The Good Ancestor summary

The Good Ancestor looks at how we can leave the world a better place for unborn generations. It’s a concept we don’t consider that much, but an important one nonetheless.

We are custodians of the planet and it’s important to leave it in a good state when we pass the baton to the next generation. Unfortunately, with climate change and political upheaval across the globe, we’re not meeting this standard.

It’s likely, the world our children and grandchildren inherit will look a lot different from the one we know now and the one we grew up in.

This The Good Ancestor summary looks at the key features of this brilliant book by Roman Krznaric. Namely, how we can think about long time instead of just in there here and now.

Plus, how to leave the world in a place where our offspring and theirs can prosper. The Good Ancestor is a remarkable book and one which might change the way you look at time and your relationship with the planet.

The Good Ancestor summary

  • 1-sentence summary: The Good Ancestor implores us to reject short-term thinking and think long-term to build a better future.
  • Author: Roman Krznaric
  • Year published: 2020
  • Pages: 323
  • Rating: 9/10

Takeaway 1 – We need to think long-term

One of the biggest flaws of modern times is our inability to look beyond the present. sure, there are some organisations that do, such as the Long Now Foundation, but they are in the minority.

Most of our discourse surrounds the here and now, not what will happen 50 or 100 years from now. The scary thing is, most of us accept this as normal.

Yet, it’s this short-term thinking which risks our survival as a species. The coronavirus pandemic may not lead to our extinction but it shows how bad we are at anticipating potential problems.

A pandemic was always going to happen at some point. When it did, we were unable to rein it in and the result has been catastrophic for people and economies across the globe.

Looking into the future, it’s not hard to anticipate the threats and problems we will face. Climate change, AI, democratic backsliding and nuclear war are all major threats. As is the possibility of another pandemic.

Should we fail to take these threats seriously and build a society that is fair and just, we will risk leaving a world which is worse to live in than the one we inhabit.

Rutger Bregman expresses similar sentiments in Utopia For Realists. We have the tools to build a better world but we always have the moral responsibility to do so too.

If we focus on the short-term, without looking to the future we risk condemning ourselves and future generations to unnecessary suffering. Anyone with a conscience can see that’s unforgivable.

Takeaway 2 – We should build for the future

If you take a trip to most European cities, one of the things you’ll notice is the grandeur of cathedrals. I spent 3 days in Cologne a few years ago and the cathedral there is one of the most impressive I’ve seen.

It towers above you and is an impressive monument where work first took place in 1248 and wasn’t completed to its original medieval plan until 1880!

La Sagrada Familia is similar. Although it’s not taken as long to build as the cathedral in Cologne, it’s still over 100 years since work first started and it’s scheduled to be completed in 2026.

Both of these striking buildings are examples of what Krznaric calls cathedral thinking. That is, projects with an emphasis on the long-term.

The designers of both buildings will have realised they were never going to see their designs in their finished guise. Instead, they were building monuments for future generations to enjoy. Monuments which would stand the test of time.

Whatever your view of religion, there’s no doubt they’ve been proved correct. These buildings will likely remain standing for many more years to come too.

Today, we’ve lost this desire to think and build long-term. Do we consider future generations when we erect new monuments, houses or design new parks?

Sometimes, but a lot of times we don’t. This leads to short-term decisions which destroy ecosystems and ruin communities. An example in my own city is the Roman amphitheatre which rediscovered while building a ring road in the city centre.

It was only rediscovered because the road was designed to go across it! Thankfully, the road was re-routed, but this was only due to efforts to save the amphitheatre.

Even today, only half of it is excavated. It’s worth noting this is the biggest Roman amphitheatre in the UK too.

To be good ancestors we need to build for the future. Not just in the near future, but in the long-term. Moving away from short-term outlooks and what will benefit humanity, in the long run, is the way to do this.

Takeaway 3 – We need to defend democracy to be good ancestors

The past few years have not been great for democracy. As the authors of How Democracies Die explain, the election of Trump has led to democratic backsliding and emboldened autocrats around the world.

One of the criticisms of democracy is the length of time it takes to make changes. This is a legitimate concern, but it doesn’t take a holistic view.

We have democracies to debate change as just because one person demands change doesn’t mean it will benefit everyone. The pros and cons are put to a debate before a vote is held to pass or reject the proposal.

If a government could wave through every piece of legislation it wanted, you end up in a situation where they can become tyrannical with no check on their power. Think of the Nazis or absolute monarchies.

Some figures such as the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees have advocated for a benign dictator. One who wields immense power but uses it for good.

I can understand the appeal of such an idea but I fear it’s more wishful thinking than what would happen in reality.

Instead, Krznaric argues we just set up commissions which look into tailoring legislation for the long-term. This could be combined with citizens assemblies which give people a voice and allow them to be consulted on changes and present their findings to the government.

Decentralisation of governance could also lead to more productive results. with local people able to affect policy at a local level in a way that benefits them. Rather than diktat being imposed from on top, legislation would be cooked up from below.

It’s tempting to think the solutions of tomorrow will require less democracy. But, those problems will be better faced with more rather than less democracy.

Favourite quotes

  • “In later years, Salk expressed his philosophy of life in a single question: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ He believed that just as we have inherited so many riches from the past, we must also pass them on to our descendants.”
  • “We are so busy living in the present, caught in the short now of work deadlines and instant messaging, that the idea of being just one link in a vast chain of humanity that stretches through cosmological time might feel hard to grasp. Our individualistic culture of self-help and ‘looking after number one’ makes it even more challenging. The result is to rupture our intergenerational ties and shrink our time horizons to the present tense. If we think of leaving a legacy at all, it is generally limited to just one or two generations from today, and within the boundaries of our family tree.”
  • “This may be the ultimate historical lesson of the Great Stink: that radical long-term planning can be kickstarted by a crisis. It is the essence not of cathedral thinking but what I think of as ‘sewer thinking’. Sometimes nothing but a crisis can shake dominant actors and institutions out of their slumber.”
  • “In 1787, anti-slavery campaigners in Britain produced a poster called ‘The Brookes Slave Ship’, showing how 482 slaves could be squeezed on board in utterly inhumane conditions. The image went viral. Soon there were tens of thousands of copies pinned up in pubs, churches, coffee houses and homes around the country. It was one of the most influential pieces of graphic design in history, helping to publicise and galvanise the successful movement against slavery and the slave trade. We urgently need today’s creative minds to produce works that electrify the struggle for intergenerational justice and a longer now.”
  • “As a thinking tool, one of the powers of the S-curve is that it challenges the deepest assumption of our prevailing Enlightenment culture: that growth and progress will continue indefinitely.”

The Good Ancestor review

This The Good Ancestor summary has looked at this excellent book on how to think long-term. I was expecting a good read and I wasn’t disappointed.

The book does a good job of presenting the idea of the long now and how we can benefit the generations of the future. This is presented with ways we can do this and the steps we need to take to get there.

Think of it as a kind of guidebook for how to build a better society for us and those to come. Alongside Doughnut Economics, which coincidentally is written by Kate Raworth, Krznaric’s partner, this book offers plenty of solutions to the problems we face today.

We undoubtedly live in precarious times and if we don’t get a handle on climate change, the future could look bleak. The Good Ancestor doesn’t profess to offer readymade solutions for this.

But it does highlight how we can take steps to ensure we’re building a better world. One that will we better shape when we slip off this mortal coil.

Who should read The Good Ancestor?

If you want to learn more about the concept of long now and long time, this is a brilliant book to read, which explains the concept.

Anyone who is interested in social justice, climate change or the future, will enjoy this book too.