The clock is ticking… but not as we know it

The drawn-out drudge of revision and exams is finally over and earthblog21 is back. I’ve regained free time and liberated my mental faculties, so keep a keen eye on your inbox for regular posts (or hit the follow button if you haven’t already). I’ll also be writing some interviews and features on local groups taking action on environmental and sustainability concerns at a local level, from student conservationists to ethically driven organic farmers. For all the highfalutin literature, science and governance (as I write this I fully appreciate the irony), they are the footsoldiers of environmentalism in the 21st century. I want to cast some light on their work.

This week’s Sunday Times included an extract from American theoretical physicist Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn. Don’t fall asleep or click away after one mention of ‘theoretical physics’, he makes some elegant and pertinent points.

The Clock face on the Tower at the Palace of Westminster.

First the physics-y bit: Smolin argues that time is not an illusion which clouds the truths of our world – a view taken by great thinkers from Plato to Einstein – but rather “nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time”. He notes that laws are not frozen in time but evolve over its passage. This applies to the universe being a “flow of moments”, to the ‘rules’ which govern our economic thinking and even to climate change. To solve both scientific and non-scientific problems we cannot think outside time.

Smolin’s final point tackles man’s impact on the natural world:

“By assuming that nature and technology are mutually exclusive, both environmentalists who believe nature is paramount and those who see the world in purely economic terms miss the point.

“An adequate solution to the crisis requires muddying the distinction between the artificial and the natural. We need to see everything that exists in nature, including ourselves and our technologies, as time-bound and part of a larger ever-evolving system. We need a new philosophy, one that anticipates the merging of the natural and the artificial and has a genuinely hopeful view of an open future with an ever-expanding role for human agency.” *

If you manage to wade through the science, it is clear this perspective is true. Claiming the primacy of human agency and technology over nature is dangerous and false. As is the opposite. Smolin conjures an image of the earth as one ecosystem developing over time. In this light, the ‘artificial’ is merely a progression from the natural world.

Of course no model is perfect and, as Smolin’s conception of time stresses, the ‘rules’ change over time. But taking a holistic view of our planetary ecosystem offers a firm challenge to dogmatists on both sides of the environmental debate.

If the laws keep developing, it is vital we at least keep our eyes open to what is happening.
* Lee Smolin, Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe (London, 2013) – Amazon link (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Time-Reborn-Crisis-Physics-Universe/dp/1846142997)

Photograph:  Flickr – Aldaron

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