Whenever I mention that I am enthusiastic about sustainability, I get two reactions: people who assume I am talking about green buildings and architecture, and people who are tired of hearing about being eco-friendly. It’s true that the media has saturated our society with messages of the virtues of being sustainable, but only if we buy more things. “These plastic bottles of water have 15% less plastic in the cap than before, but are still sold in twice-wrapped 24-packs.” Green washing has become a major selling point, but people only remember what’s in front of their faces. How did the idea of sustainability become so warped that people roll their eyes when it comes up in conversation?
Because we have the wrong idea about sustainability altogether.
We see it as an end goal, a task to conquer. To undo all of the environmental damage humans have caused up until this point in history would be an accomplishment indeed, and we could all give ourselves a pat on the back. But our view of time and the future is the underlying issue. Long-term issues are growing to alarming proportions that short-term thinking is powerless to address. The best way to illustrate the idea is with a Clock.
The Clock of the Long Now, although still in its developmental stages, will be a self-winding clock that will keep perfect time for 10,000 years, long past our scope of the future. Stewart Brand, co-chair of the Long Now Foundation and author of The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, writes that “the Clock is a way of bridging between stories, embodying respect for the full span of the old story and confidence in the gradual emergence of a new story. It is a transition-managing device. In a world of hurry the Clock is a patience machine.”
Take a piece of paper and write today’s date on it, including the year: February 7, 2013. I remember in 1999 how the lack of planning and foresight caused panic in the form of Y2K. If there was even the smallest possibility of a technological meltdown when changing from 1999 to 2000, and taking into account how technology is growing exponentially, what will happen when we switch over from the year 9999 to 10000? Our scope of time doesn’t allow us to think that far in advance in such astronomical terms. The responsibility of the future would be overwhelming. For comparison, the Long Now Foundation would write the year as 02013 to get people comfortable to the idea of the inevitable. The planet we live on will continue to exist even after everyone alive today has long since turned to dust.
The Clock doesn’t simply measure minutes and hours and days. It highlights the various levels of perspective that we should be continuously thinking about when talking about true sustainability and the idea of a self-saving world, a process that will take centuries. Brand writes, “The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.” These scales are: Individual (measured in years), Family (decades), Nation (centuries), Culture (millennia), Species (tens of millennia), and Life (eons). The sustainability that we know is not sustaining because it operates in a scope that is far too narrow. Those twice-wrapped 24-packs of bottled water will be extinct centuries from now.
The only way to be truly sustainable is for us to expand our idea of time and our definition of now. “Now” as we know it is five, perhaps ten years into the future, maybe a generation or two. Expanding our collective thinking into a Long Now is essential for a sustainable survival. “Accepting responsibility for the health of the whole planet, we are gradually realizing, also means responsibility for the whole future. The worst of destructive selfishness is not Me! but Me! Right now,” Brand writes, “The generous opposite could be phrased as All of us for all of time– presumably including nonhumans.”