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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Gonzalez

The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time

Review of Richard Fisher's book

 

I don’t know how many years ago I had a pretty massive a-ha moment. I was reading some magazine or other and came across an article that tried to help the average person, me, understand what scientists believe to be the size of the universe.  The short version of my revelation is that I’m really, really, really small. This was, to my surprise, a great relief.  It surfaced an awareness of my infinitesimal smallness and the infinitesimal vastness of the universe that meant an inevitable change in perspective while also allowing for so much possibility. Over the years, this has been a reminder not to take myself too seriously and to be grateful for the imaginative power of the unknown. A couple of years ago, my awareness of spatial vastness expanded to include temporal vastness when I came across Deep Time - the long history of the earth, understood to be about 4.6 billion years old, and of course the even longer history of the universe, about 13.8 billion years old.  Understanding these vast time spans is not something the human brain does very well and mine is no exception. But learning more about deep time increased my day-to-day awareness of how long this beautiful earth and universe have been working at getting us and all of creation to this point now, and how some of us humans haven’t been reciprocating all that creative effort in ways that keep this amazing evolutionary process going. Indeed, we’ve been doing quite the opposite. In any case, I’ve spent the better part of the past two years down the deep time rabbit hole.  I’ve learned that time is not as straightforward as I once thought, that it is one of the great philosophical quandaries and that thinkers and scientists have been contemplating it for, well, time immemorial. In practical terms, I’ve also been trying to find ways to use deep time as a hook, an entry point, for the young people I work with to get into the good stuff that Common Earth explores. (Did you know that if we use a 24-hour clock to represent Earth’s history, modern humans only show up around 1.5 seconds before 24:00?  Let’s talk about the Anthropocene.) With my mind tuned to time, a few months ago listening to the radio, I happened to hear an interview with Richard Fisher, the author of the book The Long View: Why We Need to Transform How the World Sees Time.  He spoke about intergenerational reciprocity – the importance of offering the next and future generations choices by taking the long view of the wellbeing of the planet and the resources we are borrowing from them.  Of course I was captivated.  I had been looking at time in the past until now, but this sparked me into thinking about our relationship to future time; the one in which we live now and the one we are leaving to our descendants.   


I got my hands on The Long View, dug in and was immediately drawn in to Fisher’s writing as he grounded his argument for the need to embrace the long view by looking at time through history, capitalism, and politics. Some stark revelations come up here that involve time as a commodity, the 24-hour news cycle, quarterly goals, and promises and plans that end with the next election.  All of these creating a reality that is not serving us or future generations well. Fisher then moves on to the human awareness of time which he invites us to explore with him through evolution, psychology and language.  The western view of time as inevitable is challenged here, along with the psychological biases of privilege and ‘normalcy’. Other ways of visualizing, experiencing and expressing time are explored reflecting the wonderful diversity that naturally accompanies the disorderly order of evolutionary trajectory. Finally, Fisher invites us to explore ways to expand our relationship to time through experiences of the sublime, a multitude of time views (different ways of perceiving time), the practice of longtermism, the moral responsibility we have to future generations, and the power of the imagination in creating and recreating our experience and attitudes towards ensuring long-term survival and wellbeing. In The Long View, Fisher reminds us that despite our difficulty in understanding vast time and space, the human species does have the seemingly unique ability to project ourselves both forward and backward through time.  We can remember our own experiences in the past and imagine the lives of our ancestors and their world, along with the lives of our descendants in the future and their possible world. Fisher’s research on Indigenous knowledges and some of their scholars clarified ‘seventh generation’ stewardship for me.  Rather than considering the impact of our decisions on the 7 generations to come, ‘seventh generation’ stewardship centres us, here and now, as the symmetry-seeking fulcrum between 3 generations into the past and 3 generations into the future.  In essence, our great grandparents and our great grandchildren’s generations.  This shift in perspective reminds us that the future doesn’t start with us, we are part of the constant stream of overlapping generationality.  Although we, as individuals, are small in comparison with the vast time and space within which we live our brief lives, we are each a link in the temporal and spatial chain that stretches, spins and spirals indefinitely. Collectively, we can use this understanding to ensure the wellbeing of future generations and honour the care passed on to us by those from the past.  


The exploration of the human relationship to time in The Long View has clear and salient connections to the climate emergency happening right now.  We are in the midst of a crisis predicated on time (among other things like resources and energy) borrowed from generations who do not yet exist and have no voice or influence on the decisions we make today. This seems deeply unfair and short-sighted. Ultimately, Fisher’s message is one of hope that we can do better even if we’re not there to witness or enjoy the long-term fruits of our labour.  Indeed, the process becomes the purpose because there is no satisfaction or real solution in the immediate.  That’s the thinking that got us here.  There are so many examples of long-view thinking and doing that defy immediate gratification, the White Horse of Uffington for example, but clearly offer solace and meaning to those planning for and participating in these collective, intergenerational projects.  This is the power of imagination exemplified through encouraging empathy and which carries us all on to compassion. Reading The Long View has added another dimension to my journey in exploring the complexity of time and space, but it has also helped ground what I believe to be a greater goal of my and my generation’s life and work.  I am encouraged to spend more time exploring imaginative ways to act together with those who have been, those who are, and those who will be.  What is this collective, epic, creative altruism if not humanity’s great gift to existence?  In solidarity with all generations.



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