What we owe the future

I just finished reading What we owe the future by philosopher William MacAskill. And it blew my mind.

This book is all about longtermism, or how we today can affect the positive outlook for mankind for thousands of years to come. Even though times are very grim today, this book showed me that it’s probably going to be alright in the end.

Future people count, but we rarely count them. They cannot vote or lobby or run for public office, so politicians have scant incentive to think about them. They can’t bargain or trade with us, so they have little representation in the market. And they can’t make their views heard directly: they can’t tweet, or write articles in newspapers, or march in the streets. They are utterly disenfranchised.

What We Owe the Future (p. 15).

At the beginning of this book, you’re asked to imagine living through all persons who have ever walked this earth. You’re then told that if humanity lasts as long as a typical mammal, you’ll still have 99.5% of your life ahead of you.

That’s something this book is excellent at. It puts things in perspective. While reading, you’ll feel tiny as a speck of dust, and at the same time very empowered to be able to have a (albeit it might be tiny) effect on the future lives of humankind.

There will be plenty of challenges ahead of us: climate change, the rise of A.I. and nuclear weapons, to name a few. But we are now at a unique period in time when we can tackle these challenges.

I won’t make this a book report. But I want to share some things William MacAskill thinks can affect the future of mankind:

  • Philanthropy: if you have the money to spare, give it to good causes. Even though changing your consumption (for example by not eating meat) is undeniably good, making donations to good causes has more impact. Doing both is of course even better. William MacAskill’s other book Doing Good Better is all about this.
  • Work: what you do for work can dramatically affect the future. Rethink your career path often.
  • Have children: this one is a bit controversial, but in the not-so-far future, population will start to decrease a lot. In 500 years, population would fall to less than 100 million. Less population means less scientists, fewer scientists mean the chances for technological stagnation are huge. He argues that the positive effects (both for the child and the world) of bringing a child into the world hugely outweigh the negative effects on the world.
  • Political activism: keep an interest in politics, and most importantly: vote.
  • Spread good ideas: read, educate yourself, and tell people about it.

There’s a lot of theory in this book, which might not make it the best bedside literature. But I can highly recommend reading it, it will change your outlook forever, and make you more optimistic about where we are heading.


And if you don’t believe me, here are some quotes of more famous people:

This is a book of great daring, clarity, insight and imagination. To be simultaneously so realistic and so optimistic, and always so damned readable … that is a miracle for which MacAskill should be greatly applauded.

Stephen Fry

An optimistic look at the future that moved me to tears.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

This book will change your sense of how grand the sweep of human history could be, where you fit into it, and how much you could do to change it for the better.

Ezra Klein

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