Caring about the future

Why would a person care about climate change? Why wouldn’t they? What about litter? Or recycling? Or their own long term health?

Do you care about these things? How much do you care? Do you care more at certain times verses other times?  What impacts the fluctuations of these feelings within yourself or across peoples?

How do we get people to care more about climate change? How do we get people to care about the environment? About their future? About our future?

The key to caring about the future is certainty. If the future is certain, you can bank on that. You can sacrifice the present to the future, because suffering born now is suffering avoided in the future. Ideally, this investment pays off in a net reduction in suffering, which is a pretty damn good goal. 

However, if the future isn’t certain. If it’s unreliable. If it’s unlikely, even. It can be difficult to justify giving up something now for even the best reward in the future, if you cannot realistically imagine yourself there to enjoy the benefits.

This is perhaps most apparent in areas of the world where poverty is common place. Who cares about next week if you’re starving to death right now? Who cares about air pollution when you’re trying to cook a meal for your family the only way you know how? Bottled water is better than no water at all, even if the micro plastics cause devastation to countless organisms and ecosystem, because you and your family don’t seem likely to be around at all.

Similarly, in the areas of our country where poverty is the norm, people experience a similar mindset. If you could get shot and killed on your way home, are you really that concerned with the trash building up around you in the streets? If your sole focus in life is getting your next opioid fix, are you going to take the time to manage an organic compost heap?

The combination of these two similar but different groups of people can help us to make a strong case that focusing much of our efforts on lifting people out of poverty can go a long way to indirectly helping us all to reach our sustainability goals. The more people that care about the future, the more people there will be working together to protect it. 

It’s not just the people at the bottom who make these sorts of choices, however. Those of us in the middle do as well, because it seems the present will always be more valuable than the nebulous consequences of our actions at some point in the distant future. Something as simple as driving the 2 miles to work rather than walking or biking is a prime example; your time right now is worth more to you than the incremental cost to be paid in the future.

I believe people at the top make similar tradeoffs, only orders of magnitude greater. The oil executive making $10 million a year isn’t unaware of climate change; he’s just tricked himself into accepting the immediate benefits to himself in exchange for the delayed consequences born by us all.

This connects directly with the concept of the tragedy of the commons, which perhaps can lead to an argument for more private ownership of assets, because there is a more obvious and direct incentive to care for these things when the consequences are born directly rather than somewhat evenly (inequitably?) distributed. However, this is a more complex argument than I am prepared to fully address in this blog post 🙂 

Back to the main point, I don’t think it’s useful to blame the people at the bottom or the top for their choices, in part because if we were in their shoes, I believe that most of us would find a way to justify a similar set of choices. Instead, I think it’s important to reflect on our own versions of these choices and use the knowledge gained to rethink how to combat sustainability related issues.

Again, these are complicated issues, and I haven’t tricked myself into thinking I can solve the world’s problems in a blog post. However, I’m hopeful that being aware of all of our tendencies to sacrifice some of future to the present can provide us with some valuable insight into human behavior. Further, being mindful of our collective discounting of the future can help us to be compassionate towards ourselves and others. It is possible that through this compassion we can all start to care more about the future and that will be enough to change our day to day decision making enough to ensure that there actually is a future for us to enjoy.

Comments (1)

  1. vdonnay


    In the United Nations Sustainability goals (, the #1 goal is no poverty. As you point out, that is a fundamental aspect of creating a sustainable world that works well for everyone.

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