Walter Mischel was a Stanford professor around 1970 when he conducted the well-known marshmallow test on delayed gratification. Children between the ages of 4 and 6 were given a choice; they could have one marshmallow immediately (but in some cases a cookie or pretzel), but if they were willing to wait 15 minutes, they could double their bounty. Each child was left alone in the room with the treat and the researchers timed how long before they succumbed. Some of the kids would cover their eyes with their hands or look away to avoid temptation. Others would kick the table or tug on their hair. About a third ate the first marshmallow right away. Another third waited 15 minutes and were awarded a second treat. Others squirmed and tried to resist but gave in to temptation before the 15 minutes were up. As the years passed, Mischel noted that the children who were able to wait were often more successful in life. They got better grades and scored higher on standardized tests. They appeared to be happier and less troubled.
There is a parallel between the marshmallow test and the decisions our policy makers make about the environment. Some leaders choose to ignore or discount the future impact of climate change, pollution, and resource depletion arguing that taking action would damage the economy. These leaders look mostly at the short-term and are like the children who immediately ate the marshmallow. Other thought leaders consider a broader perspective that looks far into the future and considers the welfare of all people, including future generations. These leaders are more like the children who were able to wait and receive a second treat. In the same way that the children who were able to delay gratification were more successful in life, the earth will be more successful in meeting the needs of future generations if we consider the long-term impact of our decisions.
Each of us views the Earth through a different lens that depends to some extent on our lot in life. A starving mother in Somalia has a very narrow perspective, both in terms of time and space. Her world consists of her and her child and their cramped quarters. A few other relatives or friends may be in her circle if they can help her find food or better shelter. She lives day-to-day which matches her temporal outlook on the world. Expecting her to envision the world 100 years from now or to consider the welfare of the entire world’s population is not reasonable.
Developing countries like India and China have a more expansive perspective, but it is still quite limited. Their time horizon extends for several years and their spatial horizon includes their city and neighborhood. Most of us in the United States and other developed countries have a broader perspective, but still not global. We are more mobile so our world consists of our house, car, school, office, theatre, and shops. We may travel so we have some appreciation of other countries. Our view of time is also longer. We understand the mortgage on our house and when our car payments will end, we plan for our kid’s college education, and we may even set aside some funds for retirement, but we think very little about how generations a century or more from now will live. Many of us are workaholics and focus most of our attention on the job at hand, the social complexities at work, and other rather narrow concerns.
A learned or philosophical perspective looks at the whole world and considers the welfare of many generations into the future. It is very difficult to take this perspective when we are struggling to make ends meet. It is a view of the world that most of us are able to appreciate only when we live a comfortable and risk-free life, but to be good environmental stewards, we need to expand our perspective, both in terms of time and space. We have to think globally and we have to consider the impact of our actions far into the future. We have to think about the world we will leave for the next many generations. This is a view very rarely taken by our political leaders, many of whom can only see as far as the next election.
Donella Meadows and her coauthors provide a diagram of human perspectives which I have adapted below. This is certainly a cartoon like simplification. There are certainly those in developing countries who share the erudite perspective and likewise, there are many who live in developed countries that view the world through a narrow lens in terms of time and space.
My personal perspective is that of an engineer and architect who has spent most of his career thinking about how to make our buildings more energy efficient. I understand our currently inefficient and wasteful ways and the potential to design our homes and businesses to have a much smaller energy and environmental impact. My travels, mostly related to business, have taken me to dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. I have seen how the rich live and I have had a few glimpses at the bottom of the pyramid.
Through this fairly privileged lens, I see a world with 7 billion people, many of whom live in poverty and with barely enough food to survive. I see that in the last 100 years the United States and other developed countries have used well over half of the Earth’s endowment of oil and gas while increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in our common atmosphere by 43%. Water which is the life-blood of our civilization is becoming more scarce and polluted. In the United States, our farm lands are being paved over by cul-de-sacs and 4,000 ft² single family homes that require an oil-powered car trip to meet just about any need. The farm land that remains is being pumped full of chemicals, many of which are running into our rivers, flowing to the ocean and creating a dead area in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut. Our landfills are reaching capacity as we buy products that can’t be repaired when they break and come with packaging that in many instances weighs more than the product itself. Like the fertilizers used to grow our grain, much of the plastic and other waste (about 25%) ends up in ocean creating five large trash vortexes or gyres, the largest of which is a 100 feet deep with an area roughly the size of Texas. This one is located in the North Pacific Ocean.
This sounds like a dismal situation we find ourselves in, and it is pretty grim. But it is not too late to do something about it. Zero net-energy buildings are one solution that is easy to implement, although they will require that we all take a more global and long-term look at the world, especially our lawmakers and corporate titans, who wield the most influence. Because of my perspective and lens, the solutions that I offer are mostly related to our built environment, which consists of our homes, offices, and stores, but also the pattern in which they are distributed around the Earth which affects the transportation, infrastructure and other services that are needed to support them. But, improving our built environment is not the only solution nor will it be enough to stabilize our planet. We need to also manage our solid waste, keep our rivers and lakes clear and fresh, and retain as much farmland as we can while preserving the rich soils that nature has provided us.
The common thread through all of these solutions is to take a more erudite perspective that expands both time and space.
Donella Meadows, et. al., The Limits to Growth, 1972 and the Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update, 2004.
Outsmart Waste, the Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of It, Tom Szaky, 2014.