The tree planter's paradox

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.
That doesn't make any sense. The second-best time is one instant after 20 years ago.

I've been trying to figure out where I heard that second quote, but I just can't track it down. Thing is, whoever said it has a point. The proverb really relies on two opposing definitions of "best time" which, while it makes for a pithy quote, actually masks a more fundamental point that I think is worth investigating. "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago" means best time as in the time when it would have the most beneficial impact on you. On the other hand, "The second-best time is now" uses best time to mean the time you have the most impact on it. Viewed that way, the problem in the second quote disappears. It's clear that "second-best time" is really a misnomer; 20 years ago and now are both the best time, but for different things.

I think of these opposite kinds of best together as the tree planter's paradox. Simply, at the time when your decisions have the most impact, the consequences matter least and vice versa. Twenty years ago, planting a tree or not planting a tree had basically no impact on your life. Either way the consequences were twenty years away. But now, today, the day when you have finally accepted dendrology into your heart and desperately need a tree right now to prove your devotion? Nothing you do can bring one into existence. The moment when the consequences matter the most, your decisions have no importance at all.

It doesn't have to be a long time, necessarily. The best time to order food was before you got hungry. By ordering food after you get hungry, you're always condemned to a certain amount of hunger while you wait. The best time to fix a problem in a relationship was before you realised anything was wrong, because by the time you realise it the damage is already done. The best time to learn from a mistake was before you made it. Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to know about a mistake before you make it, and you can't go back, so you have to settle for whatever you can do now. Any time your decisions are separated from their consequences, the decisions peak at the start and the consequences peak at the end.

This is a pretty compelling reason to reduce the distance between action and consequence when you can. Unfortunately, that only goes so far, and ultimately there's always going to be a gap. I wrote a while back about short-term and long-term thinking, and wondered why it's necessary to work so hard to build connections between the two. Perhaps the tree planter's paradox is the reason. Long-term thinking is the way to have the biggest impact, but like it or not the short term is where we actually live. Our experiences happen now, our decisions happen now, and our evolution has tuned us to be highly effective now-optimisers.

All the more reason to find ways to subvert our nowish nature and find ways to bring the consequences of the future into the decisions of the present. The trees are counting on us.