Reflections on Time

I saw this fun reflection and wanted to share it with a friend so I grabbed my new mp3 player with built-in camera, snapped a photo, plugged the device into the computer, transferred the photo, attached it to an email and sent it.  Within a minute or so, it had arrived at its destination.  As I contemplate this now, I realize I did it the slow way but I don’t yet know how to email straight from the device even though it does have wi-fi …and I was in range.  But hey!  Less than 2 minutes!

The actions above, while perhaps a ‘mean feat’ for me, are so common-place now that perhaps some of you are rolling your eyes.  But not so long ago, it would have involved film that would take an hour, a day, a week or even a month to get back from the developers.  In fact, photography’s timeline is the reverse of what I just laid out:  it’s gone from taking a month or more to less than 2 minutes in the course of a century.

Advances in photography are only one example of advances everywhere that are compressing time.  Everyone knows we can do more, faster than ever.  So what of it? Increased efficiency is an accomplishment, it would be argued.  Isn’t this human ingenuity at its best?   Possibly.  But are we altering our view of time and inadvertently pulling ourselves out of sync with nature?

Human Impacts

Many creatures affect the place where they live but the damage, if it can be called that, is relatively minor or is left to heal itself in a timely manner.  Many human cultures have lived this way and some continue to do so.  My culture, Western capitalist culture, is altering landscapes drastically and as our efficiency increases, we do it faster and faster.  Usually when we are done with a place—say after a mine has been there—it is not safe for a really long time for humans to live on or grow food.  Nor is it for the animals and birds who once called it home.

Our activities often don’t just affect right where they occur but have downstream consequences, too—even if unintended.  There are so many examples of this:  landslides because of soil erosion (caused by deforestation), algae plumes from chemical run-off, polluted soil and ground water from processing chemicals or extractive methods, acidification of the oceans from atmospheric CO2 that we put there; habitats rendered or becoming inhospitable to life as we know it.  These places are essentially destroyed.

I use the word ‘destroyed’ because in so many cases, it will take many human generations of time before anyone sees the landscape and life return to how it was before we affected it.   And in some cases never.  An example of ‘never’ is the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, East Kentucky, and Tennessee, in particular, since mountaintop coal mining became the method of choice for acquiring coal there.  These mountains took millennia to form and in less than 30 years humans have destroyed over 500 of them.  In this case, no human will see those beautiful mountains and valleys again.

Just like we don’t mind flushing 300+ year old trees down toilets, we seem to not mind putting mountains up smoke stacks.  In the process, what was once life-giving is now toxic, and destroyed are the homes of other people, plants, animals, bugs and birds… ….permanently by the gauge of the human clock.

Take Until It Runs Out

What will humans do when we render the planet inhospitable to human life?  Some might argue this is an extreme question, silly even.  But as I look around, I mostly see us getting more efficient and thus faster at what we can do.  This in combination with Western culture’s track record of ‘take until it runs out’ is a little scary.  And what’s left is either barely able to sustain itself in the case of live creatures (example) or is destroyed habitat also affecting the locals (example) .  From increasingly acidic oceans to abandoned mine sites, we end up with human impacts with longer-than-human timelines to recover.  Many projects can even be seen from space because they are getting bigger, not smaller.

By comparison, the planet’s processes move much more slowly.  And, while sometimes we try to fix the damage we do, in many cases we don’t yet know how.  From the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ website about the Alberta Boreal Forest where conventional wells, pipelines and roads had been:

“If you remove the borrow material (the soil from upland areas that’s  used to build roads or pads in muskeg), you will most likely end up with a black hole of water. We are conducting research to determine if we can bring it back to muskeg,”  

I’m glad they are trying to reclaim the land but the underline above is mine because…..this culture says it’s okay to continue doing the damage whether we can fix it or not.  (….am I the only one hearing “broken planet”?)

Reflections On Us?

Human activities are moving out of sync with nature’s timelines.  Will we become so efficient that we run out of planet?  When future people—who I suspect will struggle because of our present excesses—look back, will it reflect poorly on us that we seemed to value our capitalist culture more than our home and theirs?   Time will tell.

Nothing is ultimately as irrational as rushing with maximum efficiency

in the wrong direction.

Wolfgang Sachs

What are your thoughts?


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