A Crisis in Time

I had a conversation with my neighbor recently, in the format that’s now become habitual for us. Before March of last year, we’d greet each other’s dogs and unthinkingly pierce what we now consider our sacred “bubble.” These days, he stands on his back porch, and I stand in the middle of my yard. We mustn’t get any closer. While talking, he made a trite remark that provoked a revelation in how I think about the COVID-19 pandemic, and why it’s so hard to overcome: “It’s just another Groundhog Day over here.”

In the 1993 Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day”, the main character experiences an endless time loop, repeating February 2nd over and over. Realizing no consequences ever follow his actions – no matter what he does he just wakes up again on the 2nd and nothing has changed for the rest of the world – Murray’s character takes a nihilistic tilt, engaging in what can be described only as unscrupulous behavior. Through it all, no matter how far he runs away from Punxsutawney, PA on February 2nd, he still wakes up the next morning back in town. He can’t escape his Groundhog’s Day by running. In the end, it’s the passage of time, his acceptance of the situation, and his decision to abandon nihilism and do good for those around him that lets him finally see daybreak on February 3rd.

Many crises we experience are inherently spatial in nature. In the face of a wildfire or hurricane, we evacuate. When a war comes, we flee. A drought withers crops in one state while a flood washes out fields a few hundred miles away. These are crises in space, and we’ve learned how to get away from them. If they get really bad and we have the means, we move somewhere else.

With the coronavirus, we can’t migrate our way out of danger. Though the physical distance I keep from my neighbor helps keep us both safe, the nature of our current disaster is temporal. The only way to avoid, mitigate, and survive during the COVID-19 pandemic is to wait and choose actions that help society as a whole, even if they cost us as individuals. Put simply, the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis in time.

We are much better suited for mobility in space than we are for mobility in time. Part of this is technological. I can fall asleep on a plane in New York and wake up a continent away in Seattle, but I can’t fall asleep like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and wake up having traveled a year away to a future where we’re all safe and vaccinated. But the more profound part of our challenge with time is more cognitive than technological. We understand our relationship to space more intuitively than to time. Take away your ruler, and you can fairly accurately estimate a foot, a yard, or even a mile. Take away your watch, though, and once you lose count of the seconds it gets hard to discern how time much is passing. In part due to our more intimate relationship with space than with time, it’s much easier to outrun a wildfire than to wait for the post-COVID world. We just aren’t very good at dealing with issues of time.

Thinking about our relationship with time doesn’t come naturally, and we certainly aren’t taught much about time beyond how to read the hands of a clock in elementary school. In day-to-day life, most among us don’t base our actions on a distant future or think about our choices in the context of the deep past. However, time is just as important as space when we seek to understand the world around us. Nature moves through time just as easily as it moves through space. Rocks move over millions and billions of years as oceans open and close, continents rift and collide, and mountains grow and crumble. Water moves over thousands of years as glaciers grow and retreat, lakes rise and fall, and streams gouge and meander. Life moves through the seasons as herds migrate to follow food, individuals hibernate to outlast the winter, and trees grow leaves just until the days get short. Humans delude ourselves by thinking the conditions that exist during our current moment in time are unchanging.

But it can be hard to see the changes that constantly move through nature. Human cognition is not well suited to incorporating long-term foresight into our short-term decision making. Because of this, any delay between an action and its consequence decreases the importance of that consequence when we make a choice about the action. It’s easy to take risks with murky and distant repercussions. What’s harder is to stay at home and wait, hoping for a reward months down the line – to see the futures that could be and change them by using time as an asset.

Though rare, when time crises like the COVID-19 pandemic do occur their scope tends to be massive. The pandemic is not the only ongoing time crisis we’re contending with today. Another is climate change, which will take an even greater effort to forge a productive relationship with time to solve. We can’t just sit at home and out-wait climate change, and there’s nowhere to flee – climate change touches every corner of the planet.

Further complicating our climate response, the delay between action and consequence is even longer for the climate change crisis than for the coronavirus. Instead of the already difficult task of thinking on timescales of months, we have to consider decades full of time. Trickier still, individual actions don’t add up in the fight against climate change the same way they do for the coronavirus. Individuals wearing masks and keeping a physical distance can slow the spread, but climate change calls for time-conscious actions on a societal scale.

Hope for addressing time crises, though, is not futile. If it were, instead of writing this I’d be stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper to prepare for the eventual climate apocalypse. I find hope in the lessons we can learn from the coronavirus and hope that these lessons can lead us to a more sustainable future. We are living through one of the most visible and impactful time crises in a century. We can use this period to come to better understand our relationship to time – the past and the future. Living through the coronavirus time crisis can teach us, if we let it, a whole new awareness of time that we must apply to climate change.

The coronavirus has given us a chance, in a perverse way: a chance to practice solving a time crisis and include the past and future when we consider the present. Like Bill Murray learning that the only way to escape his time loop is to think beyond himself and accept his bizarre relationship to time, I hope we learn from this pandemic that to escape a world of climate devastation we have to think beyond our present moment. We all have a bizarre relationship to time right now, be it due to repetitiveness, important events we’ve delayed, or just getting used to a different pace of life than we kept before.

My neighbor, living in his pandemic Groundhog’s Day like the rest of us, is learning to wait. He willing to live the same day over and over again because he knows that he has to reckon with time to escape a time crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. My hope is that enough of us can learn this lesson and apply it to the more durable time crisis of climate change. Then, and only then, can we all migrate to a future free of both the coronavirus and fossil fuels.

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