As a ten-year-old child I was always taken by the obsessive way the adults around me seemed to view time. They would stare at their watches and get stressed about minor deviations, fret if they were likely to be more than a few minutes late or if their watch showed a different time to a public clock. Sometimes a power cut would wipe all the time devices in the house, causing untold panic, until we phoned the speaking clock and reset everything to the correct time. But it all seemed very stressful and artificial to me. Time felt like a human construct even then, a servant which had become the master. I took off the watch that my grandad had not long bought me for my birthday, and have never worn one since. 

Then, when I had children of my own, time took on a different perspective again. I am reminded of a quote by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, that Time is a game played beautifully by children. Children are a marker of the passing of time, in a way that I hadnt noticed in my early adult years. I may be in the same job I was in in 2008, but I cant pretend it was only yesterday, when meanwhile my children have grown from babies to fully fledged adults. Recently they have taken to laughing at me because some of my newer climbing kit is actually older than they are, which does rather underline the passage of time and undermine my confidence that Im still quite as young at heart as I am in my head. When they were kids, time also meant something different: journeys were measured in the number of songs to reach any given destination, and anticipated events in the number of sleeps. I still tend to direct people around the Highlands in the time (or number of songs) it takes to drive and not the distance. 

Not that I dont fret about time now myself, and realise the importance of punctuality and time to order our lives. I have also come to recognise that time speeds up as we get older; probably because every next hour is a slightly smaller proportion of our lived experience. I wonder if this slows down again when we become more forgetful? Or when we retire? But still I find it difficult to shake my healthy disregard for time, almost as a self defence against day-to-day stress. 

For something like time, which is apparently so defined, our view of time seems to be unique to each of us. Most of my friends have subtly different and distinct relationships with time, one of whom is so persistently late that we have all taken to telling him that any meeting starts an hour or more before the rest of us have actually agreed to meet. Some of our closest friends, who now live in Australia, have a standing joke that we can never remember when they are awake or not, so much so that our WhatsApp group is called what time is it? It is all very confusing. 

Culturally too we have quite different relationships with time. Not just because, as Google will tell you, the sun cant rise in every part of the world at once, so time zones maintain logical order and regulate day and night across the globe. Time zones remind us that, at its most fundamental, daylight is the ultimate arbiter of time. Anyone who has camped will know this. Out in the wilds, with only the wind and the stars for company, we quite naturally get tired when the sun goes down, and wake with the dawn. Its why I hate camping in the summer, because in Scotland that dawn can be at 3am and I find myself wide awake and raring to go, whilst everyone around me is fast asleep. 

Time can vary much more than we might imagine. It varies by where we live on the globe. In Nepals case, rather delightfully, by 15 minutes from India, simply to reinforce the fact that they arent India. It varies by our perspective: physicists after all first understood universal time, geologists first understood Earth time, and industrialists invented the nine-to-five. 

Time can vary by culture: it seems more languid and relaxed in countries like Brazil, the Caribbean or Mediterranean than the frantic version of time we employ in the colder north. The same seems true for more rural locations rather than cities, or hotter places rather than cooler climates. Time then has a geography. Its one of the ironies of modern life that people in more developed nations have far less leisure time than people in the less economically active countries. 

Time has so many variables. It can also vary by our mood. When we are running late, everything around us is annoyingly slow, or takes longer than we want. Or if we are bored, it drags its feet and knuckles across the carpet and wont hurry up. And the other aspect of time which has come to dominate modern society is the timeframe in which we think and operate. The rhythm of our working lives is less dictated to by the passing of the calendar year, or the seasons, but more by quarterly financial reporting cycles, and short-term demands. 

This has increasingly led to a rebellion – a popular and philosophical movement to become more long-termist. To become long-minded. To break this over-fixation on short-term profit and the economic convenience of discounting the future, where we borrow from the future of our planets resources, the future of the air and water and soil and health (and even money), by writing them off as inconsequential. A long-termist philosophy encourages us to consider our impact, not just today, but over the next few years and decades, a principle probably best known in native American beliefs through seventh generation thinking. To show more concern for the legacy we leave future generations and exhibit more responsibility in modern day-to-day decision making. 

Professor William MacAskills book What We Owe The Future encourages us to imagine that we are at the beginning of human life on this planet and not, as every generation seems to believe, the end. How would that affect our sense of responsibility to the future, and the billions of people not alive yet, who rely on some of the decisions we make today? He argues that there are many, many more people still to live on Earth than have ever lived. His work reinforces my belief that we need to learn to be truly sustainable, probably for the first time in human history. And there is a growing philosophical movement to demand that we take greater consideration of the future needs of humanity more generally. 

I sense that here in 2024, a major year for elections across the globe, and with the inevitable but narrow political focus on short-term cost-cutting, a better understanding of the geography and philosophy of time is more vital than ever. By most measures we are failing to hand over the world in a better state than we inherited it. We are witnessing existential crises in climate change, biodiversity, energy security and the cost of living, but these are in danger of being swept aside, painted as unaffordable luxuries and polarising issues, instead of being essential considerations and a rallying call for unifying people and building a better future. 

It is this principle which has driven our determination to build a Future Generations Fund, the subject of our members appeal in 2023 (which is still ongoing): money to help support RSGS activities and long-term policy and which can be used to give young people hope, a voice and a budget, to target some of the issues they are most concerned about nationally. We hope it is an example which others will follow, even though we have only just started this process. 

Albert Einstein said that time was an illusion. But it is such a fundamental lens through which to understand the world. Geologists and polymaths like Hutton first described Earth time. Geography can help explain and explore it, and the many different ways time is perceived and used. 

If you would like to find out more about RSGSs Future Generations Fund, or make a contribution, please get in touch with me at RSGS HQ, or email me at [email protected].