What Past Civilizations Can Teach Us About Time — Marcia Bjornerud at Long Now

What Past Civilizations Can Teach Us About Time — Marcia Bjornerud at Long Now


Earlier civilizations had different and
arguably more sophisticated perceptions of time. In most pre-modern cultures the
past hovered over the present. Ancestors were felt to be watching. Past and future
generations were understood to be knitted into one fabric. The medieval
Scandinavian worldview included the concept of ‘wyrd,’ loosely fate, or the
power of the past to shape the present and future. Wyrd was embodied in the
world tree Yggdrasil, which gives structure to all of time and space. It
was maintained by the mysterious female Norns
who water it from an ancient and continuously replenishing well while
reciting the orlog, the eternal laws that hold
up the world. In Ghanaian tradition there’s the concept of ‘Sankofa,’
usually symbolized by a backward-looking bird and associated with the proverb: “It
is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” In other words: move
forward but remember the past. There’s the Buddhist concept of ‘Sati,’
usually translated as mindfulness, but actually something closer to memory of
the present, suggesting a subtler relationship with time. In these
traditions and many others, the past present and future coexist and interact
in ways much more nuanced than our simplistic linear view of time. In our
culture, we tend to mistake technological prowess for wisdom. The people we call
visionaries base their conceptions of the future on the notion that we should
do everything in our power to circumvent the irksome constraints of the natural
world that have shackled hapless denizens of the past—not appreciating
that earth is so much more powerful and more patient than we are, and will always
prevail. The idea that earth time just doesn’t apply to us leads to the
delusion that we can outsmart the complex system of biogeochemical cycles
and, for example, magically solve our climate woes through stratospheric sulfate
injection, and expect that there won’t be a powerful backlash of unintended
consequences as with contra dancers reorganize themselves. Disrespect for
time also seduces us into thinking that we could skip over all that inefficient
of years of coevolution stuff and just terraform ourselves another planet.
Engineering the climate or terraforming Mars sound easy if you’re completely
unaware of the intrinsic timescales of geological and biological phenomena, the
deep evolutionary pathways that gave rise to the world we live in, the
intricately choreographed behind-the-scenes biogeochemical cycles,
the housekeeping crew that make earth habitable. Such ideas are beyond hubris,
revealing not only a profound ignorance of the earth but also of human nature.
What makes us think we could successfully change the rules that
govern this or another planet when we haven’t even learned to govern ourselves?

2 thoughts on “What Past Civilizations Can Teach Us About Time — Marcia Bjornerud at Long Now

  1. Can't you talk? Reading from piece of paper is not the best way of transmiting information. Expert should talk.

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