Sunday, May 08, 2005

Community's missing dimension

It's easy to think of our communities along the usual spatial dimensions, whether we think of our neighborhoods, our towns or our countries. We can even imagine that our communities extend down into the coal mines or upward into the airspace above us. What eludes us is the dimension of time.

Here in the United States we are more likely to imagine ourselves detached from time, especially from the past. We are, after all, a nation founded on the idea of forgetting--of forgetting Europe or more recently, of forgetting Asia, Africa and Central and South America. We are an industrial people out of time. We have disconnected from the past because of our technology.

On the other hand, we modern industrial people are obsessed with the future. When we think of the future, we often think of ourselves as smarter, perhaps better-looking and most certainly wealthier. We may imagine our children and spouses in the same vein. But rarely do we contemplate what we as a country or world society will look like. In the future the dimension of space which allows us to conceive of our community extending far out into the world shrinks back to that point called the personal.

This is our blindness. Our present community has three dimensions, but even if we make these dimensions broad enough, we still lack the fourth dimension that links us backwards to those who came before us and forward to those who will come after us. We are cut off from the past by our forgetting and from the future by our hopelessly personalized version of it.

Tribal people often speak to their ancestors through ritual and rite. For them the past is ever present. The community of the tribe extends backwards. It is this temporal connection that makes them keenly aware of how their actions will affect those who come after them. They can imagine themselves as ancestors to the tribe of the future and as such, answerable for their deeds.

Can we modern rational thinkers find some way to make such a connection meaningful? Can we imagine ourselves as ancestors to the whole human race of the future, answerable for our deeds? The great economist, John Maynard Keynes, once famously answered critics of his ideas on deficit spending by saying, "In the long run, we are all dead." He may have had justification within his context for saying this.

When it comes to the environment, however, we're not all dead in the long run. Will the many more who come after us think of us as worthy ancestors, both wise and prudent, or will they lament that they have no ancestors to look back to save those who deserve scorn for thinking only of themselves?

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