To Reinhabit Time in League with the Beings of the Future

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by Joanna Macy

Excerpted from World As Lover, World as Self by Joanna Macy (Parallax Press, 2007).

Deep ecology, and the group work it inspired, entered my life at about the same time I became preoccupied with the challenges presented by nuclear waste and its long term care. By some kind of psychic synergy, these two concerns together invited me to think about time in new ways. I became fascinated by how we as a culture relate to time–and what that means for life on Earth. It soon occurred to me that both the progressive destruction of our world, and our capacity to stop that destruction, can be understood as a function of our experience of time.

Let us note, right off, that we of the industrial growth society are subject to a rare and probably unprecedented experience of time. It can be likened to an ever-shrinking box, in which we race on the treadmill at increasingly frenetic speeds. Cutting us off from other rhythms of life, this box cuts us off from the past and future as well. It blocks our perceptual field while allowing only the briefest experience of time.

The Time Squeeze

It is a painful irony that we who have more time-saving devices than any culture in history, appear the most time-harried and driven. The paradox is only apparent, however, for our time-scarcity is linked to the very time efficiency of our technology.  As Jeremy Rifkin chronicles in Time Wars, our measuring of time that was once based on the changing seasons and wheeling stars, and then with a ticking of the clock, is now parceled out in computer nanoseconds—we have lost time as an organically measurable experience.

we have lost time as an organically measurable experience.

Speed and haste, as many a wise one has pointed out, are inherently violent because they put us out of sync with the natural world. The ecosystems that sustain us move at slower rhythms than we do. The feedback loop is longer, takes more time than do our interactions with machines…As our own speed accelerates, it puts us out of sync with more and more of the natural world and blinds us to our impact upon it.

Bridge to the Far Future

Nuclear waste extends the effects of our actions– our karma–into the thousands and even millions of years that their hazardous life entails.

The way we and other countries have produced and disposed of these materials ranks among the most appalling displays of our denial of the future. Radioactivity produces not only disease, death, and sterility, it affects the genetic code itself. Yet, knowing this, we dispose of millions of metric tons of this waste into open trenches, or into tanks that crack and corrode within a decade or two.

The only final solution for high-level waste that our government can come up with is to hide it, out of sight and out of mind, in deep geological repositories–although this strategy makes leaking containers inaccessible for repair.

Our radioactive legacy has had a peculiar effect on my own experience of time. As with many activists, time’s main meaning for me has been scarcity and haste. The clock was always ticking: hurry, hurry to stop the next development project in the Amazon, the construction of yet another youth prison, or the next arms shipment to the Middle East.  Make those calls, circulate those petitions, hurry to keep the world from heating up or blowing up; the countdown is on.

Then when the longevity of nuclear toxicity dawned on me, I glimpsed what this challenge would mean in terms of sustained human attention—and the demands of time reversed themselves. The question of how fast one could get something done was replaced with the question of how long—how l-o-o-n-n-ng—a period one could do it in. Will we actually be able to remember the danger of these wastes and protect ourselves from hundred years, a thousand, or a hundred thousand? As I pondered the likelihood of this, the challenge became duration, not speed; the long haul, not the quick move. My breath slowed, the rib cage eased. The horror of the waste was helping me inhabit time.

The Politics of Time

Our relation to time is shaped by our goals and values. The meanings denoted by the political spectrum shift from spatial to temporal terms. Jeremy Rifkin suggests that political views and persuasions formerly assigned to “right” and “left” may be better understood in terms of short-term and long-term thinking. 

A more useful and realistic political spectrum would reflect the differences between short-term and long-term thinking.

 A more useful and realistic political spectrum would reflect the differences between short-term and long-term thinking. The latter would integrate our social and economic pace with the tempos of the natural world so that the ecosystem can heal itself and become a vibrant living organism once again.

Since we as a species have no future apart from the health of that organism, this return to a more organic, ecological experience of time is the matter of survival. And we don’t need to wait until we have created new institutions. We can begin now, through our choices and mindfulness. We can watch time’s rhythm in the breathing of the moment, and sense how its very passage connects us with the past and future moments. They become to us like unseen guides and companions as we once again re-inhabit time.

In League with the Beings of the Future

For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be in peace with thee. (Job 5:23)

This verse of the Bible delighted me as a child and stayed with me as I grew up. It promised a way I wanted to live–in complicity with creation. There is a comfortable, cosmic collegiality to it—like coming home to conspire once more with our beloved and age-old companions, with the stones and the beasts of the field, with the sun that rises and the stars revolving in the sky.

Now the work of restoring our ravaged Earth offers us that—with a new dimension.  It not only puts us in league with the stones and the beasts, but also in league with the beings of the future. All that we do to mend our planet is for their sake, too. Their chance to inhabit and love our world depends in large measure on us and our uncertain efforts.

The Presence of the Future

“Every being who will ever live in Earth is here right now,” says Sr. Rosalie Bertell, environmental radiologist and leader of the Bhopal and Chernobyl Medical Commissions. “Where? In our gonads and ovaries, and in our DNA.”

The beings of the future and their claim on life have become so real to me that I often sense them hovering like a cloud of witnesses. Sometimes I fancy that if I were to turn my head suddenly, I would glimpse them over my shoulder. Some philosophers and mystics say that constructs of time are a function of our mind, defined and experienced as chronological and or as a dimension of simultaneity where the present coexists with past and future. Perhaps because I am so time ridden, hurrying to meet deadlines and appointments, I am drawn to the latter. The dimension of simultaneity, where we stand shoulder to shoulder with our ancestors and posterity, is appealing to me, giving context and fuel to work for social change.

the generations of the future want to lend us courage for what we do for their sake

In that context it is plausible to me that the generations of the future want to lend us courage for what we do for their sake. I imagine them saying “thanks” for our efforts to protect the rainforest and to keep the topsoil from blowing away. “Thanks” for our citizen campaigns on behalf of the sea. “Thanks, ancestors,” for working on renewable energy, so that we have some clean air to breeze.

The imagined presence of these future ones comes to me like grace and works upon my life. That is why I have been increasingly drawn to the issue of radioactive waste. Of the many issues that pull us into league with the future, this one is the most enduring legacy our generation will leave behind.

The “Poison Fire” As Teacher

A different approach to nuclear waste than deep burial occurred to me in Great Britain in the early 1980s when I visited Greenham Common and other citizen encampments surrounding US nuclear missile bases. I sensed immediately the activists’ commitment to the future. With their unflagging dedication and strong spiritual flavor, these encampments called to mind the monasteries that kept the lamp of learning alive through the Dark Ages. I realized then that communities with similar dedication would be needed to guard the centers of radioactivity we are leaving behind for hundreds of thousands of future generations.

In my mind’s eye I could see surveillance communities forming around today’s nuclear facilities. I imagined I saw Guardian Sites–centers of pilgrimage and reflection, where the waste containers are monitored and repaired, and where wisdom traditions of our planetary heritage offer context of meaning and disciplines of vigilance. Here “remembering” would be undertaken– the crucial task of understanding origins and nature of this radioactivity, as well as ongoing mindfulness of its danger…

Our karma, the consequences of our actions, now extends into geological time periods

In the radioactive legacy we have created, we apprehend our immediate and un-severable connections with future generations. As Sr. Rosalie Bertell pointed out, our present choices have a direct impact on whether beings born eons from today will be of sound mind and body. Our karma, the consequences of our actions, now extends into geological time periods–and even as long as Earth’s lifespan to date, given the half-life of depleted uranium, which is 4.5 billion years.

This fact by itself chills the soul. But I can take it in as a reminder of our mutual belonging through space and time. Our impact upon future beings can bring them into our lives in fruitful ways. We can choose to feel them at our side, lending moral strength and trust.


Jeremy Rifkin, Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History (Henry Holt and Company, 1987)

Joanna Macy PhD
, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. The author of more than twelve books, she is the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, a ground-breaking theoretical framework and workshop methodology for personal and social change.

2 thoughts on “To Reinhabit Time in League with the Beings of the Future

  1. In our Japanese study group, we were just reading this part “To Reinhabit Time” and moving to “In League with the Beings of the Future.” What a surprise! Is there any intention to select this part for this issue?

  2. Pingback: July 2018 |

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