Isolations of Space and Time
Issue #7 – Isolations of Space and Time

Geologic time is rather impossible to appreciate. We live with a sense of time measured by a unique metronome, the human heart–one second for each beat. We borrow the cadences of planets and moons to capture days, months, and years. Our lifespans gauge larger periods, as do those of other living things. And stories of origin and ancestral histories put us in an even greater temporal framework. But nothing we easily sense corresponds to the immensity of elapsed time recorded in the layers of rock beneath us. What can hundreds of millions of years mean? We have words like millennia, era, and eon as placeholders, and we know of billionaires and about gigabytes. Still, those concepts do not translate fluently into time. Geologic time has little resonance–our consciousness is fixed to different, more immediate scales.

The inability to think at longer time scales or to see time as a variable of process has consequences, though. We mis-identify problems and solve them wrongly. One tendency is to apply spatial barriers, like territorial or geographic controls, to all manner of dynamic biologic, physical, and cultural phenomena. A look at these problems from outside our usual time frame situates them differently, and allows more appropriate and robust responses. Taken together these mis-solved problems also demonstrate a similar mindset that begs the question:
What are we keeping out, and in, and why?

I. Invasion

Isn’t every successful species invasive? The history of life on Earth is the history of the relentless, explosive expansion of living things into every imaginable and unimaginable environment, commandeering resources and space competitively, opportunistically, creatively. The evidence is that life will out, no matter what. A larger view of the geologic record reveals a history of changing ecosystems and environments. But in conversations about invasive species the fertile mechanisms of evolution are unacknowledged: process is unseen.

Instead, stasis and equilibrium are presumed values, and we employ spatial and procedural controls to preserve what is. We debate aspects and implications of evolutionary process in an ethical context, demonizing successful species – including ourselves – and idealizing those less well adapted. A more sophisticated position advocates ecosystem protection, claiming that environmental conditions are changing too quickly for some species to accommodate and also that new conditions give invading species an unfair advantage. But ‘victim’ has no meaning in the evolutionary process. Why pick winners and losers? And what does it really mean to preference rates of change? It is not hard to discern undercurrents of misanthropy and xenophobia in these viewpoints, but exceptional thinking is also present.

We are chrono-centric in a way that is akin to pre-Copernican geocentric astronomical understandings. A belief that our moment is the preferred moment in time gives us license to resist change. We attach our resistance to great and noble ideas, like helping unfortunate life forms, saving the planet, and stewarding creation. But this is dishonest. We are simply afraid of change, which is to say, afraid of death. Despite our egotism, the unalterable state of the cosmos is flux. Natural systems change, the Earth is constantly becoming. In geological time, resistance for any reason is futile; resistance for reasons other than our narrow own is dissembling. In this one un-special moment of time we are only protecting who we are now and what we have now, for our own benefit, now.
Ecology is a conservative practice.

What problems would we see, and what solutions if we understood time differently?
How to plan, design for change?

II. Immigration

Studies of primates show they are hardwired to keep to their own, and strongly suggest we are built the same – to protect those like us and repel those who are not. Recent studies in cognitive science discover that we share the brainwave patterns of those closest to us, not by synchrony or custom and accommodation, but instead because we choose friends and partners by their likeness to us. Separate evidence from cognitive science indicates that we also are hardwired to conflate space and time. (Our ‘time manager’ co-opts the mental apparatus used to organize spatial experience.) So it is not surprising that a process like migration and the cultural change it brings–a longer term process–are geographically contained.

But not all responses to the movement of people are equally time-blind. Two examples that differ in intent and purpose both resolve process and time to advantage.

Social quarantines of culture often conform to or exploit landscapes of isolation. Think neighborhoods stranded by highway and railroad. Also those carved out between levees and dikes, as in New Orleans and Wilhelmsburg, Germany (an ElbeInsel of Hamburg), which is enclosed again by a customs fence. Even in vital port cities such as these, defined by outflow and inflow, coming and going, fringed places exist. Migrants, the poor, the differently-colored accumulate there, where the landscape is less desirable, costs are fewer, and society necessarily more accepting. Over time, mixing and separation find a balance–first in commerce, and then acculturation happens, unevenly but mutually. Novelty seeps in, inter-fingering with the established culture. Language, food, and music are the ambassadors: pidgin gives way to creole, yogurt becomes a national dish, everyone listens to jazz.
Landscapes of isolation are the wetlands of migration, slowing and filtering the differences that transform culture.

Directed settling of migrants, where communities elect to host refugees, shows time-nuanced understanding too. Most recently, refugees from Africa and the Middle East have been welcomed into many European countries, whose leaders assume and anticipate a faster beneficial give and take of ethical, social, or economic dimension.

By simultaneously bracing for and embracing change, these different segregations of geography are congruent with process and reconcile time in our favor: we thereby supervise, improvise the ongoing creation of the world.

* * *

The ethics of relational art reveal a similar mindset about attenuating change. Relational art poses the non-threatening introduction of new ideas and practices by emphasizing audience participation. Such participatory art is consensual, harmonious, interstitial, and concordant with the culture it engages, all the while modifying and intervening. This approach can underlie other activism and awareness-raising, too. By appropriating process, and scaling down rather than eliminating change, we place it within human time, to allow evolution. And prevent revolution.

III. Inundation

Our dealings with some physical, non-biological recurrent events of the natural world, like fire and flood, also show awareness of larger scale process. Older practices that protect life and property are in favor again as the deferred effects of spatial containment reveal mismatches of problem and solution.

Levees are designed to keep flood waters contained (and they do, if well-constructed), but they also disrupt re-sedimentation.There are two significant consequences. Land behind levees subsides without flood-borne sediment, threatening the stability of the built environment founded on it. Many parts of New Orleans are now at a lower elevation than they were when levees were first constructed (although human-engineered drainage is also responsible). Arable land behind breakwaters is deprived of the nutrients and fertility floodwaters bring, too. Protected land actually becomes more fragile and unserviceable. A forward-looking, longer time scale response emphasizes instead the importance of buffer zones like flood plains and wetlands, places we choose not to occupy in any permanent way. A spatial response, yes, but one that is accommodating rather than preventive, more passive than active.

Panarchy theory proposes different destructive and regenerative regimes, controlled by the interdependent variables of scale and frequency of disruption in this way: Frequent, numerous, small disruptions destroy, but less catastrophically so than larger ones that happen rarely. Large disruptions in fact are precipitated by the absence of many small mediating changes. This is an idea familiar from earthquake science and experience, and also evident in wildfire management, where the use of small controlled burns mimics and exploits a natural cycle of forest destruction and renewal, and is markedly different from past wildfire suppression tactics which over time fueled greater ruin. Here a sensitivity to time, process, and cycle resolves towards tinkering with rate rather than employing spatial sequesters.

In these circumstances we are working with, rather than strictly opposing, natural mechanisms and courses of events, albeit to control them. We regulate occurrences outside our usual time frame to preserve what takes place within it. And yet there are costs. Panarchic scale holds for the generative response to destruction too. Small disruptions limit the new – and are therefore conservative. They allow for small-step developmental progression but stymie radical creation, birth, transformation. For without catastrophe, revolution is excluded, yes – but also origination and invention.

Can we, should we, do even less?

IV. Emanation

We are slowly coming to terms with the converse idea that actions taken within our frame have consequences for systems beyond. The obvious example here is the imagining and construction of the U.S. federal highway system begun in the 1950‘s, which fomented dramatic cultural changes that have implications today at the planetary scale.

We have designated this a global problem of highest priority – our chrono-centrism tells us that any change outside our frame is a dangerous thing. But we do not understand well what this change will mean, in the short or long term, for us or the Earth.
Neither do we understand the far-reaching reverberations of proposed re-mediations any better than we understood the implications of cross-country paving half a century ago.

This is not to dispute the human-sourced enrichment of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, but rather a caution about our response. While experts agree that Earth’s average temperature is likely to rise due to carbon increase, there is no science or model that can yet reliably predict what consequent changes will happen, or where or when. The weather is unpredictable more than a few days out; future climate a much less clear view.

There are also confounding variables unaccounted for. Many long time-scale cycles and systems on Earth are poorly understood, like glaciation and polar reversals; many more may be yet unrecognized. And many of these systems, like climate, are chaotic, and therefore highly unpredictable. Any of them could work against or with the change we have already wrought, and with or against any changes we make in response. We are operating time-blindly.

There is an architectural, spatial analogy to blind process tinkering. Visiting older houses I have seen living space degraded by the accumulation of poorly understood problems fixed with bad solutions, that inevitably create more problems that are themselves understood poorly and solved badly. The invariable result is a house which is accommodated rather than accommodating.
In short, we make a mess.

Without large scale vision and perspective, without comprehensive understanding of interconnected systems and processes, and without the tools to predict outcomes accurately there are limits to what we can effect. Isolations in time and space are always stopgap measures.
How should we act given how little we can know?

V. Balance

On a weekend drive, touring the lakes region of New Hampshire, I was approached by a resident offering help with directions. Our conversation was telling. In just a few minutes he conveyed the essential character of Pine River Pond – that it was dammed, privately owned, the water free from invasive species, the houses mostly four-season and generational, the community close and tight. All manner of fences – spatial, economic, procedural, cultural – are in place to preserve what is. The only thing that changes on Pine River Pond is the temperature.

In such change-phobic interventional frames equilibrium and stasis are presumed goods, present time is the preferred ecological moment, and evolution is debated in an ethical context – good flora/bad flora, good fauna/bad fauna (ourselves included). Benefits like alteration, variation, transformation are limited, even to the point of exclusion. What creative opportunities are lost?

Buddhist and Vedic philosophies regard ideal participation in the ongoing creation of the world very differently. For Buddhists, change as a constant is axiomatic, and passive non-intervention essential to acceptance of the Karmic flux and our inability to see the bigger picture.The Veda center instead on a transcendent understanding of the entropic nature of cosmic change: We are always putting back together that which is always falling apart. Inherent in both traditions is the acknowledgement and acceptance of temporal frames that seemingly contradict our own.

Many aboriginal philosophies and ways of living emphasize symbiosis and greater contexts, too, in contrast with Western practices of control, dominance and exploitation–of the human and non-human world. The non-linear rate of technological advance makes revaluation of our relationship to time an imperative.

Perhaps here begins the idea that we can – must – reconcile ourselves to mortality, to extinction, to the end of the world itself. We must balance change and stasis differently, to allow for generative, constructive forces larger than ourselves, in contexts greater than our own. As we go on. A new equilibrium, if you will – one of change, outside our frame.

What it comes down to is this:
You are not that important.
You are all that matters.

Can we hold these thoughts together in our minds? Can they together guide policy, philosophy, everyday decisions?

Ecology is a science of stasis, Geography a science of moments.
Music and cookery are endlessly inventive practices.
Language is evolutionary.

see also


Issue #6 – In The Field
Native Speaker
Issue #1 – Love and Language



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