200-year Present: The Elise Boulding Method for Intentional Living

As I was writing the concluding paragraphs of an article about digital strategist Sola Mathew’s 6-step formula for happiness, I recalled an episode of the On Being podcast that I listened to a while ago.

The episode featured a conversation between the award winning host Krista Tippett, actor/producer America Ferreira and professor emeritus of International Peacebuilding John Paul Lederach. During the conversation, Lederach mentioned the concept of 200-year present, a practise he claimed he was first exposed to by Elise Boulding (1920 – 2010), the Quaker sociologist who was credited as a major contributor to creating the academic discipline of Peace and Conflict Studies. John narrated:

One of my big — most meaningful mentors that I had was Elise Boulding, who was one of the pioneer women of the peace studies field. Kenneth and Elise were a Quaker couple. And Elise always — she had this phrase about the 200-year present, and I think it might be useful, for us, to think about the current moment in reference to how she would frame the 200-year present. We students would be walked through this very simple exercise.

If you just calculate, for a minute — so when she said “present,” she meant, like, past, present, future. And she’s saying, you live in a 200-year present. So if you go back to when you — at your youngest age that you can remember, who the oldest person was that held you, and then just calculate back to their birthdate, roughly. Mine would carry from Great-Grandma Miller, would go back into the 1850s — actually, into the period close to the Civil War. And then you do the second part of the process, which is, you think about the youngest member of your extended family — minus two months. And then imagine a robust life — to what decade might she or he live? And then she would always say to us, once we’ve done all this kind of work, she would look at us and say, “You were held and touched, and you will touch the lives, of people that cover a 200-year present.

The idea of the 200-year present is that although we might be opportune to live say only 100 years on earth, we would most likely touch and be touched by 200 years of living experiences. First, think of the oldest person in your family who might probably be close to a hundred years of age, then think of the youngest person recently conceived who would likely live for a hundred years too. Touching these two set of people indirectly connects you to about hundred years into the past and about hundred years into the future.

After listening to this conversation, I became interested in this idea of 200-year present and so I began to read articles on the net to catch up a little with the ongoing conversation around it.

I haven’t gone more than 5 articles deep before I stumbled on a 2003 Elise Boulding inteview with Julian Portilla (director of the Master’s in Mediation and Conflict Studies at Champlain College in Burlington Vermont) in which she gave a brief explanation of the concept thus:

A favorite concept of mine is the 200-year present, a way of thinking about change. The 200-year present began 100 years ago with the year of birth of the people who have reach their hundredth birthday today. The other boundary of the 200-year present, 100 years from now, is the hundredth birthday of the babies born today. If you take that span, you and I will have had contact with a lot of people from different parts of that span. So think in terms of events over that span and realize how long change takes. You can see how difficult it has been to create these bodies and new ways and how in many ways we are slipping backward; but in other ways we are not.

Photograph from Pexels

Now, how does this concept really affect us? What does it matter that we keep this idea of a 200-year present in mind?

To answer that question, you need to examine the kind of thoughts that this concept spur in your mind as you think about it. It most likely prompted you to reflect on the fact that just as the lives (words and actions) of the people that lived before you had great effects on your life (including your existence in the first place, you know), your words and actions too would be a great determinant in either the making or marring of posterity.

Here is a succinct explanation about what the 200-year present means for you as an individual, from the guys at Metta Center, an organization inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. to encourage people in all walks of life to discover their innate capacity for nonviolence and to use its power strategically for the long-term transformation of themselves and the world:

The “200-year present” … describes a way thinking of the fleeting present moment with full awareness of the effects of past actions and of our present actions on the future. If one considers the life spans of the oldest and the youngest individual alive at any given time one gets a period across the “past,” “present,” and “future,” of approximately 200 years. This perspective encourages a long-term commitment to all of life in which we acknowledge that the past is still with us in its effects and that all aspects of the present moment — all our thoughts and actions — will determine the future.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished us to “rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented culture to a person-oriented culture,” he hit upon the essence of the 200-year present, which demands that we shift from a materialist view of human beings to a consciousness-based view that embraces the unity of life across time.

That captures it all!

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