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Love and Light.
Our relationship with time has become abusive of late. We take it for granted, milk it for all its worth, then watch it slip away from us as we rush headlong toward tomorrow without regard for the consequences of how we spend today.
by Bill McKibben
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One sweet little fable we moderns tell ourselves is: My genes made me do it. Its persuasive because, in many cases, its more than half true. Our instincts are, obviously, encoded in our biology. Stressed? It doesnt matter if its a saber-toothed tiger stepping out from behind a bush or a closing door on the 7:29 as youre dashing down the platform: There goes your cortisol level. But its sweet because it lets us off the hook. How can we be expected to do any better if, like, were really, you know, cavemen?
So what if I said to you: Its no wonder we cant make wise decisions about the environment. After all, weve spent ninety-nine percent of our life as a species living in a world where the short term was all that mattered; a world where you had to react instantly to procure dinner (or to avoid becoming dinner). It is, therefore, extremely difficult for us to take action against, say, global warming because the dangers are a few years away, and the costs are immediate, and were just not built that way. To me, that sounds extremely attractive, the perfect justification. Or, to put it another way, suspiciously attractive. The perfect excuse.
Because heres the odd thing: The closer back you get to the spring-loaded savage, the more you find a different, more relaxed, and more useful idea about time. I mean, who was it that famously took time to imagine the seventh generation hence? Precontact Native Americans. Is this because they were less a product of the biological past than we are? I doubt it.
In fact, time may prove more succinctly than any other phenomenon that, far from being the helpless product of an eternity, we are instead the very specific products of a very specific culture that has managed to get certain things disastrously wrong. The best book about time Ive ever readindeed, one of the best books Ive read in years periodis A Sideways Look at Time by a British woman named Jay Griffiths. Its almost inconceivably dense, every page filled with allusions and illusions, but her conviction that time has been perverted in the last centuries is a strong thread running through the volume. She suggests that the myriad intricate times of the human pastthe seasons, the moon, the flow of womens bodies, the migrations of animals and of stars, the locking of winter and the unlocking of spring, on and onhave been replaced with a single, universal, imperative, banal Time, symbolized by a ticking atomic clock in some Colorado lab that sends out its signal to every corner
of the globe. Those (good) old times tended toward the circular, the repeating, which tended, in turn, toward the environmentally useful idea that we might pass this way again (or our descendants, or for that matter, our ancestors), and that hence we might be well-advised to take a certain care with how we lived.
But today, we live immersed in linear time. The chief function of linear time is hurry because if youre living on a line, the obvious point is to speed up. Whereas if youre living on a circle, thats a little less clear. Lets say, for instance, that you understand the present moment to be the second quarter of 2005. The almost automatic focus becomes having more than you did in the second quarter of 2004thats how time operates at the moment. But if you conceive of this moment as simply spring, to be followed by summer, fall, winter, and then another spring, you would aim for a sufficiencyenough food and firewood on hand to get you once more around the circle. That may require a certain amount of work, but its a human-sized task.
Now, the reason this linear idea has caught on, of course, is that it worksit facilitates the task of piling stuff up. Its hard to imagine modern commerce before the invention of the minute hand, and yet, as Thomas Hardy recalls in Tess of the DUrbervilles, even in the West, it was only a century or two ago that one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day. (For many of the worlds peoples, the gradations of the sun rising and falling still do the trick.) Because linear time has proven so useful in the task of accumulation, weve been willing to forgive many of the indignities that came along for the ride. (The invention of the elderly, for instancepeople who have lived past their time.) Since time became synonymous with money, and we wanted money, we went along.
But now, were at an interesting moment in time. For one thing, as the environmental predicament makes clear, we cant keep going along as we have been. The response of too many of our leaders to global warming has been telling. We simply cant afford to take a long view, they say, because it would cause us pain in the present moment; wed have to rearrange our system of relying on cheap fossil fuel to power our factories and our cars. And so, unwilling to take on that task, they have no choice but to deny the crucial present-day reality that the molecular structure of carbon dioxide, a product of the industry that drives our present-day reality, traps heat near the planetheat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. A certain band of economists has even provided the intellectual superstructure for this denial, literally discounting the future, arguing that if we make more money in the here and now, it will allow us to deal easily with whatever problems we might be causing
This behavior has nothing to do with genetic inheritance. Or, if it does, its a genetic inheritance that people in thousands of other cultures over the great sweep of history have managed to work their way around. Its possible that all those different structures of timeceremonial, ritual, symbolicmay be a way to shield us from certain kinds of biological instinct, a shield we have discarded because it was more efficient to behave as we are behaving. More efficient now perhaps, but maybe not for long.
Our moment is interesting for another reason as well. Its not just the practical, physical implications of our speeded-up, outof- control sense of time that are beginning to tell on us. Its also the psychological residue. Poll after poll indicates that we are more and more time-starved (and this is one poll you can check against the experience of your own life). Most people say that, if they could, they would literally trade time for money; work fewer days, say. Another fine recent book, this one edited by the Seattle journalist and documentary filmmaker John DeGraaf, imagines a world where the new rallying cry is Take Back Your Time. The book points out, in depressing detail, how Americans in particular find themselves working ever-longer hoursmore than the citizens of any other industrialized country, more than medieval peasants, maybe more than any (free) people there ever were. The contrast with Europe is stark: We average a little more than two weeks of vacation annually,
compared with five or six for Europeans, who work, on average, 350 hours a year less than we do. The Girl Scouts now offer a merit badge in stress-free living. What does that tell you? And does it surprise you that we dont live as long as our European peers, even though we spend vastly more on medical care? And does it, for that matter, surprise you that theyve managed to ratify the Kyoto treaty and at least begin to take global warming seriously, whereas were still stuck in denial?
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