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Last Updated: 04/13/2005
", forever"
Clayton White

A University for Peace visiting professor muses on the meaning of the “forever” that stretches both in front and behind of human endeavours.

Ever since I first came across the project four or five years ago, the Clock of the Long Now has held my fascination (see The Long Now Foundation). It will be with some awe that I stand beneath it once it is finally built on my visit to where it will stand for the next 10,000 years - a 'bunker' in the desert mountain land adjoining the Great Basin National Park in northern Nevada.


A three metre (9ft) tall prototype is on display as part of the Making the Modern World exhibition at the Science Museum in London, and a second prototype, twice the size, is under construction. The final incarnation of the Clock of the Long Now is an ongoing process of design, but its size and structure will be an integral part of experiencing the Clock. The look of the Clock, or the prototype at least - all polished brass and burnished metal - does not belie the age of its manufacture; rather it gives it an already time-wearied aesthetic. The most immediately striking feature is the absence of a twelve-portioned face and hands - for the Clock of the Long Now is not a conventional timepiece; it measures days as they were seconds, years as they were minutes, and centuries as they were hours. As its maker Danny Hillis says, "It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium." The astrolabe centre of the domed display further adds to the mystical presence of the clock. Concentric rings that radiate from the astrolabe alternate between clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation each making testimony to the passage of time. The Sun Ring completes its rotation on the cycle of darkness and light that make a day. The Moon Ring passes through eight phases before it returns to the new moon every 29 days of its rotation. The outer two rings, from the inner to outer ring respectively, count the passing of the years as they accumulate to make a century, and the centuries to make millennia. Each graduation of the Century Ring is one full rotation of the Year Ring, or 36,524 days. The outer Century Ring will take us to the turning of the millennium 12,000 AD, and by the time it completes its full rotation, the Earth will have seen the passage of 365.2421 X 104 days. The mechanical computer that regulates the movement of the rings is governed by the "Equation of Time Cam," a lopsided cylinder that allows the clock to compensate for the slip in time that is represented in the Christian calendar as an extra day that adds to February each Leap Year.

The same stars represented on the astrolabe will still be tinkling overhead when the Clock winds down, but it will, no doubt, be a vastly different landscape they cast their gentle light over. Imagine if you will, the Clock of the Long Now buried in its deep mountain vault, to be (re-)discovered by future generations still keeping perfect time. What would it say about us? Our expectations? Our ambitions? Our hopes and dreams? Standing before the Clock of the Long Now is to gain an appreciation for the inexorable march of time. It is to project oneself far into the future. Hopefully, it will be one that we will still have some presence in, or at least connection to. Can human civilisation last the next ten thousand years? What about simply lasting until Y3K or the 22nd Century?!


The breezy hills above Cuidad Colón, Costa Rica, are a mix of shade-grown coffee, pasture, and tall-fenced haciendas. On the peaks are the remnants of a rich primary forest that once covered this area of Costa Rica. In between lays the campus of the United Nations-mandated University for Peace. In the park that forms part of the University grounds - a popular weekend recreation and BBQ area - are a number of small lakes around which are dotted a collection of interpretative panels. The panels form one of the only permanent exhibits of the Walk Through Time anywhere in the world (the panels can be viewed at the virtual Walk Through Time). Where the Clock of the Long Now counts the days into the future in a human scale of time, the Walk Through Time is a back-catalogue of a cosmological time scale that has brought us from stardust to the multiplicity of life forms that exist now. As you follow the mile-long trail from a big bang supernova to the brink of collapse for the human civilisation, you pass through over 400 million years; each step equivalent to 1 million years; one human life span measured by a mere splinter of an inch (0.0001).


The Walk becomes a meditation on the significance (or insignificance) of human life. It commands us to respect our roots and understand that through our origins in the primordial soup we are indeed part of a oneness of life - the bacteria in our gut and colon are part of this ancient genealogy. It asks us to reflect on the significance of this commonality and mutual connection and indeed on our interdependence with life and with the inanimate that provides the source of what we need to survive. It asks us to consider the questions: What next for planet Earth? What next for humankind? What does the future hold?


These two perspectives - the 20/20 view that comes with hindsight and the misty blur of futures forecasting - come together in the idea of sustainable development. We need a deep understanding of both to make the decisions of the present count for the future.

Sustainable development has been defined in as few as four words: Enough for all, forever. Once the arguments over the subjective elements of whose reality "enough" should represent are over, it is something tangible that can be determined empirically. For example: the amount of calories that equal a recommended daily allowance; the price and volume of accoutrements that we all collect to create self-identity and provide recreation; the amount of land required for a comfortable home; and so on. "All" means everyone, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity or postal address. However, the definition of "all" becomes more complex when it is extended beyond the species Homo sapiens to include other forms of life, and again, when the element of future generations is factored into the equation.


However, of these words, "forever" may be the most elusive. Forever is a mighty long time and is an abstract that many of us have difficulty grasping. It is hard enough to plan for next year, a five or ten year plan, or end-of-career goals, let alone think about planning for a life for our unborn great, great, great grandchildren and beyond. It is difficult to conceive of what human society will look like in the future, especially if you consider that many of the things that we take for granted now, like automobiles, telephones and air travel, are relatively recent human innovations. It takes a special skill to be future-aware.


But grasp it we must. Because like the "terra-former" machines of science fiction that help to create a hospitable atmosphere on a new planet, the human project is busy creating the environment that our descendants will inhabit in the far but maybe not too distant future. However, rather than creating the kinds of conditions that are most hospitable for us, the conditions that we are fast creating may be wholly inhospitable to human and other life in the long-term. The culpability of humans in this process of "terra-forming" is confirmed in the Second Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in December 1995, with the announcement that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate" (IPPC, 1995: 22).


Championing the importance of reflecting on our past and thinking about forever is based on the idea that developing an historical consciousness helps us to develop a moral consciousness (I include a future histories perspective in this idea of historical consciousness). Of course, there is the kind of reflection on our recent past, either on our own direct life experience or from what the history books tell of our ancestors, that allows us to learn from our successes and failures. This is also part of the ongoing, iterative process of self- and human-improvement and innovation. Our future vision is not a Hubble Space Station megapixel image of deep space but more a 3 X zoom camera phone grainy snapshot. It is in: the planning we do for the day-to-day of making task lists for the week ahead; the five/ten year strategic plans; and, the longer term planning for our retirement or grandchildren's financial security.


Both of these immediate scale reflections and planning will continue to be important. But we each need to develop the capacity to enter into the greater cosmological reflection and projection of far flung future civilisations - the kinds of thinking that can be practised as we participate in the Walk Through Time and/or consider the "face" of the Clock of the Long Now.


It is the generation of just these kinds of perspective that will contribute to the development of a feeling of universal responsibility that has been given such prominence in the Preamble to the Earth Charter. Universal responsibility is defined as a sharing by everyone in the "responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world." It asks us to live "with a reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life, and humility regarding the human place in nature." The Walk Through Time is a physical reminder of this place. In the footstep = one million years formula of the walk, humans come on the scene barely two steps before the closing panel. While science has provided answers for many of our questions, and religion the meaning for those that science cannot, the multiple contributing factors that made it possible for us to exist and to go on breathing life will remain ever mysterious. At the essence of the Clock of the Long Now is the idea of long-term care and stewardship not just for our children's children but for those generations that cannot be named - because who is going to be around to tend the Clock, keep it wound and sprung, and be there to witness the Century Ring complete its full rotation?

When I think of what I am contributing to in my own legacy for future, I am challenged but also take hope from these words adapted from a Message to Future Generations by Allen Tough:

You are alive at a pivotal moment in humanity's development. You are making some of the most important choices in human history. Your era is marked by positive and negative potentials of such newness and magnitude that you can hardly understand them.


Through your public policies and daily lives, the people of your era have tremendous power to influence the future course of humanity's story. We strongly care about your choices, of course, since we benefit or suffer from them quite directly. We live downstream from you in time; whatever you put into the stream flows on to our era.


This is why we are very pleased that you care so deeply about the well-being of future generations. That is what we want most from you: your caring for us, your concern for our well-being, your willingness to take our needs as seriously as you take your own needs.


We admire and thank you for taking our needs seriously. We treasure our past and our predecessors as well as our future. We respect and love you.



The Earth Charter,

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1995) IPCC Second Assessment on Climate Change 1995,

The Long Now Foundation,

Tough, Allen (1998) A Message From Future Generations,

A Walk Through Time,

Clayton White is the Sustainable Development Advocacy Programme Leader for Project Carrot, Pershore Group of Colleges & University College Worcester, Hereford, UK.