Decades, centuries and millennia – ways of thinking about the future

Decades, centuries and millennia – ways of thinking about the future

We spend our time thinking about, living in, and helping our clients prepare for the future. But what do we mean by future? SAMI’s origins, as a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell (now Shell plc) and St Andrews University, do not only inform our academically rigorous approach to our work. They also give us a preferred maximum horizon – scenarios in the oil and gas industry need to understand energy demand in the context of investment, exploration, exploitation and return, so they are necessarily long-term. 50-100 years is not unusual, though we find ourselves working more in periods up to 50 years at present.

We have written before about the cone of plausibility “– which states, essentially, that the further away from the origin point one goes, the more possibilities are enshrined in the future. Whilst the most likely future travels through the middle of the cone, as it expands away from the origin the cone widens, as the range of possible futures expands.”

This of course is one of the reasons clients prefer to use shorter time horizons – the range of possible futures expands beyond a manageable amount after a reasonably short period. But what if we want to think about time periods centuries hence?

Initiatives such as the Clock of the Long Now and Long Player show one way of doing that. The Clock of the Long Now is designed to keep accurate time for 10,000 years. Long Player is a single, unrepeating, musical composition designed to play for 1,000 years. What is their purpose? What do they bring to our work in looking forward and seeking to understand what futures we face? Over spans of 1,000 to 10,000 years, the level of uncertainty increases exponentially. Predictions become highly speculative, as they must account for unforeseeable technological advancements, societal shifts, and potentially even species evolution. The further we project into the future, the more our current understanding of science, culture, and technology may become obsolete.

There are clear differences in perspectives and challenges. In the medium term, our concerns are often about managing and mitigating current or foreseeable challenges such as climate change, technological disruptions, geopolitical shifts, and ensuring sustainable development. There’s a focus on addressing immediate threats to humanity’s survival and prosperity. Whereas in the very long term, concerns extend to existential risks that could threaten humanity’s long-term survival, such as asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, or future technological risks from advanced AI or unknown technologies. We start thinking about ensuring the long-term preservation of knowledge, culture, and biodiversity. Ethical considerations expand to include the stewardship of Earth and humanity itself.

And here we bang into two concepts which, while not generally used in day-to-day futures thinking, deserve more attention: longtermism and intergenerational ethics.

Longtermism, as a philosophical approach, emphasizes the importance of positively influencing the long-term future, focusing particularly on reducing existential risks that could jeopardize humanity’s potential. Because the future could contain a vast number of people, the welfare of these future individuals is of tremendous moral importance – and we need to act in their best interests. People like Nick Bostrum and Toby Ord at Oxford, and Martin Rees at Cambridge have produced a large, influential and valuable body of work. Whilst the headline grabber is the study of existential risk, impacting comets and war being more interesting than philosophy, apparently, the underlying concepts are equally important.

Longtermism may have more to teach us in its approach – in its interdisciplinary approach, its foundation in ethical reasoning, and in its direct engagement with policy and practice.

Longtermism and intergenerational equity are closely related concepts, but they are not exactly the same thing. Both address the importance of considering future generations in our current actions and decisions, but they approach this consideration from slightly different angles and with different emphases.

Intergenerational equity focusses on fairness and justice between generations, arguing that current generations have moral obligations to future generations. These obligations include not depleting resources, preserving the environment, and not imposing undue burdens (such as excessive debt or environmental degradation).

While longtermism and intergenerational equity cross over in their concern for future generations, longtermism is more specifically focused on the broad scope of the future and particularly on existential risks. Intergenerational equity, on the other hand, has a broader application, encompassing not only existential risks but also the day-to-day decisions and policies that affect the welfare of future generations in terms of resources, environment, and social justice. John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is used as an underpinning, as are the works of Edmund Burke (“Society is indeed a contract…it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Reflections on the Revolution in France) – but perhaps the most interesting is Henry Shue, whose work on climate change emphasises the rights of future generations not to suffer from the harmful effects which we could mitigate today.

Both concepts drive home the importance of extending our ethical concern beyond our immediate vicinity—temporally and spatially—to include those who will come after us.

So where does this take those of us whose horizons are shorter than the Clock of the Long Now, or even Long Player? Some valuable concepts, perhaps – expanding the temporal scope embeds a sense of responsibility towards those following us; the ethical underpinnings of both approaches remind us of the need to incorporate (or at least acknowledge) ethical frameworks in our work; and the emphasis on resource stewardship and sustainability is becoming increasingly significant even in our own time. The existential risks focus is one of the few places where futures studies sometimes plays directly – especially in climate change and conflict.

Whether we are futurists and span decades or longtermists who span millennia, our essential purposes are always the same – what is the best we can achieve, and how can we prepare for the worst that may happen? We clearly have things to learn from each other: after all, longtermists get to their future through us; and we hope our futures pave the way for theirs.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

Featured image by nugroho dwi hartawan from Pixabay

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *