For all we like to pat ourselves on the back for being visionary, people are pretty myopic. Maybe it’s the monkey brain in all of us. We have a hard time considering the long-term consequences of our actions, especially when the short-term gains seem so tantalizing. So, we often make decisions that come back to bite us later on. Today, I’d like to share three stories of people and groups that find themselves in just these situations—situations in which there was a lack of foresight.
My first story is a personal one. Back in high school, I was taking a Spanish class about literature and culture in Spain. As one would expect, this was a writing-intensive course, and indeed, our final paper due in April was an important one. I was not particularly worried, as I had done well in the first semester and liked the subject of the essay. It was only five pages, anyway.
In the same month, I was to go on an exchange trip to Costa Rica. The paper was due right after, so it was heavily suggested that we finish and hand in the paper before leaving. Of course, due to my lack of foresight, I did not do this. I figured there would be downtime while I was in Costa Rica, and I could clean it up the day I got back before it was due. Feeling confident, I didn’t even start the paper before leaving.
What I didn’t account for was how busy the trip would be and how bad the internet was. I faced so many barriers that I didn’t even work on the paper while abroad. Reflecting back, this isn’t a surprise at all, but I was beside myself at the time. Needless to say, I did not perform well on that paper (nor the class in total), despite being genuinely interested in the material.
The second story is about a now-famous experiment performed in the 1960s. A Stanford professor of psychology was interested in the idea of delayed gratification. To test its effects, he rounded up a group of children and gave each of them this predicament: he would leave them alone with a marshmallow and return back in a few minutes with another. If they ate the first marshmallow in his absence, they would not get the second. If they resisted the temptation to eat it, however, they would be allowed to eat both.
Of course, there were many children who couldn’t resist the sweet temptation, but some were able to do so. Years later, this professor followed up with these (former) children to study the state of their life. Through this, he drew conclusions about the benefit of a respect for delayed gratification, for waiting on that second marshmallow. Now, this specific experiment has drawn much criticism. The specific experiment with the children still evokes a similar idea, though: those children not looking ahead got a lesser reward and a feeling of regret for their actions.
Finally, I’d like to end on a story that’s still going on, one in which we all made and are making some foolish decisions. As a global community, we have screwed our planet. There are many committing themselves to fixing this, of course, and people are still hopeful we are minutes away from midnight, rather than irreversibly ruined at the stroke of 12. However, even with efforts like the Paris Agreement, it is too late for some things. Just because there are still ice-caps now does not mean that they will stay, even if we all stopped emitting so many greenhouse gases. According to recent research, we have already committed ourselves to a significant sea level rise over the coming decades through the emissions we have already released. How about that for unintended consequences?
In all three of these stories, the message is the same. We must work harder to plan ahead, even if these plans don’t go on to benefit us directly in the present. If not, the greed of our actions will come back to punish us later on. We have to make hard decisions and choose the better option, even if it incurs cost or backlash now. We need some damn foresight, simple as that.
Peter Fenteany is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.