The Time Factor

by Mark Hertsgaard

It may sound abstract, but I hope we deal with the issue of time, and for very practical reasons.

The hardest part of making the transformation to an ecologically sustainable society, it seems to me, is not the transformation itself, difficult as that may be. It is the speed with which that transformation must occur. Present trends in global warming, deforestation, population growth, and a host of other areas must be slowed or reversed in what, historically speaking, is the blink of an eye. The struggle for democracy in South Africa took over eighty years to triumph. The battle to save the life-support systems of the planet may well be won or lost in the next ten to five years.

Neither governments, corporations, nor the general public, in either North or South show much inclination to act if this is true. They are distracted by apparently more immediate concerns: staying in office, staying in business, staying employed. But in the meantime, the cumulative nature of the gravest environmental hazards means that by the time that they are too obvious to ignore, they are also too late to stop.

So... how do we confront this conundrum? To borrow from Dr. Johnson, how do we concentrate the collective mind on lateness of the planetary hour without actually placing our head inside the noose (at least not any further, and in fact trying to gingerly withdraw)? Too much alarmism risks turning people off. Too little, and we end up going nowhere, fast.

Please send questions or comments to