Reflections on Time and Space…

Posted on July 1, 2010 by


Time and space may not necessarily be important when thinking about sustainable development. This may sound contrary to instinct, and it could easily be argued otherwise. But we must always realise the importance of relativity, and the fact that every dimension we conceive is nothing but relative to our own perception.

Let us start by posing some questions: is it desirable to maximise the life expectancy of a human? In other words, is a life of 100 years better than a life of 70 years? Is a human life long? Is it short? Would a monarch butterfly feel his life of a month or so (as a butterfly) is shorter than we do? My answer to all of these is no.

As humans, just as any other species, our scale of time and space is based on what we can observe. The distance of observation has changed over time, and perhaps we therefore feel our size has changed accordingly. We can now travel around the world and even into space, and the modern telescopes let us see into the distance of both space and time. Conversely we now know of the existence of subatomic particles far smaller than the microscopic protons. This is the range of our scale of space, from quarks to the end of the universe. Our perception of time has also changed drastically. It has commonly been believed (and sometimes still is) that the earth (and the universe – heaven and hell) is less than 10,000 years old. But modern science has shed light on this, and current belief states that the universe is around 13 billion years old and life on earth is some 4 billion years old. Does that make our life shorter? In some ways it does, but one thing still remains; 100 years is the same as 70 years; they are both instantaneous and infinite.

I now want to note the limits of perception. Let’s start with time. 13 billion years is a long time right? But what was before the big bang? Nobody can answer that, but I believe for certain that time existed, and chances are there was a lot happening. Does time exist in the future? Of course it does; most of us just cannot see it. The point is that there is no start and finish in time and therefore it can be concluded that 13 billion years is nothing but a blink. As for space, it is not a coincidence that we, as we see ourselves lie somewhere in the middle of the scale from small to big. At the time of the big bang, the whole universe was thought to be contained in a very small dense place (in what?) before exploding. From this point the universe has been expanding and cooling at an ever slowing pace. Astronomers debate two scenarios; first, that the universe will continue to expand forever or alternatively, that the mass of the universe will eventually stop this expansion and begin to collapse in on itself, finishing in a big crunch back in the place we began. Taking this second scenario, could it be that this ‘pulse’ is repetitive? What surrounds the universe? Could it be that the big bang was the result of the previous big crunch and that these pulses are in fact happening extremely quickly? Or for the first scenario, could it be that our universe is just a sneeze from a space giant, and that earth is just a small germ within his sneeze. Every time we breathe out, could life begin, evolve and die on the smallest particles that we cannot yet see, and that this amazing collection of diversity and love happens billions of times every earth day without our perception?

Maybe I have made my point – that a human life is both infinitely long and instantaneous and there is little point in trying to extend it. If we manage to, it will slow down proportionally.

How do I relate this to sustainable development? Well, perhaps there is no difference in crime between inserting one artificial gene into the smallest of plants in the most remote of regions versus sending nuclear waste into outer space on a rocket, to remain indefinitely. There is no difference in a chemical that persists for an hour versus one that persists for a thousand years. They will have different impacts on our own lives and welfare but sustainability has no time limit, and it is certainly should not only be constrained by its impact on human welfare.