It’s About Time

Graphic from the Long Now Foundation

The phrase “think global, act local” has fallen a touch out of favor in these days of press-derided social justice activists and brutal police repression, but the sentiment remains popular and well-understood.  We consider it a mark of profound ignorance if one cannot, say, identify the location of Afghanistan on a world map.  On the other hand, most of us haven’t the faintest clue what happened right where we’re standing more than twenty years ago, much less a hundred, never mind a thousand, and forget about a million years ago because that’s just preposterous.  And yet, the mundane occurrences of the place where we are over the whole multi-billion-year history of ‘here’ have a much greater effect on our real lives than the trials and tribulations of moneyed bosses and armed serfs half a world away.

This seems to be a cultural, rather than a human, blind-spot.  The sense of deep time that most human societies on the planet, past and present, recognize and mark in story, art, calendar, and language has been lost to the children of the West.  The ancestors of the European languages spoken by settled conquerors the world over experienced a series of catastrophic invasions and culture-breaking occupations of their own home landscapes when the Roman legions came screaming up the Italian peninsula, burning and looting everything they could get their hands on. Roman primary source accounts of the invasions, like Caesar Julius’ own Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, offer glimpses of cultures as similar to those of Native America and unconquered Polynesia as they are different from our own today. Their experiences were passed down the generations, remembered in echoes until the present day. We, in our turn, will continue to echo these old stories and wounds to our own grandchildren. What the Romans encountered in the wildlands of Europe was a radically different sense of time than the brief, linear march of state-approved history as familiar and invisible to generals and enlisted men alike as water to a fish.

The Celtic tribes of old Europe, like the Apache tribes of the southwestern deserts, like the Aborigine tribes of Australia- like every other place-based people in the world- maintained a finite and bounded sense of geographical place, and a remarkably deep sense of time.

To use an American analogue, the Navajo Nation is bounded by four holy mountains, located at each of the cardinal directions. The earth goes on beyond there, of course.  In the old days the Navajo made extensive use of abalone-shell for jewelry and ceremony. Abalones live in the kelp forests off the California coast, half a continent away.  Trading networks connected the California coast to the Mississippi River, through a thousand little lands, each called ‘The Navel of the Earth’ in the local tongue.  Our homes are very important to us, they’re the centers of our little universe; might as well build a land ethic around that.  The land goes on beyond the edge of the world, but it’s other folks’ business to tend to that bit of it.  There’s a tremendous degree of trust and faith in the goodwill of one’s neighbors implicit in that arrangement.  The Navajo belong to the Dine’tah (“Homeland of the People”) between the mountains, but they belong to a history that stretches from the beginning of time to the recycling of all things.  Small landscape, big timescape.

How long is ‘now’? One day? One hour? One second? Try this, just for the hell of it: For as long as you can stand to do it, pretend that your definition of ‘now’ is one whole order of magnitude larger than it ‘actually’ is. If you think that ‘now’ is less than one second long, imagine that an entire hour is one contiguous moment. If you tend to think of your life in terms of days, consider your whole week as an undivided unit of time. How far into the future do you feel comfortable including in ‘now’? Will the sun rise tomorrow? Will photosynthesis still occur in a week? Will gravity continue to attract bodies in a vacuum a month from today? Will a remotely controlled drone aircraft firebomb a family member within the decade? Will hummingbirds still like red flowers after your grandchildren have grown old? What if your whole life was one single undivided process?

The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, the rules of order for the government of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, and inspiration for Benjamin Franklin’s quaint notion of checks and balances between the three branches of American government, stipulates that no action may be taken by the decision-making body of sachems (“peace-chiefs”) until the ramifications of that action are predicted, modeled, and studied at least as far as the seventh generation out. Seven generations seems like a long time, but in the context of the culture it’s just an official codifying of a mindset generally held, at least when the Great Law was put together some 2,000 years ago. Everyone thought that far ahead, not just sages on mountaintops. What sort of society do you think might result from a bunch of people who think long and carefully about the effects of their own actions on others? It says a lot about how much the old Haudenosaunee cared about one another and about the land that they would take the time to muddle these things through. It also speaks volumes about their practicality.  What happens in 140 years will one day be somebody’s problem; better to deal with it now than put it off until later.  A living sense of deep time is itself a powerful peace-keeping technology.

Try it: How will what you are doing today affect people seven generations down the line? What will persist of what you threw ‘away’? What will the spaces you maintain look like in 140 years? How did you affect other people’s lives today, and how will their experiences be passed on to their children? What of who you are do you wish to endure after you’re dead? What can you let go of and allow to decay?

This is your real effect on the world. Humans are very small creatures. We are not like redwood forests, which can alter whole weather patterns, or volcanoes, which can change soil chemistry for eons. Our reach, globally speaking, is limited. Humans are also short-lived animals. We can expect a little less than a century of life, of which two to five decades are spent learning the ropes. What we do have is a marvelous intergenerational communication system, called ‘storytelling’ (whether it lives in a textbook or an oral epic, a story is a story) and an ancient series of partnerships with longer-lived and generally more powerful organisms. You and I are little; we can dig little holes, we can build little cities that last a thousand years and then crumble into mud. But we can carry little acorns from place to place, and little acorns become big oak trees, big oak trees make more oak trees; a few little humans can help an old-growth forest get started. Old growth forests change weather patterns. This is the time-scale at which enduring global action takes place. If we intend to think globally, we must include a global time-scale as part of that thought-experiment.

We’re activists at this level all the time, it’s just that nobody thinks about it. Because nobody thinks about it, mostly we’re activists for doing things like putting horrible poisons into the water that will give our grandchildren pain and grief when they lose their own children early. We call this delayed pain-making ‘driving a car’ and consider it terribly necessary. How is engine oil made? We can also be activists for other, less guilt-ridden affairs of the future. We can own our shit, so to speak, and begin making amends for the pains we are leaving our children right now. We can even do things today that will actually make the places our great-great-great-great-grandchildren live in even nicer. What do you love to do? How can you do it in such a way that the beneficial effects cascade down the generations?

Take a walk through your neighborhood. How big will the sapling trees be in fifty years? What will county maintenance budgets be like? Will lawnmower fuel rise in cost? What foods will your family eat when you are old?  What will this climate be like in a thousand years? What will this society be like in a thousand years? What will this landscape be like in a thousand years? How old can the plants you see get?  What does old-growth Ailanthus or privet look like?  What animals might live there?  How long would it take a lawn to succeed into meadow, into thicket, into forest, into old-growth?  How long will these buildings last?  With maintenance?  Without?  Who will live here when you are dead?  What do you want to give back to this place- the place that has housed you, fed you, raised you, watered you, given you beauty, given you dreams- while your body is still strong and your mind sharp?

To hell with thinking global. Your reach is as long as your arms: about three feet. You can see with your own eyes the place that will bear the brunt of your life’s work. Use those eyes to learn how that place changes over the lifetime you spend observing within it. Apply that learning to an envisioning of the landscape over the coming years.  Think millennial, act right now.

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