Foresight: The Mental Talent That Shaped the World

Foresight: The Mental Talent That Shaped the World

At the start of 2020, a mother and her two daughters in Krefeld, Germany, wrote New Year’s wishes on six paper lanterns and let them fly. The sight of slowly rising sky lanterns, lit by candles inside, has seduced people throughout the ages. But as this family envisioned their future, they didn’t anticipate what would happen later that night.

The lanterns drifted away and eventually reached the monkey house in the Krefeld Zoo. The flames inside the lanterns set the buildings on fire – leaving dozens of primates, including two gorillas, five orangutans and a chimpanzee, to die in the ensuing fire.

Human foresight will never be 20:20. But that does not mean that we are doomed to repeat yesterday’s mistakes. We know that we cannot predict where our sky lanterns will land, and it is for good reason that they have been made illegal in so many countries.

Our minds can also recognize that many apparent human advances, motivated by our desires for a brighter future, come with not so harmless consequences: forests burn, glaciers melt, and biodiversity declines. We extract what we want from the planet and leave behind mountains of waste in return. Our waste can be found in the deepest ocean trenches and the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Human activity, driven by plots and plans, has affected the planet so dramatically that scientists have declared a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

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How did our ability to think ahead (and its failures) get us to this point, and how could it show the way out of our problems? We recently published a book called The Invention of Tomorrow that seeks answers to these questions and more. It’s about the remarkable capacity for foresight in humans, and all the ways it has transformed the world, for better or for worse. When our hominin ancestors learned to think about the future, it would prove to be a game-changer—and not just for us, but for the planet.

In Greek mythology, humanity got its distinct powers when the figure Prometheus gave us a gift: fire from heaven. There is no doubt that without flames our species would never have flourished – but what is perhaps less known about the story is that the name Prometheus means foresight.

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