Of course, the other thing that comes with long timescales is time. So in these unseasonably warm days of expectation and rest at the end of the year, as Paris stops being news and becomes a political tool or obstacle, I’ve been thinking back to a phrase that also occupied my mind as the talks began. It’s my favorite Church idiom: “ordinary time.”
As a proper term, ordinary time denotes the longest season of the liturgical year, which is, in fact, one season split into two parts. The first section of ordinary time spans from the end of Christmastide, in January, to the beginning of Lent, in February or March. Ordinary time resumes after Pentecost in the early summer, and then it lasts again until Advent, in November.
Maybe it’s my limited experience, living only a few places in the eastern half of North America, but to me that phrase, shorn of context—ordinary time—captures what it’s like to live under axial tilt, in the Earth’s temperate latitudes, during the two seasons that start with a solstice. At the nadir of winter or zenith of summer, every week does seem ordinary. The nature of the world does not seem to vary from Wednesday to Wednesday: It stays hot and sunny or it stays cold and dark. But in the spring, the light and the weather one morning can vary wildly from the light and weather the next. The graph of sunrise and sunset times, after all, approximates a sine curve.
To take it further from its Church meaning, “ordinary time” not only communicates something like “the time when nothing particularly special is happening,” but also emphasizes ordinal-ness: the time when we count up.
And it’s pleasant to count up. Counting up means the newspaper’s “Best Books of the Year” feature comes out every December. It means making notches in the wall as kids get taller. It means normal politics still applies, and that not all your time needs to be devoted to the public good: You can still withdraw for a time, care for family and friends, preserve your home.
It’s not an original observation to say that climate change requires action during ordinary time, that if you wait for the crisis (whatever the “crisis” is), it’s too late. I saw a few writers compare COP21—a conference “to save the world”—to a last-ditch diplomatic meeting to stave off nuclear war. But that isn’t quite it. If negotiators were preventing war, we’d be out of ordinary time, in extraordinary crisis. Instead—despite El Niño, despite the Chennai rains, despite the Indonesian fires and Ethiopian famine—society continues, teetering between ordinary time, our semi-performative forever-crisis, and reckless emergency.
The awfulness is that, despite the long and worrisome decades involved in discussing climate change, we only know the present. We don’t know when we will slip out of ordinary time, and guessing about future historiography only serves contemporary politics. A friend remembered the “Four Quartets”:
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
And as the talks ended, I thought of a different snippet of verse, the closing monologue from Nixon in China. Chou En-Lai wonders what will come of diplomacy with the Americans:
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.
Come, heal this wound.
At this hour nothing can be done.
Just before dawn the birds begin,
the warblers who prefer the dark,
the cage-birds answering. To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.
To work—but please, this week, to rest. If you’re looking for something to read before 2016, try Carrie Frye on the balloon explorers of the Arctic; or Elizabeth Kolbert on the siege of Miami, which is self-recommending.