The hands of time move slowly. And they're tightening round your neck . . . but fear not
Time is the strangest substance known to man. You can't see, touch, hear, smell, taste or avoid it. Time makes you stronger-minded but weaker-bodied, gradually transforming you from blushing grape to ornery, grouching raisin. Time is the most precious thing you have, yet you're happiest when you're wasting it. Time will outlive you, your offspring, your offspring's robots and your offspring's robots' springs. It will outlive the wind and the rocks, the sun and the moon, Florence and the Machine. Time, in short, is King of Things.
Because time is invisible, it's hard to work out which bit to focus on at any given moment. It's even hard to work out just how long "any given moment" is. Right now, as you're reading this article, are you absorbing it by the paragraph, by the sentence, or on a word-by-word basis? When I type the word "word", does time temporarily slow down while you hear the word "word" spoken aloud in your mind, or have you already leapt ahead to discover the end of the sentence doesn't sense quite make? How big a "timeslice" can your awareness eat in one go?
The more time you swallow in one sitting, the wiser you become. In Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, we're introduced to the Tralfamadorians, an alien race who can see in four dimensions. They experience life not as a linear sequence of unexpected events, but a timeline of inexorable peaks and troughs, occurring simultaneously. Tralfamadorians aren't upset by tragic events or overjoyed at happy events, because the concept of "events" has no meaning; to them, sunrise, sunset, birth, death, peace, war are all just notches on the same stick. When confronted with tragedy, they merely shrug and say, "So it goes." That's why there's never been a Tralfamadorian on EastEnders.
Anyway, while most people don't perceive life with the worrisome scope of a Tralfamadorian, they're capable of projecting at least a little. Take joggers. They weren't born with a pre-programmed desire to jog. No. One day they decided they'd like to get fit, and chose to sacrifice their immediate comfort in favour of delayed gratification: they got off the sofa and jogged themselves slim. Every jogger is essentially a clairvoyant. They've transcended the shackles of contemporary subsistence and risen above the likes of you and me, to witness a vision of the future so captivating it blocks out the pain of the present, so enticing, they're literally compelled to run towards it. Not only that, they've been organised enough to buy proper trainers and shorts and everything, the smug bastards. No wonder everyone else wants to hit them. Here's a tip: visualise a future in which you've toned yourself to athletic perfection by fighting random joggers in the park. Here's another tip: wear some sort of mask. And maybe a cape. We'll come up with a logo for your chest plate later.
Joggers are a minority, but then exercisers generally are a minority. Even though we're repeatedly told that regular exercise combats heart disease and cancer and blah blah nag nag nag, more than 60% of the population couldn't be arsed trying, because it makes their legs ache. They're not necessarily lazy, but suffering from an inability to perceive the future as a solid and tangible thing, unlike those far-sighted seers in running shoes and sweat pants. Perhaps joggers have a few additional Tralfamadorian synapses; only by experimenting on their brains can we be sure. Meanwhile, the rest of us remain stubbornly wedged into narrow individual pockets of time, moaning that we need to lose a few pounds while sobbing into our chips.
And we do the same with the environment: we fail to take painful measures in the present that could ease our existence in the future, because we think they're too arduous – unless you're a spluttering contrarian, in which case you think the whole climate change thing is a load of trumped-up phooey anyway, and that all scientists are shifty, self-serving exaggerators, apart from the brave handful who agree with you. Hey, I'm no scientist. I'm not an engineer either, but if I asked 100 engineers whether it was safe to cross a bridge, and 99 said no, I'd probably try to find another way over the ravine rather than loudly siding with the underdog and arguing about what constitutes a consensus while trundling across in my Hummer.
Still, it's easy to picture a collapsing bridge. Picturing a collapsing environment is trickier. Hollywood has tried its best, but all I learned from sitting through The Day After Tomorrow is that, contrary to my previous expectations, the end of the world might be boring. What we need, if we're really going to work in unison to overcome climate change is a mix of Tralfamadorian perspective and joggers' resolve: to let visions of the future dictate our present, rather than the other way round.
So: we need to loosen mankind's dogged grip on a linear interpretation of time if we're going to save the planet. But how? We can't go round injecting our brains with Tralfamadorian grey matter, because it doesn't exist. Instead the closest thing we have is LSD, which must be pumped into the water supply as a matter of urgency. A couple of months of steady supply should be enough to expand our collective perception. Let's start by testing it out on Stourbridge (no reason; just picked it at random: sorry Stourbridge). The results can be televised live. It'll be funny watching them trying to eat their own ankles or chase the town hall into the sky: just like It's a Knockout, but with a sense of civic purpose.
Yes. For all our sakes, this must happen NOW.
The Guardian, Monday 15 March 2010