The addict, the elder, and the time horizon

One of the biggest problems faced by supporters of beavers for watershed restoration is how far ahead you have to look, and how hard that is to get across. A frequent comment is that beavers are stupid animals that eat themselves out of house and home and then have to move on. By that same logic, a farmer who cuts down his corn every year is an idiot.



The coppice trees that beavers eat are just bigger, slower corn. They harvest them, move up or downstream to the next field, and let them stump sprout and grow again. It might take a few years, or a decade, before they return for the next harvest. This can be hard to communicate, because many of us aren’t used to thinking in decades. As an example, back when I was working in San Francisco I met a guy who’s a recovered crack addict.

One afternoon over beers, driven by morbid curiosity, I asked him what it was like. He told me, “You can’t think past tomorrow, even on your best day. Some days all you can think about is the next hit—which might be fifteen minutes away.

Does this look like long term planning?

So what you do is score some crack, get a hotel room, put a rock in the pipe and hit it. Put a rock in the pipe, hit it. Call a hooker, buy some booze, put a rock in the pipe, hit it.

Until one day you wake up and the money’s gone, the rock’s gone, your wife’s gone, your business is gone, everything’s gone. I went into recovery right there, but some of the guys who didn’t are still homeless, crawling around on the sidewalk looking for rocks somebody’s dropped. We called it crack farming.”

I don’t mean this kind.

In stark contrast to this bleak shortest-possible-term planning, consider the great law of the Iroquois nation, which required that the Council consider the impact of their decisions on seven generations of people to come—around 150 years. You know anybody that’s doing that kind of planning?

These are two reasonable bookends for a discussion of our time horizon: that point in the future beyond which we cannot see or think. Most of us fit somewhere in between these two extremes:

  • Crackheads can’t see past the next hit
  • The average ‘consumer’ lives for payday and the weekend
  • Their boss is probably stressing over making payroll
  • The next boss up the chain is trying to make next financial quarter look good
  • The politicians tend to look as far as the next election
  • And watershed restoration workers have to deal with a time horizon of decades and try to communicate it effectively. Ouch.
But, there may be a problem here too…

In my experience, many of us never raise our eyes toward a higher time horizon until we’ve had children. Then biology forces the issue, and suddenly there’s a whole other world of considerations that extend into the future as far as the kid’s college education.

That’s not so bad—1.8 harvest cycles of that big, slow corn now can sort of make sense…and it’s still 3.2 harvest cycles short of really seeing the shift that beaver presence can offer a wetlands.

And that’s all I really want to say today. Whether we have kids, own a company, or work with beavers, we can all look farther forward. Knowing with humble certainty that our vision is always imperfect, we can do our best not just for ourselves and our children, but for all life to come. We can set down the crack pipe, the weekend and the profit motive, become a people who live in the long now, and ensure that our great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren will still have somewhere beautiful to live.


  1. Very nice… Loved the seven generations bit.


    1. Glad you liked it. Given the timelines involved with some anthropogenic processes that are underway now, a very modest updating of this ancient law would require adding a zero. That’s around when some sea-level rise estimates have the coastal nuclear reactors underwater—Fukushima as film preview. But that’s getting pretty far afield from cute furry critters, so I’ll leave it there.


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