Yeah, 2020 sucks — but is that idea part of the problem?

Asian giant “murder hornets” are among the plagues of 2020. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

Here’s a wacky idea: Our concept of a “year” is blocking our effectiveness in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

OK, bear with me. One of the most common expressions I’ve seen and heard — on social media and in real-live conversations — is that 2020 sucks. In a lot of ways that of course is true, with suck culprit number-one being COVID-19. But every time something horrible happens — a derecho that has destroyed so much in our own part of the world, fire tornadoes amidst the California wildfires, etc. — a common refrain is, “Man, I thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse.”

Of course, none of these calamities — and many more that have made 2020 suck — has absolutely anything to do with an arbitrary division of time. I know for many of us this is shorthand, and many of the 2020 references are jokes (“Who had murder hornets for May?”) — gallows humor can build social solidarity — but I fear we may be inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately?) giving too much agency to the idea of a year.

My friends, 2021 will be no better than 2020, and it will likely be worse. If we are harboring an idea, even in the remotest corner of our mind, that if we somehow “get through 2020,” life will get better, we’re capitulating to a kind of nonsensical passivity that in itself is sure to contribute to a darker future. “Year 2020” is doing absolutely nothing to us. What will get us out of these horrors — or at least mitigate them, for I’m afraid it’s too late to eliminate many of them — is acknowledgment of what is causing the problems and our part in them.

The cause of our calamities, to various degrees, is us. Quick Google searches will give you plenty of solid evidence that deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat are major promoters of human pandemic. When we destroy the wild for our own rapacious consumption, we bring wild animals in desperately close proximity to humans, increasing the likelihood of animal-to-human disease transmission. There can be little doubt that California’s wildfires — spawning such apocalyptic phenomena as fire tornadoes — are exacerbated by, and likely caused by, a heating world. Unprecedented fires in the Arctic — that’s a no-brainer.

And even our recent derecho should give us pause. While I have heard some meteorologists saying climate disruption would be more likely to send derechos northward rather than increasing their intensity, the historic severity and wide swath of our Aug. 10 storm gives me pause when those same meteorologists also say climate disruption causes more frequent and more intense “weather events.” The recently reported 140 mph maximum wind gust in Cedar Rapids already exceeds the standard derecho definition, which tops out at 130 mph.

One positive thing that the pandemic has shown the world is that slowing down our constant movement and our voracious consumption of resources actually does have positive environmental benefits (as if proof were needed). Air was cleaner and CO2 emissions declined during the early pandemic shutdowns.

The stickier issue is the state of our global economy, and the changes to how many of us conduct our lives. As we go back to our old ways, the fact remains that only a reduction of our current consumption practices will work to alter the doomsday course of climate catastrophe, let alone increasing numbers of pandemics. The turn of a calendar and wishful thinking will do absolutely nothing. At worst, it may even blunt our resolve to enact needed change.

Recently, I read a Wired article (“Want to Slow Down Time? Use a Really Slow Clock,” July 20, 2020), focusing on artist Scott Thrift, whose projects challenge our conception of time. He has created clocks that move differently from our current hour/minute/second devices, including a clock in which one revolution encompasses a year, another that moves according to moon phases (i.e., monthly), and a 24-hour clock that has only one hand (no second and minute hands). With these clocks, “the passage of time is measured with gradual, imperceptible changes. Impractical? Yes, but that’s also the point. ‘We already have timepieces that show us how to be on time,’ Thrift says. ‘These are timepieces that show us how to be in time.’”

I like that idea of being “in time” rather than “on time.” And if we extend the idea from clocks to calendars, we might rescue ourselves from thinking that maybe a particular year is “doing something to us.” Thrift also says, “Right now we’re living in the long-term effects of short-term thinking. I don’t think it’s possible really for us to commonly think long term if the way that we tell time is with a short-term device that just shows the seconds, minutes, and hours. We’re precluded to seeing things in the short term.”

I was directed to the Wired article from a blog post by the Long Now Foundation (which is building a 10,000-year clock), whose purpose is “to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common,” according to their website, “We hope to foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” That’s a key concept — “responsibility” — and our current calendar thinking may interfere with that.


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Responsibility is also the concept that underlies another great example of long-term thinking: the seventh-generation principle enshrined in the Great Law of the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] Confederacy, which emphasizes that decisions we make today need to account for their effects on those seven generations into the future.

So far, our time concepts have not worked to address the climate catastrophe. Posting year-oriented dates such as 2030 or 2050 as “deadlines” for change have done nothing to alter our behavior. I’m not sure such deadline-oriented thinking has interfered with change, but it is certainly an “on-time” rather than “in-time” phenomenon, and maybe, given the way we think, it has inadvertently caused too many of us to think we can put off action until later. That’s absolutely not true. For every action, we should think of the seventh generation.

Yeah, 2020 sucks, and we all make jokes and post memes about it. But, of course, 2020 is just a number, not some nefarious force. We are victims of nothing less than our own short-term thinking, and we cannot pin hope on the passage of time to heal our wounds. If we want “2021,” “2022,” “2023,” etc. to be better, we need to be “in time,” enter into the “long now,” and take action for radical change today.

Thomas Dean has not purchased a 2021 calendar. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 286.

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