From the marshmallow mind to Citizens’ Assemblies

MANY argue that short termism is the curse of representative government. The Taliban, for example, famously said when troops entered Afghanistan in 2001 that while the invaders had watches ‘we have time’. The Chinese have a similar long-term view. But in representative governments everything is geared to the short term – from our electoral cycles to the machinations of the marketing and social media giants who want us to act and buy NOW, even if it sends us into debt. We are dominated by the tyranny of the NOW and that has consequences for the way we deal with – or fail to deal with – climate change and the future itself.

For Roman Krznaricin inThe Good Ancestor our ‘societal attitude is one of tempus nullius: the future is seen as “nobody’s time”, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants’. But it doesn’t have to be like this. As Daniel Kahneman noted in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow while we do think short, we can also think long. This ability could be seen as Homo Sapiens’s greatest asset, along with its tendency to work collectively, an asset that eluded the Neanderthals who were probably more intelligent but less social. So, if our ability to think long-term is crucial to our success as a species, it is particularly perverse that it is being so actively undermined.

Krznaricin graphically describes these two aspects of our brains as Marshmallow versus Acorn.

The marshmallow or…
…the acorn

Obviously, it is the latter that he wishes to tap into rather more than we do. It’s a major problem because, as he writes ‘seeking the instant thrill of a dopamine rush…has been intentionally designed into the technology’ that we use. However, this phenomenon flies in the face of our evolution because, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we are ‘the ape that looks forward’.

Accordingly, what we need to do, according to Krznaricin, is recapture our sense of deep time from the dominant ideology that time is money that developed with the ‘growing merchant class in medieval Europe’. He also explores other ways of encouraging acorn thinking, including developing a legacy mindset, cathedral thinking or the art of planning into the distant future; developing a transcendent goal or lodestar for humanity like, for example, the idea that ‘human beings are not separate from the nature but a dependent part of the living planetary whole’ which can act as a ‘compass for humanity’.

One of the big ideas at the heart of the book – and there are a few – is what Krznaricin calls Holistic Forecasting as a way of helping shift our gaze beyond our immediate concerns. He is, of course, well aware that our ability to predict the future in our enormously complicated and fast moving world is limited. A 20-year old study by political scientist Philip Tetlock, for example, shows that predictions of experts from a range of organisations were ‘extremely inaccurate’.

However, Krznaricin is convinced that that is not the end of the matter. This is not necessarily a good thing because we know that the giant tech companies are able to use Big Data gleaned from our own use of the internet to predict our preferences and, ultimately, to manipulate those preferences in both the commercial and political worlds. But Krznaricin reckons there is one pattern that repeatedly pops up in human history that can be beneficial for humanity as a whole – the S-curve.

The S-curve

While the S-curve or sigmoid curve will not tell you specifics, it simply states that nothing grows for ever – and it expressly counters the dominant model that shows growth for ever.

It is in the light of the S-curve that Krznaricin argues for what he calls the ‘transformation path’ in which the aim is to ‘safeguard and promote conditions to allow the flourishing of life on Earth for generations to come’ in a ‘world where the old institutions of representative democracy and growth-dependent economies lose their dominant position and replaced by the new political, economic and cultural forms’. Of course, the relevance of this kind of thinking is shown up starkly during the COP26 talks Glasgow.

Krznaricin suggests a number of ways to get to where we need to be to shift from marshmallow to acorn thinking including ecological and cultural – but one of his most interesting sections is on what he calls ‘deep democracy’. In particular he calls for ‘time rebellion’ to be the ‘vanguard rebel movement to reinvent’ or perhaps to create for the first time a fully functioning democracy. He splits this movement into four: 1 – The guardians of the future who ‘represent and safeguard the interests of disenfranchised youth and future generations’; 2 – Intergenerational rights which involve legal ‘mechanisms to guarantee the rights and well-being of future generations’; 3 – Self-governing city states and; 4 – Citizens’ Assemblies, which is, of course something that Salisbury Democracy Alliance has been campaigning for for years.

As Krznaricin writes: “The rise of citizens’ assemblies signals an extraordinary development in the history of modern democracy: a revival of the ancient Athenian model of participatory democracy.” He points out that citizens’ assemblies are an ‘exercise in slow-thinking, allowing participants the time and space to learn about and reflect on long-term issues facing society’.

He describes his book as being hopeful rather than optimistic but it can be difficult even to be hopeful when one sees the myopia of government and the corporate world. But we have to hold on to the fact that sometimes things do change. Look at the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Look closer to home to see how the Vienna Circle including Hayek and Mises were political outliers for 30 years or so until the political door opened with Thatcher and Reagan.

We have to hold on to the belief that change is possible, which is why Salisbury Democracy Alliance continues to fight for a Citizens’ Jury in Salisbury. We are the Time Rebels!

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1 Comment

  1. Dear Berggolts and/or Dickie,

    Discussing the discussion-side  of Democracy is all very well; and
    citizen juries etc., are doubtless capable of improving upon
    representative methods in various ways. But if you only deal with the
    discussion part of it (call it by the flattering name of “legislation”?)
    but it is still only hot air – unless you include in Democracy the
    aspects concerned with Power and Influence. Influence (that is the
    press, broadcasting and nowadays the Social Media) decides What is
    discussed, as well as the Terms of Discussion (and the influence may be
    in private, unelected hands). Power (that is Money, in private hands
    again, especially since Margaret Thatcher handed so much Power over the
    workings of the short-term practical economy to the Financiers) is the
    Implementation of the Discussion which we first spoke of. Democracy is
    only worth talking about, no matter by how many unpronounceable
    philosophers, if it is taken to embrace Discussion: and Influence: and
    Power. Just a view ! Yours ever, Christopher (Browne).


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