Fulcrum Ruminations

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Fulcrum's Fulcrum

To turn to a hoary old cliche, there are two kinds of people in the world . . .

No, scratch that. There are two philosophies in the world. Two basic schools of thought that govern all human affairs. Without further delay, I reveal these deep mysteries to you, gentle reader.

Short-term thinking and long-term thinking.

Forget Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, Capitalist and Communist, or any other duality you might have thought ran the world. It's really all about the short-term vs the long-term.

As with all things, there is overlap between the two. Even the most committed practitioner of long-term thinking must pay attention to the short term. After all, a guy's gotta eat, right?

The problem is that short-term thinking is absolutely endemic to our species. Most people, left to their own devices, will focus almost exclusively on what they perceive to be their best short-term interests and give little (if any) thought to the long term.

We could debate where the short term ends and the long term takes over, but fortunately I already have that figured out for us. When speaking of human affairs, the long term is anything more than a year away. Most people take the year as their longest interval of measure, consciously or unconsciously. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving (in the US) and so forth. This is the rhythm to which they dance.

Politicians have a slightly longer interval, which coincides with their election cycle. Rare is the politician who can think past their next election. Business types are on a shorter cycle . . . as near as I can tell, it's driven by the quarterly profit-and-loss statement.

Now for most affairs, this is not a problem. Basic survival demands short-term actions. You have to eat your meals, pay your bills, and like that. All well and good.

The problem is, focusing on all that means that you don't see the long-term consequences of your actions. Example: young people who take up smoking because "it's cool" or because of peer pressure or whatever. In the short term it's basically harmless, but as years of breathing in toxic fumes go by, the problems appear. Shortness of breath, yellow teeth, smelly skin, cancer, mounting expenses, on and on. All eminently predictable, all completely avoidable, all ignored for that short-term nicotine rush.

On a larger scale, it's short term thinking that gives us things like global warming (we need our conveniences NOW, dammit!), pollution, deforestation, and gasoline at $2.15 a gallon.

Global warming is a good example. It's not hard to see that dumping tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is not a good idea. Scientific evidence has been mounting for at least the last two decades that we're having an effect on world climate patterns. There's evidence that the ocean thermal conveyor that regulates temperature extremes and has kept us out of an ice age is weakening because of things we human beings are doing.

But the short term economic dislocations that would accompany doing anything about this are judged to be too severe to risk, even tho the longer we wait the worse things will be. Basically we'd have to take the world off of the oil standard (which would have a trickle-down effect like nobody's ever seen, what with all the problems petroleum dependency causes) in order to fix it.

The oil companies, fixated on short-term profits, expend considerable resources to make sure that no competing technologies knock them off of their perch. If they could think long term, they'd realize that they are in an ideal position to usher in an alternative fuel economy since they already have the institutional knowlege of the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute that fuel.

Aside - the best alternative is hydrogen, which is abundant, produces no toxic waste, and is easily produced and stored.

If Exxon-Mobile et al stopped obstructing non-petroleum fuel, they could reap the rewards of being the ones to bring in the solution to a lot of problems. They'd also get all the warm-n-fuzzies from being "green" and for at least giving the impression that they were concerned with more than profit.

Another example, perhaps a bit easier to relate to for the young'uns.

P2P music distribution such as Naptser and its clones. The recording industry is fighting tooth and nail to kill this technology. If there was one working brain amongst the pack of weasels that runs that business, they'd have been out in front of the digital wave reaping enormous benefits by making their product available for, say, a dollar a song. Instead, they didn't understand the new medium that is the Web and ignored it until they perceived that it was eating into their profit.

Aside - it's been pointed out that P2P hasn't had near the effect on sales of CDs as has CD piracy and their own high prices for bad products, but that's a subject for a future Fulcrum article.

Anyway, the point is that by concentrating on short-term issues, the music industry missed the long-term trend of digital distribution of music over a new medium (the web) and are slowly stupiding themselves out of business.

You can apply this model to virtually any human enterprise and see the distinction between what the short-term fixation is causing and what the long-term view makes evident.

I will leave you now to contemplate this idea. I might post more about it at some future date, as I ponder the matter.

Just remembe that each of you is the fulcrum of this particular issue. Do you think of the immediate above all else, or do you grasp the long-term consequences of your actions?

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