The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time by Richard Fisher - review by Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Stop All the Clocks

The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time


Wildfire 352pp £25

This is a war book. It’s about the struggle for a view of time that gives us a chance of survival. It’s immaculately researched, splendidly written and an antidote to despair. Richard Fisher dissects the reasons for our short-termism, concluding that a shift to long-termism is not only vital but possible as well. It is self-evident that most modern governments and corporations are short-termist and that this is dangerous. Read any newspaper. 

In the West, Christian eschatology is central to psychology and politics. Jesus and Paul both expected this world to end imminently. As time passed and the world continued, the daily expectation of apocalypse was cautiously revised. The revision is apparent in the great, confident religious monuments of Christendom. Work began on Wells Cathedral around 1175 and continued until 1490. Its architects and craftsmen trusted in and worked for a future they knew they would never see. Time in the ecclesiastical world had always been linear, and the line looked as if it would go on for a while yet.

Outside the cloisters, daily life was mostly cyclical. The seasons turned; plants sprang up and fell down again, just like humans. But by the 17th century, says Fisher, change was in the air. Linear time started to become the commercial and cognitive norm. The old cycles were the preserve of farmers. The idea of progress made its way into life and thought, and a future that was different from the past became imaginable. The practice of statistical prognostication began. Life insurance was sold in Amsterdam. 

In the second half of the 18th century, the deep past was discovered in the rocks. Deep time could be seen; you could even go for a walk on it. When the sun’s life span was found to be several billion years, the doomsters’ stock fell even further. There were

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RLF - March