask, “Why do we assume that people who have figured out a way for a large population to govern and support itself without temples, palaces and military fortifications – that is, without overt displays of arrogance, self-abasement and cruelty – are somehow less complex than those who have not?”

“Such ‘simple’ economies are rarely all that simple. They often involve logistical challenges of striking complexity, resolved on a basis of intricate systems of mutual aid, all without any need of centralized control or administration.”  “What they offer us is significant: proof that highly egalitarian organization has been possible on an urban scale.”

I find it interesting how settlements emerged, prospered, and then disappeared.  Teotihuacan in Mexico was founded in 100 BC and abandoned in 600 AD.  All the evidence suggests that Teotihuacan had, at its height of its power, found a way to govern itself without overlords.  As another example, construction of the city of Great Zimbabwe began in the 9th century and continued until it was abandoned in the 15th century.  Why?

Graeber and Wengrow argue that “Three principles – call them control of violence, control of information, and individual charisma – are also the three possible bases of social power.”  They observe that, “Social science has been largely a study of the ways in which human beings are not free: the way that our actions and understandings might be said to be determined by forces outside our control. Any account which appears to show human beings collectively shaping their own destiny, or even expressing freedom for its own sake, will likely be written off as illusory, awaiting ‘real’ scientific explanation; or if none is forthcoming, as outside the scope of social theory entirely.”

They conclude that “Complex systems don’t have to be organized top-down, either in the natural or in the social world. That we tend to assume otherwise probably tells us more about ourselves than the people or phenomena that we’re studying.” Clearly, looking back further than our own origin stories can provide insights into givens that were never really given.

Peter Godfrey-Smith in Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) provides a much longer term view.  Looking back millions of years, he consider the origins and evolution of life.  The protagonist in this historical story is an octopus.  Godfrey-Smith addresses the wonderful question, “What does it feel like to be an octopus?”

As we learn about the proclivities of this amazing animal, one naturally reflects on these phenomena from a personal perspective – what it feels like to be a human.  One also comes to appreciate the millions of years it took to become the particular human we turned out to be.

This brief review of three time horizons suggests a few fundamental questions:

  • What does it mean to be alive, conscious? What does success mean?  Millions of years are relevant to answering these questions.
  • How do social systems evolve and change? Are there common patterns?  What leads to one pattern or another?  Thousands of years are relevant.
  • How does economic prosperity emerge and inevitably fade?  Why do some economic systems dominate, at least for a while?  Hundreds of years are relevant.

It strikes me – and these authors articulate this – that much of my knowledge is premised on assumptions that are heavily biased by times that have been contemporary with my life.  I can somewhat manage a 100 year perspective, perhaps longer if I limit myself to western society.  Thousands and millions of years are mostly abstractions.

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