Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Time present has an immediacy that makes it hard to grasp, it is so apparent and real but at the same time almost impossible to comprehend. Try to grasp the present, the current moment, and it slips through your fingers. How can we live in the present, in the ‘now’, if what we conceive as ‘now’ is constantly changing and moving forward? This of course, assumes that we know what ‘now’ really means, and that we perceive time as having a direction, which may or may not be correct. Even trying to understand what constitutes the present, how big or small it is, whether it consists of a single moment, or a series of moments linked together in some way, is difficult.
Sometimes time seems to drag, at other times it seems to move too fast, and occasionally, when we are totally absorbed in an activity, we are not even aware of the passage of time. Ask someone in each of those situations how they perceive present time, the ‘now’, and you would get three very different responses. If ‘now’ exists at all then surely it must exist outside of time, which then suggests that time as a concept, has no beginning and possibly no direction.
‘Awake!’, the start of the Rubáiyát (attributed to Omar Khayyam who lived in 12th century Persia[i]) captures a moment in the present, a moment that we recognise will not last, the ‘now’ that signals the start of another day, and then goes on to explore the question of ‘how should we use it?’.
Time present is the immediately available resource, although it may be difficult to grasp the true nature of ‘the present’. On a community or societal level, present time reveals the characteristics of a public good, we all share the share the same 24-hour cycle across 365 days a year, and more importantly we share an imposed order to our lives based on the way time as a resource is allocated[ii]. The fact that I utilise the same time as others does not subtract from the availability of the resource, and we cannot exclude others from sharing the same time as us (although we can control or restrict how they might use their time). My use of my time does not preclude someone else from using their time in the way that they want, unless I impose myself or my requirements on others. When we act together however, as a community or society, to achieve some agreed purpose, that shared time becomes ‘subtractable’, as it cannot be used to achieve some other common objective. This suggests that ‘time present’ also has the characteristics of a common pool resource.
On a personal level, each of us has a limited amount of time in any one period (such as a 24 hour day), and expenditure of that resource on one activity precludes undertaking some other pursuit. On a personal level therefore, time present is subtractable, and everyone is independently in the same situation, we each have to choose how to use our time, how much to allocate to personal objectives, how much to achieve shared objectives, how much to entertainment. The way we use our personal quota affects others. Time is also a private good in that, within limits we can spend it how we choose. But when one takes into consideration the amount of time required for sleep, personal administration, raising children, family affairs, social relationships, and work, it is not surprising people often feel time poor. It is also difficult to exclude others from making demands on one’s personal time. Thus, ‘time present’ starts to take on the characteristics of a common pool resource, one that is ‘shared’ with others in some way.
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
Pink Floyd, Time, Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
The amount of personally allocated time that is freely available can seem small once all the other commitments are accounted for, and it doesn’t take much of a shift to make the ‘work-life balance’ appear out of kilter. Depending on how it is looked at, time present appears to have the characteristics of a private good, because we all have a personal quota allocated; a public good, because we all share the same time; and, a common pool resource because in any one period how we use our shared time subtracts from other possibilities, and it is difficult to exclude others from accessing or influencing the use of our personal quota.
What should we do about ‘now’?
‘Time present’ might be expanding along with the universe, but it is not likely to increase our allotted individual quota, and
while ‘time past’ continues to lengthen, along with battles over its interpretation, ‘time future’ remains constrained by uncertainty.
Time is thus both expanding and limited.
Some physicists are proposing that time is created as the universe itself expands[iii]. They suggest that “…if we think of the expanding universe as the continuous creation of new space…then the universe is creating not only new space but also new time. Each newly created moment is what we refer to as now” and apparently it should be observable when black holes collide.[iv]
In the meantime, while waiting for black holes to collide and expand the availability of ‘now’, we must continue to live and pursue our goals within our limited (but unknown) allocation of time. We will continue to experience time as a ‘flow’ with its perceived direction, uncertainty, and limits. Even if the expanding universe creates new time as well as new space, making for an ever larger overall ‘pool of time’, it is unlikely to make any difference to our own personal quota, which is limited by other factors, such as biology, and the unpredictability of events.
The question of interest in this discussion is whether it helps to think of time as a common pool resource. Would looking through the ‘commons lens’ help us to re-value time as a shared resource, perhaps by allocating higher values to the limited time we spend in working towards commonly agreed goals for society? It might make us re-assess the way we use our shared time together and explore ways to ‘redeem’ time (i.e. expand the currently available pool), by the only means we have available to us, which is to change the way we use the resource available to us – now.
If time present is a shared resource, a form of common pool resource, and not just a private good that we have available to spend as we please, then perhaps firstly we should pay more attention to the balance of how we allocate our time between personal gain and communal goals, as one affects the other. Secondly, a wider discussion on how we utilise our ‘shared time’ – and the selection of common goals we pursue would not go amiss. What we decide to do in the time we have available, says much about how we value present time, and that of future generations.
Time currently spent on activities that merely contribute to unending ‘economic growth’, an activity that is ultimately unsustainable on a planet with a growing population, finite resources, and limited ecological capacity, might be considered as ‘wasted’ and therefore downgraded in value. In a period of growing inequality, where economic growth translates into economic gain for the few at the expense of the many[v], there are more effective ways of utilising such a scarce shared resource, ways that might enhance its value. Application of a larger portion of our shared time to activities that benefit our local areas, and society overall, might lead to more sustainable communities and greater resilience in our socio-ecological systems. Working out how to measure the balance of values that might flow from more contribution to ‘shared time’ might help us to re-balance our personal allocation.
Exploring the nature of that contribution, how we can enhance its significance within the political economy, and how we might deal with ‘free riders’, conflicts of interest, and different conceptions of a sustainable society, would be a more valuable way to utilise some of our allocated time, for now, even if we don’t fully comprehend what ‘now’ really means.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four quartets
[i] The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of some verse, which is attributed to Omar Khayyám, who was a 12th century Persian astronomer and mathematician. There is some dispute about the source of some of the verse in the Rubáiyát, and the quality of the translation, which has been embellished by Fitzgerald rather than being a literal translation of the original verse. Carol Rumens, Poem of the week: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The Guardian, 29 December 2008.
[ii] Frank, A., (2011) About time
[iii] Jaffe, A. Physics: Finding the time. Book Review of ‘Now: The Physics of Time’, by Richard A. Muller (2016).
[v] Joseph Stiglitz (2013) The Price of Inequality. Penguin Books.