This month I passed a personal milestone, one that harkens back to the Old Testament, Psalms 90: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten ...” Reflecting on this, I am wrestling with the problem of how difficult it is for us to fully grasp and understand time.
Seventy years seems a long time, and it is for people. But for Mount Rainier, 70 years is just part of a short rest before its next eruption. For geologic time, the span of one lifetime is of no consequence.
We skip back and forth between various time scales, from personal time (am I late for work?) to the yearly cycle of our planet’s journey around the sun (70 cycles for me, so far), and to community time (activities that involve multiple generations and many years).
Ordinarily this skipping occurs without difficulties. I celebrate the changing of seasons, and renewing my garden each spring. And we quickly introduce children to the annual time cycle with a celebration, complete with singing and candles. Personal time, work hours, vacation dates, birthdays, and the like usually cause no difficulties.
But it is a greater challenge to recognize the importance of time when thinking beyond the personal and annual, say between generations or over centuries. This is the community time frame. These are actions that must be taken today but will have their major benefits over many decades and far into the future.
As an example, in the 1950s and 1960s, in every part of our nation, there was substantial investment in the interstate highway system. This system was authorized and funded by elected officials willing to look far into the future, far beyond their current terms of office.
But today we are miserably failing to maintain our highway system, much less invest further in it. Even the tried and true method of “user pays” (i.e., the gas tax) is failing. Why is this?
Also, for generations our communities freely and generously funded our public schools. In fact, if the historic accounts are accurate, schools were the first thing the citizens of a new community demanded. The Washington constitution, adopted in 1889, identified the funding of the common schools as the “paramount duty” of the state.
But it’s not that way anymore. Many of our citizens, as represented by their elected legislators and their levy votes, are unwilling to provide adequately for the public schools. Why do so many of us feel this way?
The simplest answer, I suppose, is the “no new taxes” refrain we hear over and over. But, really, this begs the question. Why are we so set against taxes now when the gifts provided to us by the taxpayers of past generations are so obvious?
I think much of the answer is our changing perception of time. We now expect quick results – immediate answers on the Internet, immediate returns on investments, the immediate satisfaction of our every desire, and the income to provide for these wants and needs.
It seems that we today are little concerned about important long-term inter-generational questions. Ask yourself, how often do you make decisions based on long-term needs, especially long-term community needs?
In my view, our inability to recognize how vital these long-term questions are, and to act on that recognition, is damaging our community, state and nation. Elected state and federal officials, upon whom we rely on for leadership, tend to think in one- and two-year budget cycles (or maybe it’s really two- and four-year election cycles).
It’s understandable why we might ignore the inevitability of change on a geologic timescale (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and the like). But one issue from this timescale, climate change, is spilling over onto the community timescale. In 100 years (just a few generations), and possibly much sooner, the earth’s climate will be much warmer and the basic chemistry of air and oceans will be drastically changed.
Because most of us will be dead before the full impacts of climate change are felt, taking effective action requires that we think beyond ourselves and our personal timescale. We have to say to ourselves and our elected officials that we support and will pay for actions that address climate change, recognizing all the while that these actions will have their greatest benefits far into the future.
In takes courage, both personal and political, to invest now to create a legacy for the future. Thank heavens our ancestors had that courage. It remains to be determined whether we do. I hope so.
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager, and is a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org