A Long Time: Changing Perspectives Through Long Time Periods

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Thinking about time periods of thousands of years — or even just the couple of hundred from the birth of our grandparents to the death of our grandchildren — can help knock us out of ruts. Things have been different and surely will be different, perhaps unimaginably so.

Australia is currently undergoing a federal election It is not a pleasant experience. It has me thinking about the long term and the short term — we have not just daily but hourly reporting by the media. This post is something of a reaction against this: it is a meditation on thinking about the long term.

Thousands of Years

Brian Eno is one of that rare breed, a truly creative artist, and one who has not stuck to one field. His work in music has included trying to make music that is suitable for airports but also worth listening to and an orchestra where the players all play instruments they didn’t train on. In visual art he has used computers to generate images. Whether any of this is successful is another matter.

Brian Eno got interested in the idea of slowness and then got interested in long time periods. He got interested in the Clock of the Long Now or the 10,000 year clock conceived by Danny Hillis. (Brian Eno came up with the name.) Thinking in a time period like this leads to unexpected things: if the clock is to last this long it will need to be in a geologically stable area; and how it is to be maintained will need to be obvious to people in thousands of years. It confronts us with the ability of our imagination.

My own preferred way of getting a sense of big time periods is to read history. (Ancient Egypt is my favourite culture. And I find medieval Europe fascinating for how it has shaped our present experience.) I like to read those books which survey human civilisation from the pre-literate to our own day. This has led to my gradually developing a sense of fragility. The idea that our culture will necessarily survive? It simply isn’t so — many others have died — and all the signs are that our way of doing things isn’t sustainable.

Dealing with these kinds of massive time periods is I think useful for knocking us out of our ruts. They help us realise that things have been different and surely will be different (perhaps unimaginably so). Most of the time we expect things to proceed pretty much as they are — and day to day they do. Contemplating these vast periods of time can jolt us from this day to day expectation.

So What?

The question about contemplating these vast stretches of time is: so what? What use is it to our lives and relationships? Knowing that we can’t influence what will happen in 10,000 years probably doesn’t help us much with the day to day decisions and relationships that make up most of our lives. We can lose a sense of the human scale.

A Human Time Scale

If 10,000 years is too long to be humanly useful, how long is useful enough? One answer that I like, first given by Elise Boulding, is 200 years. This is the time period that many of us can be in personal contact with — from our grandparents’ birth to our grandchildren’s’ death.

I am now 51. My maternal grandmother was born before the Wright brothers first flew. She grew up in the English midlands. She could recognise which village in her area people came from by their accent. Cars were first mass produced while she was a girl.

My paternal grandfather served in the First World War. He came back a war neurosis case. He gradually became unmanageable and was removed from his home to a hospital by the police; this was when my father was a child and he saw it happen. My father’s experience of his father (and growing up without one for most of his life) shaped him — and this has impacted me. In one sense the First World War won’t be over until I’m dead.

At the moment I don’t have children, so thinking about the future is a bit more abstract. When I think of children and grandchildren I think about where we should live that has access to good rainfall and infrastructure (peak oil is near or past so they won’t be travelling by petrol powered transport), and which won’t be flooded by the rise in the level of the oceans. (Australia’s population lives almost entirely near the coast.) I wonder about their access to affordable housing. (Australia at the moment probably has the least affordable housing in the world.) I wonder what kind of education will be useful to them. (I don’t think schooling after primary school will be.)

Thinking about the 200-year present has a far more personal feel. We know these people: they live in our world, and we know their experience. What they did and what will happen to them has an impact on us. We can understand their differences in ways that we can’t the Pharaonic Egyptians or those who may (or may not) be here in 10,000 years.

Thinking in terms of the 200-year present for me is a good way of sorting out priorities. It is enough to jolt me from the day to day — and in a way that has implications for what I do. I can understand that some of my decisions will impact my grandchildren.

What difference does it make for you when you contemplate a 200-year present? Does it reinforce your current concerns or modify them (a little or a lot)? I’d love to hear in the comments if thinking in this way affects you.

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