Sustainability is a Matter of Time
"Having goals for the future is important, but if they remain nothing more than targets and objectives, we'll never get there". In her presentation at the University of Oslo’s 207th Anniversary celebration September 3, 2018, Professor Karen O´Brien got people thinking about the relationship between time and sustainability.
Foto: UiO/Terje Heiestad
Time is “Running Out”
Researchers remind us almost daily that time is running out when it comes to climate change and global sustainability – they warn us that we have only a few years to “bend the curves” of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to act now. One question that many are asking is “Do we really have time to change?” To answer this question, we need to look more closely at how we relate to both “time” and “change.”
As a human geographer, my research emphasizes the social and human dimensions of environmental change, particularly the relationship between adaptation and transformation. My research group is focusing not on whether we can transform, but rather on how. How can we transform at the rate, scale, magnitude and depth that is called for by global change research, and do it in a way that is ethical, equitable, and sustainable? Specifically, we are interested in the relationship between individual change, collective change, and systems change. This includes how we can consciously, creatively, and collaboratively “Transform our World” in ways that are consistent with the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. In our research, we pay considerable attention to both perspectives and paradigms.
In order to understand time, it is not enough to think of it from the outside: it is necessary to understand that we, in every moment of our experience, are situated within time.
Perspectives on Time
Let’s consider perspective on time. Time has been in the news a lot lately. Physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of Reality is Not What It Seems– recently published a popular science book on The Order of Time that challenges us to think differently about time. In his chapter on perspectives, he argues that “In order to understand time, it is not enough to think of it from the outside: it is necessary to understand that we, in every moment of our experience, are situated within time” (p. 134).
Researchers at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim just last week published a paper that shows that “Experience, and the succession of events within experience, are thus the substance of which subjective time is generated and measured by the brain.” In other words, time is truly a subjective experience.
But what does all of this mean for sustainability? Let’s start by going back to 1988. This was the year when climate scientist James Hansen testified before the U.S. Congress that “global warming has begun.” It was an extremely hot summer in the United States – and it also was the year that I entered graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and started doing research on climate change and its implications for society.
Today, thirty years later, we have again experienced an abnormally hot summer, where temperature records were broken in many locations, including in Norway. New masters students are starting at the University of Oslo and many of them are interested in transformations to sustainability. From an objective perspective, research shows that serious climate impacts that were once attributed to “the future” are occurring now — much earlier than many scientists had expected back in 1988. From a subjective perspective, my experience is that time really flies — yet every moment we have the opportunity to change.
Implications for Sustainability
This distinction between objective and subjective time has profound implications for sustainability. Sustainable development highlights the connections between current and future generations. It is very much about our subjective experience of both time and space, including how we relate to other people, other species, future generations, and the planet. However, if we only orient our work for sustainability towards some objective time in the future, our ideas, actions, and interventions will be relegated to that time in the future, rather than experienced “here and now.”
Philosopher John Foster recognized this ten years ago in his book The Sustainability Mirage, where he critically discusses climate change and the politics of “never getting there.” He argues for a wider and deeper approach to sustainability, where “sustainability is living the present in ways which – so far as we can tell, and given some luck – will allow us to go on, indefinitely, negotiating an unpredictably emergent reality” (p. 156).
Research on both time and change tells us that what we do right now matters for the future. By focusing on right now, our attention is drawn to the practical, political and personal spheres of transformation, where our subjective perspective of time influences our politics and practices, leading to outcomes that are consistent or inconsistent with sustainability.
Sure, having goals and visions for the future is important, but if they remain as nothing more than targets and objectives, we will never get there. We need to transform the future here and now, recognizing that each of us matters when it comes to individual change, collective change and systems change.
Do we have time to change?
The question that each and every one of us needs to ask is whether we ourselves have the time to engage with transformative change. If the answer is no, then sustainability is likely to remain a mirage. If the answer is yes, then transformations to sustainability may be realized much faster than we think.
In short, to realize the 2030 Agenda, we need to bring the future to the present and make sustainability more than an ideal – we need to make it real — practically, politically and personally. Time matters, change matters, and we matter. Right here and right now!
Foster, John. 2008. The Sustainability Mirage: Illusion and Reality in the Coming War on Climate Change. First edition. London ; Routledge.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology. 2018. “How Your Brain Experiences Time.” EurekAlert! August 29, 2018. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-08/nuos-hyb082818.php.
Rovelli, Carlo. 2018. The Order of Time. Penguin UK.
Shabecoff, Philip. 1988. “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate.” The New York Times, June 24, 1988, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html.