The Good Ancestor: Review

The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking

Roman Krznaric

The Experiment, 2020

The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric

A book that inspires reading is a good book. A book that inspires thought is a better book. A book that inspires action is the best book of all. The Good Ancestor is the best book of all.

I doubt anyone would agree with everything Krznaric has to say. But I also doubt anyone would disagree with his main point: we need to give consideration to the future inhabitants of this planet. What we think, what we do, what we want — we need to put the long-term ahead of the short-term. Decisions need to be based on how they affect those who have no voice. We need to stop discounting the future if there is to be a future at all.

But… Krznaric is an urban intellectual, an actual philosopher (didn’t know those still existed). He is surrounded by more of the same. Not philosophers, but urban intellectuals. They share a world view; they share in privilege; they share lifestyles and habits. I am sure he’s never met a batty old New England farmer. Probably never met a barrio dweller. Likely never met a grocery check-out girl from the Midwest. I’m saying it may not be his fault that he seems a bit blind to reality here and there.

For one thing, though he repeatedly disavows nuclear energy and talks at length about our need to find energy sources that do not pollute, he never follows that thought through. One of his great fears is AI takeover (à la Matrix). But… even if we somehow forget that we can just turn off HAL 9000, HAL runs on electricity. A good deal of it. There is going to be much less of it in a world powered by renewables, and it’s all going to be intermittent. That is, HAL will be forced to power down every single day, if HAL exists at all.

Related to that, Krznaric does not address other resource use issues. He proposes that we stop robbing the future, that we learn to live within the ecological limits of this planet. (He does not say anything about how “we” of privilege are also robbing the poor in this present time to live beyond Earth’s means.) But he never once suggests that we need to change our lifestyles. In his mind, air travel will continue to exist. The internet will still be vast and ubiquitous and resource sucking. Plastics will still proliferate. People will still live in dense urban centers — places that meet exactly none of our human needs so that everything must be packaged and shipped great distances. And there will be billions more people.

Moreover, nobody is going to suddenly decide to take up productive work like farming or craft or care work. His future assumes his class of consumers. He doesn’t even suggest the usual facile use-reduction hobbies like baking sourdough, knitting your own clothes, or gardening. Though he talks about Doughnut Economics (in fact, he is married to Doughnut-author, Kate Raworth), he doesn’t ever come out and say “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” — which sort of seems critical to a circular economy that meets everyone’s needs.

These all seem to be fallacious assumptions with respect to living within the Earth’s ecological limits. In fact, when he is discussing this issue he flatly dismisses the one path that specifically advocates for fitting our cultures within one-earth limits — that of deep adaptation. He seems to equate fixing our lives and our cultures so that it is possible to keep everyone’s resource use equitably within the boundaries of the present real world with prepper-ism. Urban intellectuals can not seem to distinguish between those who put solar panels on our roofs and grow as much of our own food as possible from those who build underground bunkers stocked with canned meat and automatic rifles. Both groups tend to live “out there” beyond the city walls, and “out there” does not provide a great deal of scope for urban intellectuals. 

Now let’s move to the core prescription for long-term thinking. (We can dispense with the radical bit, because it’s just not.) Here are the thinking points: Deep-time humility, intergenerational justice, legacy mindset, transcendent goals, holistic forecasting, and cathedral thinking. (Sounds rather like a TED Talk bullet list, which is to say, words that sound like they should mean something, but sort of routinely fail.)

Deep-time humility is recognizing that humans are an infinitesimal mote on the wheel of time. Humanity is not special nor even much necessary. The world has gotten on without us for most of its existence; it’s likely it will go on without us long into the future. Moreover, elite modern humans — the ones that have been causing all the problems — are a very small subset of humanity in both time and numbers. Humans have existed for hundreds of thousands of years; most of that time we were merely one species embedded in a world of billions. Krznaric encourages us to sit with this for a while, to let it permeate our perspective.

I have always been an advocate of this one. I’m a geologist. You can’t look at a rock cut and not feel pleasantly insignificant relative to the millions of years and billions of lives in a hand’s-breadth of rock layers. But I don’t think Krznaric goes far enough. This is the question he asks: “What have been your most profound experiences of deep time, and how did they affect you?” It might be me, but this sounds egocentric, which is an odd path to humility. Maybe this is the only way he knows how to reach an increasingly self-absorbed audience. Maybe writers must appeal to the ego to get people to read at all. I don’t know. But centering the question on personal response will not remove the personal from the question, and I think that’s what needs to happen if we are to cultivate humility. This is a Buddha quest — to subsume the self into the all that is bigger and more enduring. But selves are big things to urban intellectuals. So…

Intergenerational justice seems a given. “And justice for all” is what we pledge after all. (I’m intentionally ignoring the fact that most pledgers do not mean “all”). But here is the prompting question: “What, for you, are the most powerful reasons for caring about future generations?” And let me expand on that (hopefully without giving away too much) to say that Krznaric does not seem to think that caring about the denizens of the future is an impulse native to our species. This is an honest question for him, one that doesn’t have the obvious responses — “because they’re people”, “because they’re our children”, “because they’re us”.

I must be in polar opposition to his mindset; I can’t even comprehend not caring about future generations. In my darker moments I feel like I’m in a very small minority, but then I remember that there are a lot of parents on this planet. We all want good things for our kids. We want our kids to be able to have the lives that we had — or better. We want our kids to be able to want good things for their own kids. We want that to continue on for all the kids to come. Parents want intergenerational justice; we want the next generations to thrive just as we have. So maybe we have this one problem more or less covered. (In my very dark moments I think the problem here is that maybe men don’t, not instinctually, that it’s a learned thing for them. And that maybe many of them don’t learn.)

The next talking point is something Krznaric calls “legacy mind-set”. This is the question: “What legacy do you want to leave for your family, your community, and for the living world?” What mark do you want to leave? What will you bequeath to the future? There’s a tiny Christian gravestone next to this item in his graphical list of the big questions, if there are any questions as to his meaning.

Let me just say, you can not be humble and yet also preoccupied with the self-image that will carry on after you are dead. Also… most humans do not have the privilege of leaving a legacy. 

However, if you are an urban intellectual or of that socio-economic ilk, then perhaps you need to consider how to pass on that wealth in an equitable manner. Perhaps that means to your children; more likely it doesn’t. For one thing, how did you come to that position of wealth? Was it perhaps predicated on the poverty of others both in the past and the present? Almost certainly. Do you not then owe those people and their descendants a share in the wealth they helped create? Absolutely.

But if you are an average legacy-less human, maybe you can think of better things to pass on to the future. Things that have nothing to do with your self and everything to do with the needs of the future. Plant trees anonymously. Practice guerrilla gardening. Save seeds and promote diversity. Build useful things. And, best of all, teach! Teach anything and everything you know and can do to anyone and everyone who might find your knowledge and experience useful. Krznaric doesn’t ever say any of that. Not the admission of privilege (which is also tied to intergenerational justice, by the by) nor that there are many needful things people can do without money. Nor even that the goal isn’t commemoration of your good self but of passing on the good in the world to the future.

I don’t even want to touch “transcendent goals”. Those who know me know of my abhorrence of that word. I don’t want to transcend. I don’t want that to be a goal. I don’t want transcendence to exist as a concept. I want to be in this world, luxuriously embedded and firmly grounded. I don’t want humanity to rise above itself. I want humanity to be as good as itself. We’ve still got miles to go before we are the people we could be. 

But here’s the prompt: “What do you think should be the ultimate goal of the human species?” Really? Is there a goal? How about we say the goal is that all of us live good, healthy and whole lives and just leave it there. I think that’s enough to be going on with. And it neatly sidesteps all the ridiculous ideas Krznaric presents — colonizing space (as if we haven’t caused enough problems through colonization), uploading ourselves to the digital cloud (just… no), perpetual “progress” of the type that got us into this rolling multifarious catastrophe. To be fair, he dismisses this stuff, but maybe not with the vigor that these sort of white-guy fantasies deserve. And he really doesn’t do a good job of presenting an alternative goal.

His next idea is “holistic forecasting”. When I read that phrase, I think about being able to consider the whole complex muddle when you look forward in time. This is perhaps not what he means. The prompt is “Do you anticipate a future of civilizational breakdown, radical transformation, or a different pathway?”

For starters I don’t think the future will be any more (or less) exceptional than the present. Most humans will live their lives exactly as we do now and exactly as those in the past have for millennia. There isn’t going to be a big break in continuity that announces “Here be the future!”. Yes, things will fall apart. They are falling apart. They always have been falling apart. They have also always been coming together and growing. That’s what life is — a continual cycle of growth and disintegration. 

Will our modern culture continue on in perpetuity? No. None have. Will we recognize that our culture is no longer the same? Probably not. Or not without a good long stretch of hindsight. Medieval folks living on the Italian peninsula called themselves “Roman” long after there ceased to be any approximation of Roman culture in the world. Is there going to be some major cataclysmic eruption that changes the present into the future? No. There will be thousands of small to medium catastrophes just like there are now. There will be thousands of enlivening developments also. Does my opinion of how and when change will happen have any bearing on anything at all? Not really. Not even on how I choose to live. Because living to meet needs is not going to change.

And now to “cathedral thinking”. This is my favorite. I’m biased because this is how I have chosen to live my life. “What long-term projects could you pursue with others that extend beyond your own lifetime?” Too many to list, is my answer. Tree-planting is the top of the list though. Building out a human world that will fit within the planet’s ecology. Creating libraries. Regenerating soil. Making new ways to relate to each other and to distribute our resources. I don’t want to build cathedrals (or other phallic monuments). I want to make life. And life is a very long-term project.

Finally, I’d like to talk about two related irritants in this book. Both stem from a very narrow view of and rather limited experience with the world. First, he talks about the future as if it is not happening now. Take the example of living within one earth. He expresses the problem as “stealing from the future” and does not note that those of privilege and wealth are stealing from those living in the present and have been for many hundreds of years. High resource use among the wealthy is predicated on low resource use among the poor. Full stop.

Yes, we are using up resource stocks that will never be available to the future, but the “we” that is using is a very small group of people. And what we are using up isn’t available to anyone else — future or present, near or far. Moreover, he talks about the stresses that we are building into life on this planet as if nobody is feeling the effects already. Nor, it seems from his writing, will humans feel the effects for a while. This is the bias of privilege at its worst. He seems to be assuming that everybody in the world lives like he does — at his level of consumption and degree of insulation from the real world.

There are people whose homes and communities are already inundated by seawater. We are already 1.5° hotter than the climate our societies are built within and adapted to. We have already seen ocean acidification, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss on a scale that puts the last few decades on the same short list as the greatest periods of disruption of life that this planet has ever witnessed. The future is bloody well now for the majority of species and the majority of humanity. Yet, there is very little in Krznaric’s call for ethical living that extends consideration to those already suffering.

The second issue was alluded to above in discussing legacy. His Eurocentric and, to a lesser extent, male biases are, shall we say, indelicate. I know he would be shocked to hear this assessment. I am sure he views himself with all the socially liberal character traits that are typically embraced by urban intellectuals. Unfortunately, like many in his socio-economic group, he probably has more experience with the theory of inclusion than its practice. A gravestone with a cross on it is not a general illustration of the human experience. Maybe he didn’t choose that image, but he also did nothing to correct it and probably did not notice that it needed correction. 

This is an excellent (and literal) illustration of an undercurrent throughout the book — the assumption that his readers (at least) are like him in outlook and circumstance. I have talked about privilege above, but there is a more basic issue here. Consider the article in the title of the book (again maybe not his choice, but he does have input and yet…). The good ancestor, not A good ancestor. This title reduces all the paths to responsible living to one that Krznaric prescribes. And this limited path is found throughout the book.

Here is one example. He talks about the need to change the way people think and determines that religion will probably play a role. First, he uses that word — “religion” not “ethics” or “values” or even “belief” — which is an oddly imprecise choice of language for a philosopher. He briefly discusses the difficulties that Christianity and its intrinsic transcendentalism introduces into earth-based ethics. He mentions Buddhism as a possible path to whole-world moral thinking, but then seems to dismiss it as too much like self-abnegation for Westerners. Then he pivots to the idea of Earth-centric faiths — and completely ignores that there is such a thing already in existence. He draws the line at the more mystical ends of nature writing — a genre not notable for its inclusive character. That there are Pagan faiths who follow all the principles he advocates seems to have utterly escaped his notice. This seems to me to be a major omission, and it is part of a pattern. I can’t help but think that this would have been a better book if someone not of his socioeconomic troop had read the manuscript to help reduce these omissions and assumptions throughout the text.

You might have noticed that I’ve spent most of the last 3000 words disagreeing with Krznaric. So why do I call this the best book of all? First, he is engaging with a large number of readers. Anything that gets many humans to pick up a book and read critically is good. But he is also inspiring thought and action. This book demands consideration of your life and your ideas. You are required to think. There is no guarantee that your thoughts will align with his. I’m fairly certain he would be disappointed if they did. And as to action, well, here: I’ve written this rather long review. I’m hoping other people are applying the lessons they derive from this book in many other ways. I believe they will. So this is the best book of all.