The Guardian APRIL 16, 2001 - by Madeleine Bunting


Along with religion, we have lost a sense of eternity. Enter Brian Eno's clock of the future.

Easter has shot by in a blur of chocolate, chilly showers and garden centres. No surprise there: it has long since lost its religious content for most people. As many as 43%, according to a Mori poll, don't even know what Easter is supposed to celebrate.

In all the arguments about whether this matters, one of the greatest losses rarely gets a look in. Woven into the Christian services is a powerful understanding of time; again and again, the responses and prayers refer to eternity. Only in a church does one hear words such as "everlasting" and phrases such as "for ever and ever".

At the same time as being invited to contemplate God as eternal, churchgoers remember their own place in a continuum of belief which spans generations before them with the implication of generations to come. In such a huge timescale, one's own 70-odd years are placed in their proper place - we're just tenants, passing through.

But we're losing touch with this timescale, let alone that of eastern faiths such as Hinduism, which refer to trillions of years. Given the pace of change, we find it harder and harder to focus on the future. Politicians see little further than the next election. Stock markets and the media can't see much beyond the next day and corporations beyond the next quarter. Intoxicated with speed and immediacy, our attention span shrinks to now! More and more, the environmental movement has come to recognise that its biggest challenge is to enlarge our sense of time: how do you persuade people to change their behaviour now so that their great-grandchildren won't have to suffer the consequences of it?

We seem to find it harder and harder to imagine the future much beyond the next decade, yet the consequences of our behaviour will last longer than any previous generation could have imagined. Nuclear waste, for example, will be radioactive for thousands of years.

All the biggest environmental problems, such as the destruction of biodiversity and global warming, sit in this gap between our failure to imagine the future and our unprecedented destructive capacity.

To challenge that failure of imagination is the purpose of the California-based Long Now Foundation. It has started by building a clock that will last 10,000 years. It chimes every thousand years, it ticks every year. The slowest clock in the world was designed by Danny Hillis, who built the fastest computer in the world. The prototype now sits in the Science Museum.

The plan is to build four more around the world, and the goal is to use the clock to provoke or inspire people into thinking far, far into the future. Will there still be human beings to hear it chime the 10,000th year? The "long now" was a phrase coined by the musician Brian Eno, who set up the foundation along with the US environmentalist Stewart Brand. He argues that empathy with human beings across the globe expanded in the 20th century, crossing boundaries of race and faith. The task in the 21st century is to expand that empathy, respect and responsibility to other human beings across time.

That empathy across time is often palpable in an old church, and in its graveyard - in the memorials and the worn flagstones, as well as in services in remembrance of the dead such as All Souls' Day in November. Believer and non-believer alike can value in a church the sense of connection with the lives and sufferings of human beings across centuries. It is something of this which The Long Now hopes to reinvigorate through a new icon - the clock. Eno argues that our ability to imagine the future depends on our understanding of the past - the two are interlinked.

This is not about a theme-park past, but a sense of solidarity and continuity between the past and oneself. Put simply, if you worship your ancestors, you are more likely to care about the well-being of your great-great-grandchildren. Without an awareness of those who lived on the planet before us, we are less likely to have a sense of responsibility to those who will come after us.

For previous generations, it was routine to plan projects whose fulfilment they would never see - from the pyramids to avenues and gothic cathedrals. It seems harder and harder now to rally such faith in the future. The Clock of the Long Now may seem a loopy idea, but that's the point. Perhaps inadvertently, it is a reformulation of a long Christian tradition of time-keeping. The first mechanical clocks were invented in 13th-century monasteries to assist in the measuring of their days in the sequence of services - matins, compline etc.

Then, the purpose of marking time was focused on imagining eternity. Now it's more modest - just imagining the lives of our children's great-grandchildren. Change is only possible once people have started to see its possibility. Imagining a future is the first step to creating it.