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We are all temporal chauvinists now

by Stuart Candy on September 13th, 02007

Last month I came across an interesting Long Now-flavoured idea in an unexpected context, a feature article in Honolulu Weekly about agricultural tourism on the Hawaiian island of Maui. In it, farmer Richard Clark points out that humans, with an average lifespan of 70 plus years, are “temporal chauvinists” who like to use solar years to measure time, while many other species’ lives play out over entirely different time scales.

A word on etymology. Chauvinism comes to us from one Nicolas Chauvin, a (possibly legendary) soldier in Napoleon’s Grand Armée whose attachment to the Empire persisted long after its day was done. So, while the term originally referred to a sort of blind patriotism, other single-minded partisan attachments have earned the dubious honour of bearing Chauvin’s name — male chauvinism, female chauvinism… and “temporal chauvinism”, which seems to have been coined several times independently (not surprisingly, for an idea whose time has come).

The point is that, thanks to habit and small-mindedness, we’ve become committed — without realising it — to a view of time which is profoundly limited and, frankly, limiting as well. When Stewart Brand warns of civilisation “revving itself into a pathologically short attention span”, he is referring to our culture’s troubling temporal chauvinism, to which the whole Long Now concept is addressed: it’s a social intervention designed to reopen our sense of time, thereby fostering long-term responsibility.

A related idea in the field of futures studies is what University of Hawaii futurist and politicial science professor Jim Dator calls “the crackpot realism of the present”. For Dator, temporal crackpot realism is our “fully understandable but quite misleading belief that the world of the present will dominate the future”, and the concomitant failure to consider other possibilities seriously.

His idea reworks a concept from sociologist C. Wright Mills, who used the term “crackpot realism” in his 01958 book The Causes of World War Three to describe “a high-flying moral rhetoric … joined with an opportunist crawling among a great scatter of unfocused fears and demands.” Mills wrote: “In fact, the main content of ‘politics’ is now a struggle among men equally expert in practical next steps—which, in summary, make up the thrust toward war—and in great, round, hortatory principles.” As one commentator has pointed out (almost half a century after Mills) this remains a recognisable feature of today’s political landscape.

It seems to me that the case for thinking about the future in plural terms (futures — that is, alternative scenarios, rather than a singular extrapolation of the present) is very similar to the argument for expanding our sense of time to encompass the “long now”. Both temporal chauvinism and crackpot realism appear blameless from inside their respective bubbles, because it seems obvious that the timeframe and circumstances of our own experience are all we need consider to get by. But those overgrown twins of naive thought about change — short-termism and monofuturism — having been identified as harmful and misguided, are being challenged. The movements to think about change longer-term, and pluralistically, are a reponse to them. In the face of what seem to be deeply ingrained reflexes, neither way of thinking is easy to adopt or develop; but both, I think, are essential.