Soapbox Post

This weekend, we must do something about saving time.  Most of the United States reverts to standard time on the first Sunday in November.  We have to reset and readjust in the present.  This prompts me to ask: do we need to save not just the present, but also the future?


Our wicked global problems from climate change to water and energy issues belong not only to us but also to future generations.  This argument for taking care of contemporary problems so as to leave something nice for our children’s children has roots in environmental ethics where an interesting dilemma on the status of future persons comes about.  It can grossly be boiled down to: Can we presume to know what a person living in the future needs and desires?  If our governing bodies and our cultural wisdom attempt to be responsible for the long term, are we, with our discipline and care, robbing future generations of self-determination?


Could my great, great grandmother who lived on a rural farm without running water or refrigeration much less wireless and a recycling bin have known what she should bestow to me?  Could she have saved my present?  I envy (and romanticize) the timing that my great, great grandmother must have lived with.  I see her sewing clothes by hand on a rocking chair.  I imagine time enough and plenty of sleep.  I don’t think she was tortured by an alarm clock, but probably had some pretty irritating roosters.  I cannot help dreaming of stillness and long pauses in the face of “the acceleration of just about everything” (Gleick 2000).  The speed and urgency of modern life are tempered by a rise in slow food, slow cities, slow design, and slow sex, yet these splices of deceleration are minor respites from the frenzy.


In the wee hours on Sunday, most Americans loose an hour yet skip into the future.


The origins of daylight savings time are linked to a whimsical essay, The Economical Project, by Benjamin Franklin about natural vs. artificial light, urging the population of Paris to rise before Noon and stop complaining about the price of candles.  His satire proposed the following regulations:

  • A tax laid on every window built with shutters to keep out the light of the sun.
  • Candles rationed to one pound per family per week, and the regulation enforced by the constabulary. 
  • Guards posted to stop the passage of all coaches, etc., upon the streets after sunset except those of physicians, surgeons and midwives. 
  • Every morning as soon as the sun shall rise, church bells and, if necessary, cannon shall inform the citizenry of the advent of light and "awaken the sluggards effectually and make them open their eyes to see their true interests....All the difficulty will be in the first two or three days; after which the reformation will be as natural and easy as the present irregularity....Oblige a man to rise at four in the morning, and it is probable he will go willingly to bed at eight in the evening."

In terms of wacky revolutions in time reckoning, the railroad, a much anticipated “emerging” technology of the day, demanded punctuality and standardization.  In 1840 the Great Western Railway adopted London time, and seven years later, most railways used London time.  Standard time in time zones was instituted in the United States and Canada by the railroads in 1883.  The church town clock, or some other local clock kept pace before then.  Standard Time and Daylight Savings did not become law until 1918 much to the dismay of farmers who could not rouse their chickens at an earlier hour.  Time remained contested and swiveled throughout the century with the latest modification on March 11, 2007, in response to concerns over energy.


Time reckoning is malleable – not only on a day when we change our clocks – but also in a broader socio-cultural sense.  Political and religious leaders have long used time reckoning to assert power, from instituting a new calendar or, well, let’s not forget we’re living A.D.  Nowadays, the Long Now Foundation out of San Francisco lists the dates for its events as 02009 to cause a change in time consciousness.


So time is a’ changin’.  While some say that the future is shrinking, and others that the future is growing, maybe the future is more and more in the present.  It is both in our minds and in our deeds.  The policies, machines, laws and invisible particles that we put forth today persist into the future.  The future is already populated with habituated ways of doing things, with powerful interests and agendas, with plans set in motion, with sticky decision-making processes.  Our actions today have time distant effects.


Perhaps behavioral changes like those that Franklin proposed sound as blasphemous then as any proposal for rethinking time itself to actually take the future seriously.  What kind of changes in words and deeds would we need to take good care of the future?  How would we work, live and love differently?


So in celebration of Daylight Savings Time: Spring forward! Fall back!  And as you are falling, settle back to consider:


If we were interested in saving the future, what would that look like?



About the Author:  Cynthia Selin is an assistant research professor at CSPO & CNS-ASU.

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