In Praise of Short-Termism

Posted on September 21, 2012

It’s fashionable, especially among the environmentally concerned, to knock short-termism.

But as we look around us, we can see that this fashion is merely conceptual. In our everyday lives we still largely focus on today. Very few of us have made practical, everyday choices to limit our lifestyle significantly today in order to preserve something for the future. In today’s world, many find it difficult enough to do that with matters that are actually important in their own lives. Savings remain low relative to spending. The number of people who choose not to plan for their retirement remains high. In such an environment how practical and meaningful are calls to limit our experiences today in order to ‘preserve the planet’ for unknown future generations?

Today’s easy game is to blame politicians for playing to the short term needs of the political cycle. Or to castigate businesses for being concerned with the next quarter’s earnings. But the problem does not lie with these institutions we criticize. The real issue lies with those who live in some fantasy land where the short term should be sacrificed for the long term. Not only is this impractical, it is unreasonable. It confuses short-termism with being short-sighted.

There is no point in promising people that they can eat tomorrow if they cannot survive until tomorrow by not having food for today.  When activists argue for looking to the long term, they are doing only half the job. Our focus should be on looking after both the long term AND the short term – not sacrificing one for the other. And, if there is a conflict, it is as well to accept that short term considerations will always win – and, indeed, should win because there is no tomorrow without today. We need to be short-termist while not becoming short-sighted.

My plea is that we abandon talk of ‘looking after the long term’ and, instead, make sure we offer people short term success while also investing and planning for longer term success as much as possible. Focusing exclusively on the long term is setting the bar too low.

Politicians and businesses do exactly that. They do maintain a long term focus but they do so while ensuring that the short term does not escape their grasp. After all, a politician may be interested in the long term but he’s a less useful politician if he doesn’t get elected when the next election cycle comes round. Similarly a business is not much good having planed for the long term if it goes bankrupt this year.

We cannot get to the long term without the short term. Environmental platforms need to ensure that people are offered short term benefits as well as long term ones.  Otherwise the job is only half done and will likely not get us anywhere.