conservation sustainability

Building a long term perspective

I was in a meeting with RSPB Scotland last week, and the subject of long term planning came up. As an example, they mentioned a project in Abernethy that has a particularly bold time scale.

The Abernethy Forest is the largest remaining pinewood forest in the Scottish Highlands. It’s home to a variety of wildlife, including capercaillie, wildcats and ospreys. The plan is to restore wetlands areas, replace plantation areas with natural forest, and expand the forest cover to its natural limit – almost double its size. Restoring and growing a forest is no quick task. The project plan runs for 200 years.

It’s a nice example of the ‘longer now‘ that Alex Evans calls for in his book The Myth Gap. Our culture isn’t very good at taking the long term view. Political terms are short and favour easy wins and quick fixes. Quarterly earnings reports keep companies’ focus on the near term, with shareholders looking for prompt action. The rapid advance of technology, the news cycle, fashion seasons, or the endless rolling of social media all give the impression of things moving fast. But many of the problems we face, from climate change to pensions deficits, occur over decades. That makes it hard to organise ourselves for things that don’t look urgent, if we can see the problem at all.

Take the issue of biodiversity loss. If we woke up tomorrow and found that half our local bird population was lying dead on our lawns, there’d be a crisis. If it happened over a lifetime, we wouldn’t notice. That’s exactly what has happened, and not just with birds. The world’s wildlife has halved since the 1970s, a startling fact that almost never gets mentioned. Soil is similar. We’ve lost half the world’s topsoil, but over 150 years – a time frame that’s hard to understand or take responsibility for.

If we are to put any of these things right – restoring fish stocks, transitioning to renewable energy, building sustainable homes, replanting lost forests – we will need a long term perspective. We’ll need to be able to look beyond the immediate cost, and expect to reap rewards over time. In some cases, we will have to take actions that will only benefit future generations.

How do we foster a longer time perspective? Slowly, naturally. There’s no shortcut to deep cultural change, however urgent it may be. A big part of it is going to be conversations, and projects like the Abernethy Forest are good excuses to talk about the longer future. So let’s tell people about it. And if you want to back the Abernethy project as a symbolic gesture towards that long term perspective, you can contribute here.


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