This book is about the decisions we make as individuals and collectively that have great consequences for our lives and the lives of others, the decisions we may come to regret or celebrate. It is especially about decisions that are reckless—when we ignore clear signs of opportunity or danger in the future. Through close investigation of such decisions across many contexts, I have discovered the untapped power we have to make wiser choices.
Decisions involve both information and judgment—whether we make them alone or in groups. The judgment to make smart choices about the future is what I call foresight. To exercise foresight is different from seeing the future like the mythical prophet Cassandra, said to have predicted the fall of Troy. Volumes of research projects and books have been devoted to mimicking her clairvoyance—or at least to more accurately predicting the future. But too few have helped us develop the judgment we need to make decisions about the future. To exercise foresight is to weigh what we know—and also what we don't know—about what lies ahead, making the best call not just for the present but for the sake of our future selves. It's the difference between knowing it will rain at tomorrow's soccer game and actually bringing an umbrella.
I argue in this book that many decisions are made in the presence of information about future consequences but in the absence of good judgment. We try too hard to know the exact future and do too little to be ready for its many possibilities. The result is an epidemic of recklessness, a colossal failure to plan ahead. To correct course, we need to hone our foresight.
Many people today want to act on behalf of the future more than we actually do. We long to think past the fleeting instant of a text message, and for our lives to have meaning as a stitch in the long, intricate fabric of time. We aspire to do right by future generations and to be viewed by them with admiration, or at least without disgust. We suspect that if we could learn to think ahead, we might have more money, live healthier, and better protect our families from danger. Businesses could earn more profits, communities could thrive, and civilizations could avoid foreseeable catastrophes. We might even better steward forests, rivers, and oceans for posterity.
Yet people today are struggling to weigh future consequences, whether in our daily lives or in humanity's highest endeavors. It is hard to sacrifice for a delayed reward and easy to indulge now, even if it means courting later disaster. The more distant the consequences of our decisions, the more difficult it becomes to exercise wisdom about them.
Acting for the sake of the future is easiest when we do it for ourselves and it does not require much immediate sacrifice. Brushing your teeth twice a day is a small price to pay now to prevent a root canal or dentures. Writing a will might take a few hours of your time once every few years, but concern for your family overshadows the inconvenience. The more time and money you have, the easier it is to plan ahead, for instance, by buying health insurance or helping your kids with homework. The more control and certainty you have that your choices will make a difference, moreover, the more likely you are to act for the future.
When we're looking forward to something—a picnic with friends, a vacation, a wedding day—most people find it easier to imagine the future. We want to see ourselves in that moment, and so we let our minds wander there when we have the time. But when we dread something—doing our taxes, getting older, the rising seas, or a coming refugee crisis—most of us don't want to inhabit the future. Even if we fixate on it, we often find it anxiety-inducing or even paralyzing, because we wish it were not coming at all.
When it comes to making sacrifices now to get ready for eventual earthquakes in a community, to invest in future inventions for an industry, or to prevent overharvesting fish as a society, choosing the future is especially difficult. To act on behalf of our future selves can be hard enough; to act on behalf of future neighbors, communities, countries, or the planet can seem impossible, even if we aspire to that ideal. By contrast, it is far easier to respond to an immediate threat. This helps explain why, for instance, countries of the world failed to prevent the Ebola epidemic of 2014 that eventually killed more than ten thousand people—when it would have cost millions of dollars less to invest in vaccine research and medical facilities than it did to react to the deadly outbreak after it emerged.
But why, exactly, is it so hard to act for the sake of the future, even when we hope to make it better?
For one, we can't smell, touch, or hear the future. The future is an idea we have to conjure in our minds, not something that we perceive with our senses. What we want today, by contrast, we can often feel in our guts as a craving....