Thursday, 20 October 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: 'A matter of time'

Nick Robins’ metaphor suggests a profound shift in our perceptions of time. Nick works in the policy, operational and financial dimensions of corporate accountability and sustainability. He is author of The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational (2006) and in 2011 was rated as the leading analyst for climate change research in the ThomsonExtel survey.

In the end, sustainability is all about the allocation of the scarcest resource: time. How much time do we devote to what in the present, and how do we balance the imperatives of time past, time present and time future?

The task, then, is to defeat the ravages of geological time and transfer those things of value from one civilisation to the next, particularly now that we have passed during our lifetimes from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

Nearly all of what we consider to be valuable in human society occupies a tiny fraction of our existence as a species (some 2 million years).

For me, Homer's Iliad is the archetype of human value across time. As the poet Christopher Logue discusses in the introduction to his recent interpretation, War Music, the Iliad is already a work that has survived the collapse of a number of civilisations through luck, persistence and care. But will it survive ours?

The Iliad was written perhaps in the 8th century BCE, some 2,800 years ago. For me, sustainability means enabling those in the future to have an equivalent chance to benefit from this fundamental text, constructing an arc into the future 2,800 years long. This means that my time horizon is (or should be) 4811 AD, far further out that the 2050 timelines of the climate negotiations or the 'seventh generation' thinking of the counter-culture.

The consequences of this shift in perspective are profound: we need to conceive sustainability as beyond culture and indeed language, as the transmission of value beyond time.

All the metaphors in our series so far are collected here.

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