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Time Out

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  • Light Eye
    Dear Friends, Click the link if you can t proceed to page 2. http://www.science-spirit.org/article_detail.php?article_id=497 Love and Light. David Time Out Our
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2005
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      Dear Friends,

      Click the link if you can't proceed to page 2.

      http://www.science-spirit.org/article_detail.php?article_id=497

      Love and Light.

      David

      Time Out

      Our relationship with time has become abusive of late. We take it for granted, milk it for all it’s 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. It’s persuasive because, in many cases, it’s more than half true. Our instincts are, obviously, encoded in our biology. Stressed? It doesn’t matter if it’s a saber-toothed tiger stepping out from behind a bush or a closing door on the 7:29 as you’re dashing down the platform: There goes your cortisol level. But it’s sweet because it lets us off the hook. How can we be expected to do any better if, like, we’re really, you know, cavemen?

      So what if I said to you: It’s no wonder we can’t make wise decisions about the environment. After all, we’ve 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 we’re 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 here’s 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 I’ve ever read—indeed, one of the best books I’ve read in years period—is A Sideways Look at Time by a British woman named Jay Griffiths. It’s 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 past—the seasons, the moon, the flow of women’s bodies, the migrations of animals and of stars, the locking of winter and the unlocking of spring, on and on—have 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 you’re living on a line, the obvious point is to speed up. Whereas if you’re living on a circle, that’s a little less clear. Let’s 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 2004—that’s 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 sufficiency—enough food and firewood on hand to get you once more around the circle. That may require a certain amount of work, but it’s a human-sized task.

      Now, the reason this linear idea has caught on, of course, is that it works—it facilitates the task of piling stuff up. It’s hard to imagine modern commerce before the invention of the minute hand, and yet, as Thomas Hardy recalls in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, even in the West, it was only a century or two ago that “one-handed clocks sufficiently subdivided the day.” (For many of the world’s 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, we’ve been willing to forgive many of the indignities that came along for the ride. (The invention of the elderly, for instance—people who have lived “past their time.”) Since time became synonymous with money, and we wanted money, we went along.

      But now, we’re at an interesting moment in time. For one thing, as the environmental predicament makes clear, we can’t keep going along as we have been. The response of too many of our leaders to global warming has been telling. We simply can’t afford to take a long view, they say, because it would cause us pain in the present moment; we’d 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 planet—heat 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
      later.

      This behavior has nothing to do with genetic inheritance. Or, if it does, it’s a genetic inheritance that people in thousands of other cultures over the great sweep of history have managed to work their way around. It’s possible that all those different structures of time—ceremonial, ritual, symbolic—may 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. It’s not just the practical, physical implications of our speeded-up, outof- control sense of time that are beginning to tell on us. It’s 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 hours—more 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 don’t 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 they’ve managed to ratify the Kyoto treaty and at least begin to take global warming seriously, whereas we’re still stuck in denial?
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