My PhD is in inter-semiotic translation so I spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of symbols. This one may turn out to be the most important of our generation. It is, on one level, very simple: a circle for the Earth and an hourglass to show that time is running out.
I’m now into my 40th year and time feels increasingly precious. Statistically I’m approaching the second half of my life, but that’s not even the issue. The problem is that time keeps speeding up.
For my children a year is monumental time, but for me, years seem to blur. Each goes quicker than the last and the acceleration creates anxiety. Life feels like it’s slipping away, at an existential level as much as at an ecological one.
I find myself clinging to marker posts, from rituals that acknowledge the passing of the seasons to a slow breath each morning before a cup of coffee. I have to stop and look back, repeatedly, to remind myself of what I’ve achieved, what I’ve lived. YOLO, as the kids say. Becoming conscious has become the best antidote to ageing.
But ageing is not the only existential threat. Climate change is now so urgent that if there are no seismic shifts in the world’s economy, my children’s life expectancy may be less than my own. That threat produces a different kind of existential angst, a spectre approaching from beyond the horizon of today’s blue bank-holiday skies.
Yet I’ve found an unlikely response in the desperate quest to slow down. Choosing consciously and savouring moments that threaten to rush away has meant paying more attention to the invisible threads of my life. Being conscious in the daily rhythm of recycling has meant greater awareness of the packaging I use. Savouring food has meant a slow-growing relationship to the journey it takes to my plate. It’s not a magical transformation, but it is a meaningful one.
Once upon a previous life I worked in the field of lifestyle change. I found consciousness of the problems of the planet was possible, but consciousness of my place in it all elusive. It’s not for lack of caring; it’s just psychologically overwhelming. Even my best intentions often became self-destructive. There is no possible way to honour every obligation to the world.
Maybe it’s just the passage of time, but now that time is speeding up I find myself more willing to slow down. I’m also more willing to withhold judgement on my choices. Consciousness can involve observation, watching myself without the need to instigate a sudden change. I can’t take responsibility for everything. But I can be present through it all.
So this symbol speaks to me of the passing of time, both as an hourglass, with a finite urgency, and as a circle in which time is always present. The time of the Earth is best represented by a circle, it seems to me, since all life is marked by the ongoing cycle of death and life. But if my death – our death – is accelerating within it, slowing down is a way to return to more life-giving rhythms, for the present.