Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Sustainability: It's About Time
Joel Makower, 9 Oct 05

The notion of "sustainability" is, at its essence, about time -- an intergenerational Golden Rule that promises that today's actions will ensure tomorrow's prosperity -- but most people's notions of "time" aren't particularly sustainable. We waste time, run out of it, and try futilely to manage it better. "Time is money," Benjamin Franklin declared in Poor Richard's Almanac,and many of us seem hellbent to maximize time's value, producing -- and consuming -- more and more along the way.

A new book brings the many linkages between time and sustainability into sharper focus. About Time: Speed, Society, People and the Environment is a collection of very readable essays compiled by the U.K. think tank Forum for the Future. Collectively, they explore the issue of time and its relationship to the environment, the economy, and society.

Only a relative handful of trends explicitly address linkages between the temporal and the sustainable -- time banks, slow food, and land trusts come immediately to mind -- and it's a bit sobering to be reminded how out of synch we've become in our just-in-time, multitasking, everything-on-demand, 24/7 lifestyles. (And how dissatisfied: "Ironically, both the overworked and the unemployed share the sense that their position is involuntary," writes Geoff Mulgan in his essay, "The Arrival of Time Politics.")

Jay Griffiths' chapter called "Living Time" drives this home. Griffiths contrasts the modern Western mindset and its reliance on clocks and Greenwich Mean Time with culture where time is more flexible and associated with the environment in which people live. Indigenous peoples' approach to time, for example, is "unpredictable, demanding flexibility, fluidity, and quick coordination."

The Karen [people of Thailand] always know where they are and when they are, how far they are from sunset or home: for time and distance are connected in the Karen language: d'yi ba -- soon -- means, literally "not far away." Sunset, therefore, could be expressed as "three kilometers away," because the only way of traveling is to walk, which takes a known length of time.

A central theme running through many of the essays is the importance of individual choice in determining our relationship with time. "Our experience of time is very much conditioned by how much choice we feel we have in the way we spend our days," writes Vidhya Alakeson in the book's conclusion.

The chances are that an employee whose boss bombards him with email at five o'clock on a Friday evening feels very differently about the efficiency of the technology from a freelancer who has greater say over when to respond and when to shut down his computer. The freedom to choose whether we live our lives in the fast or the slow lane and the freedom to move from one to the other as our lives change is the real issue underpinning our fraught relationship with time.

Could it be that our relationship to sustainability is similarly constrained by a perceived lack of freedom to make choices? Perhaps it's the assumption that "becoming sustainable" limits our options that's gotten so many of our leaders stuck on maintaining a status quo that nearly everyone intuitively senses can't last.

Bookmark and Share


Simply not wearing a watch can be a liberating experience. Add in not watching TV (=time slots), not setting an alarm & eating meals when you feel hungry, & you do think differently. Similarly, busy people need to holiday for over 3 weeks to drop the physical expectations of programmed lives. Living more sustainably, more simply, opens up many options to enjoy life. The early greek philosophers said we only need basic food, basic accommodation & stimulating friends.

Our society is a pack of Pavlov's dogs.

I've dropped the superpaced existence *and* try to occupy myself with 'worthwhile' activities, but most people who talk dropping out of the ratrace mean downshifting in a hedonistic-screw-the-planet, what-poor-people? sense. The status quo seems to remain because most people lack imagination to see that the system, the infrastructure etc can operate any other way than it does today. eg: Do without a car? How is that earthly possible??

And they don't want to think about the consequences of their actions that, conveniently, are removed in space and time (& also removed by their representation in Indo-European languages). Einstein said something like the western physics problems wouldn't exist if they talked in Hopi, yetta yetta yetta -> Can this book help us to address & change these mainstream ways??? Start changing our language? Or be a pain like me who when people work at a stressful job, or buy stuff, ask them 'why?'. The only time urgency we have is to change our unsustainable ways? What to do, what to do???

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 9 Oct 05

This is about time. (Sorry for the pun.)

The wise balancing of short term imperatives with long term investments for our future is perhaps the single most important dilemma facing the planet. Most of our institutions and thinking patterns are biased to the former.

Btw, Stewart Brand was one of the first thinkers to link "time and responsibility" with the environmental movement. Check out his book, The Clock of the Long Now and the excellent lecture series at the Long Now Foundation, which plays this theme out very richly. (I wrote about the Long Green, Paul Hawken's lecture).

Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 9 Oct 05

"What can we do? What can we do?!" is an impossible question in this context. (By the way, whence this bizarre Eurocentric notion of urgency which underlies this question which we so often ask? It's highly idiosyncratic and revealing...)

Social time is part of our "habitus" (in the strict sense of Bourdieu's concept), you can't "change" it consciously. You are born into it, and it forms a subconscious stratum against which all our actions are played out (even our analytical and intellectual actions). Our habitus was formed over centuries, on the basis of Judeo-Christian notions of time and space, added to which are those of modernity.

You can't change this habitus of modernity, because that would require a meta-position on several levels: anthropologists and historians may arrive at a questionable analytical overview resulting from their intense field and archival work, but transposing these meta-observations to a practical level is unthinkable.

Meanwhile, in our universe, time "progresses" and we sense urgency...

Posted by: Lorenzo on 9 Oct 05

One very *narrowminded* note: I remember our professor of the course 'the anthropology of time and space' saying that we could easily spot articles about the subject that are written by Anglosaxons. Contrary to the great French philosophers of time (Deleuze, Virilio, Baudrillard, Badiou, Alliez, Foucault, etc...), Anglosaxon analytical philosophy and anthropology have never been good with time, since they take an extremely anti-determinist and subjectivist stance (which can be related to Protestantism and Capitalism.)

Just to illustrate the point: Claude-Lévi Strauss's description of the concepts of time of the Karen (in Burma) differs enormously from those of Edmund Leach. Two totally different representations about just one particular cosmology!

That was the 1950s. Later, the difference became even sharper. It's no coincidence that the biggest paradigm change in our thinking about time and space -- post-structuralism -- was born in France, and not in the UK. So even within modernity, there are highly diverse traditions of studying and analyzing time!

This series of essays is highly relative and highly localized, coming from a very specific culture (Anglo-American) with one of the world's most exotic notions of time and space.

It would be interesting to read Chinese anthropologies of time, and Brazilian (afro-catholic) ones, they would all differ very strongly.

Knowing this, I don't see why we could ever agree on "what should be done" with regard to this question of time and sustainability. I think everyone agrees that sustainability is about time. But after having stated the obvious, "what do we do"? There, approaches will differ enormously.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 9 Oct 05

Celtic perspectives then?!? I'm not living in a anglo-saxon nation (or celtic). Even the anglo-american distinction is insufficient. The French have a somewhat different outlook but similar cultural and languistic underpinnings and cross-cultural influences - ditto the Germanic phenomenologists who contributed intersting perspectives to the time-experience sphere. BTW there are also asian leaders, concerned about loss of their local cultures, asking the exact same q's with a sense of urgency, and not just because anglo-saxon notions of time are seeping throughout the world.

I doubt that many people who have considered the sustainability issue haven't realised that temporal factors are important. So, knowingly taking an analytical perspective, is this book just another waste of paper? Will its lessons trickle through the broader mindset or better inform our behaviours? Every sustainably interested man and his dog is publishing yet another book, to be read mostly by people who are already well informed on the topic.

Is it really impossible for an individual to shake off these shackles? Knowingly separate process and substance? Perhaps a deep exogeneous shock can shift mainstream Nth-Western perspective? Lorenzo pls reply by 17.30 GMT!

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 10 Oct 05

Even though I was just enjoying my roman-catholic dolce far niente, I can't miss this deadline.

Last week, the austere dutch calvinist EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes went entirely hysteric when proposing a calvinist time-management order to "pump up those lazy Europeans" a bit. She wants us to "do like the Americans" who work 60 hours a week, for 51 weeks a year, while we are used to working 36 hours (max) and take 3 month holidays.
If Europe were to do like yankee, our "productivity" would jump 25% our GDP 20% and our stupidity levels 500%.

It caused quite a stir in Europe. We don't want calvinist anglosaxon timeframes, they lead to infantile, stressed out, neurotic, angry nations. Neelie Kroes went crazy when she heard intellectuals (notably some historians) destroying her entire argument (even doctors came into the debate saying that she's holding a plea for more heart attacks, for dumbing down people, for not understanding the benefits of working less, etc...).

What struck me was that nobody was afraid to call Kroes's analytical frame for what it was (because after all, it popped up out of her brain): protestant, anti-social, full of angst.

In short, I think the gap between Anglosaxons' cosmology and that of people who want to enjoy life, is unbridgeable.

And if this unsurmountable difference already appears in such analytical efforts as the policy work of an EU commissioner, I'm sure it pops up in books about sustainability and time.

Now, if you'll forgive me, I'm going to finish my siesta and after that it's fiesta.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 10 Oct 05

above all, the critics should have called it ironic given that the Calvinist ethic is largely a street window display of conformity & taxidermy. The dutch generally mistake shows of efficiency with effectiveness ie 10% of every working day standing by the coffee machine explaining how hard we work at work (except on Mondays = how hard we worked on the house/yard/boat all weekend) & how we're far more efficient than the French who are unreliable or the germans who only arrive early to reserve a spot but have reliable trains.

HOWEVER in sth europe, the Nthn cities/regions identify themselves more with the Nth European work ethic & criticise their southern countrymen of being leeches, too lazy to even buy a watch. Now plenty of europeans, unable to find a 36 hr job that pays enough to rent a shoebox are taking higher paid 50hr/wk jobs in London, etc while the Nrthn Europeans move sth with their savings to push up property prices, embrace fiestas, late eating hrs & siestas - siestas which are gradually shrinking & disappearing altho the length of the working day remains unchanged. Becoming more fluid I rckon, but these differences are minor in the grander scheme of Nth-Western world attitudes & time/physical aspects of language v's the 'others'. What to do?

Posted by: Dendrobium alderwildtianum on 11 Oct 05

This reminds me of a rather nice joke. Two guys are walking the the forest and come apon a tiger. One of the men yells come lets fight it we cant outrun it after all! The other running away has this to say.

I dont need to outrun the tiger I just need to outrun you.

Posted by: wintermane on 11 Oct 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg