• Sustainability

A community resident’s walk through time

Published 12 July 2023
Tamara is a local resident and social researcher who runs immersive ‘Deep time walks’ taking people on a 4.6km walk through 4.6 billion years of history and talking through all the amazing changes that happen over that time until the present day.

This week we sat down to talk to Tamara and hear more detail about what to expect on the Deep Time Walk, what motivates her and discuss the bigger issues around long-term thinking and climate change.

Tell us about you

I’m a social researcher with a background in health psychology. I also did the Port Phillip Environmental Leaders course around 12 years ago and found it very empowering.

I went on a walk about 9 years ago now led by a local resident through the EcoCentre. I found the walk an utterly transformative experience that I turned over in my mind lots of times afterwards. I found it a useful way to think about scale in lots of different contexts.

What is the deep time walk?

The Deep Time Walk was developed at the Schumacher College in Devon, UK, by Professor Stephan Harding and there are now walks happening all around the world.

The walk starts at the formation of the solar system. Then 50 meters into the walk we talk about the moon. Then we move on to the Earth’s crust, Earth’s first water and then first life.

We travel onwards to oxygenic photosynthesis, which is a huge moment of change as it made much energy available to life and, critically, oxygen was produced as a waste product. That gave rise to more complex life, complex cycles and interactivity.

Eventually we get to dinosaurs, mammals and early Humans. At the end of the walk we discuss what’s missing. Us. Our species (Homo Sapiens) only arrived in the last 30cm of the walk. We talk about the first people in Australia, the agricultural evolution the industrial revolution, the anthropocene and so on. Then we have a short discussion and reflect on the impact of the walk.

How does the walk connect to the environment more broadly?

The walk has the effect of connecting people to nature and the Earth and encourages longer term thinking.  For example, one of the things we discuss is water. All the water that’s here today is the same water that was here when Earth was formed. Thinking about our tears, the water we drink, and where all this water been before. We talk about the formation of fossil fuels and when coal was laid down and why it’s not renewable. 

We discuss Gaia theory. Gaia is the Greek goddess of Earth. By renaming Earth as Gaia, and in line with the other planets which are all named after Roman or Greek gods, it helps us connect with Earth as a living organism not a static object. Gaia is the theory of Earth being akin to a living organism due to its interconnected nature where nothing happens in isolation. It’s the concept that Earth is self-regulating and if it’s not in balance the planet adjusts itself within certain boundaries. Over the past millions of years, the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen have been quite stable and able to regulate themselves within certain boundaries, but if you push past a certain boundary it tips it over and the balance can no longer be maintained. Indigenous cultures have always understood this, but in Western cultures this has only really been accepted since the 1970s, when proposed by James Lovelock.

What does the walk convey for people?

The walk is a tool for grasping the dizzying age of our planet and provides context for the impact our own species has had in the very short time we have been here – a concept known as Deep Time Humility.   In a nutshell it gives people a sense that humans are not the pinnacle. We are one link in a long chain of organisms. It also generates a sense of awe and love for the Earth.

It’s enhances people’s general knowledge about natural history. Many people have little idea of what preceded dinosaurs, but in the scheme of the history of Earth, dinosaurs are extremely recent.

Another takeaway is that understanding what happened in the past, happens again and again, there are patterns and cycles. When we understand how we got to this point, there’s a clearer view of what we can expect in the future. For example, until now we’ve had five mass extinction events where life has been wiped out in a short period of time. These extinction events have been due to changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere. So you can then see that the changes happening in the atmosphere now with the concentration of greenhouse gases are very concerning.

What motivated you to do this work?

I wanted to do my bit for the climate crisis, tapping into it from a very interesting but slightly unusual angle. We need to shift away from a culture of presentism – that is the tendency to prioritise ‘now’ over ‘future’ – to make the changes we need.  The Welsh Government has a Well-being of Future Generations Act and a Future Generations Commissioner designed to encourage government to take a long-term view and consider people yet to be born in all decision making. There are organisations in Australia, such as the Foundations for Tomorrow, who are also working towards this goal. However, in order to stretch our thinking lens far into the future we need to understand the distance past.

I love this quote -

“The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward”, Winston Churchill

The other concept is being a Good Ancestor. We’ve inherited this comfortable world. Are we going to leave this world as comfortable and liveable for future generations? It’s all about stretching the concept of time and being a good ancestor (the philosopher, Roman Krznaric, has written extensively on this issue).

What’s next for you?

I am continuing with the walks and training other Deep Time Walk facilitators, to enable more people to benefit from the experience.  In addition, I would love to work with policymakers and industry, running workshops to embed long time principles in daily decisions. I’m thinking about practical tools to remind decision makers about future generations many of which are suggested by organisations such as the Long Now Foundation or the Long Time Academy. For example, writing the year as five digits instead of four, ie as 02023 instead of 2023, can be a reminder that activities we do today, such as changing the composition of the atmosphere, may continue to impact us 10,000 years in the future.  Another idea is mindfulness exercises using guided imagery. You think about a person in your life who is very young, then imagine them at 40, then imagine them again at their 90th birthday. What would they say about you and the impact you had on their life?

What would you say to others wanting to do something about the climate crisis

People want to make changes in their own life, like changing light bulbs or recycling, but we know those things are not enough. Those small actions, though, can have a ripple effect and lead to bigger actions. When you make changes, it changes your identity. You start to think ‘I’m the kind of person who does this’ and therefore go on to do other behaviours congruent with this identity.

Be informed. Use every opportunity to educate yourself about the pressing issues e.g. the climate crisis, biodiversity, plastics pollution etc, and understand what can be done and what is being done around the world.

Link up with others in the community, and campaign politicians and industry to make changes. And always send a ‘thank you’ email to show your appreciation to politicians or industry leaders when they do make the changes we have requested.


Upcoming Deep Time Walk

Join the EcoCentre for the next Deep Time Walk on Friday 28 July from 10am to 1pm

Sign up here - Deep Time Walk – Port Phillip EcoCentre