Time as a complex and expanding, but limited, resource – Part two: Looking at time past, and back towards time future

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future…

T.S. Eliot, the Dry Salvages (1948)


Time past and time future both have value and are intertwined.  We need to understand the past to determine where certain actions might take us in the future.  We need to be aware of where particular paths might lead, not least in order to avoid previous mistakes.  It doesn’t always work, the past can be mis-represented and mis-interpreted, and the future is affected by forces that did not previously exist and conditions that differ from previous times.  The past and the future both have value resulting in constant struggles to attain control.  Capturing the past provides a means to determine the future, and greater certainty over the future supports investment designed to control access to, and utilisation of, a wide range of resources.

One approach to re-telling history – Civil War re-enactment, Shropshire

Time past

Time past can be considered as the most tangible facet of time.  It has happened, we can see the results, in the material results imprinted on our urban and rural landscapes, and in the institutions within which we live or daily lives.  We can look at accounts of what happened, written by those that were there, interpreted by others, and argue about who was right and wrong.  There is something ‘solid’ about time past, that makes us want to hold on to it keep safe; it tells us who we are and where we came from.

War damage in Sarajevo, Bosnia. A visible reminder of recent experience that reinforces shared memories

Time past displays the characteristics of both a private good and a public good.  Private in that we all have a personal past, our own memories and histories, but also public in that we share the past within a community, a social group, or wider society.  We may physically have shared the recent past, providing memories that bind us together as a community, but we also have a need to share with others a perception of the more distant past.  Events that occurred further back in time can give a sense of identity to a people, an ethnic group, or a nation.  Shared memories of the past are more like a public good, something we can draw on and utilise together without diminishment and from which it is difficult to exclude others.  The more material aspects of the past can also be divided up, packaged, and sold, either as private goods (for example, old manuscripts, books, antiques, and items belonging to famous figures), or access controlled through capture and management as toll goods (i.e. access is only possible through payment).


The value embodied in the past is visible in the huge income-generating heritage ‘industry’ that has grown up[i] to satisfy the desire to understand and interact with the physical elements of our shared past.  In terms of the structure of the property regime, which determines who can materially benefit from the past, there is plenty of competition between private and public sectors.  In the UK the state protects the past through planning controls (e.g. listed buildings) and regulations (protection for designated ancient monuments).  It also enables generation of benefit streams by particular civil society bodies (e.g. the National Trust), semi-independent government bodies (e.g. English Heritage), and the private sector.  Access to many of our ‘past assets’ are now packaged and controlled as club (or toll) goods, charging entry fees to experience and ‘connect’ with a shared past (e.g. Stonehenge, most of our castles and historic houses).  The income generated enables preservation, maintenance, and restoration, and also prevents damage that would undoubtedly occur if such assets were made available through an open access regime.



Stonehenge, England, displays all the benefits of English Heritage management as a ‘club good’. A long history, a valuable source of income, an assured future.

Less visible, but probably more influential in terms of the way we live our lives, are the institutions we have inherited from the past, in the form of customs, ceremonies, and traditional ways of doing things.  In some cases traditions can encapsulate the wisdom from past experience to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes again, and they can be reminders of what has happened in the past (e.g. the ceremony involved in the State Opening of Parliament [ii]).  In other cases conditions change so much that the old ‘ways of doing’ no longer have relevance, perhaps as a result of technology or new knowledge, which change our perception of the way things should be done.  Vigilance is required when it comes to institutional changes that affect resources we have all shared in common in past times, for example, public rights of way[iii], or public urban space[iv].  Both currently face an onslaught from private interests trying to capture and change the institutional arrangements that have long protected access to shared common pool resources and public goods.  Commons and community rights in shared resources that are not written down or formally legalised but maintained through custom and tradition are at risk in many parts of the world[v], including the loss of rights to public space. 




Pitchford Hall in Shropshire, “possibly the most beautiful timber framed house in the country” . An Elizabethan mansion dating back to the mid-1500’s. Privately owned, it has been empty for more than 20 years, leading to significant problems from vandalism, disrepair, vegetation growth, and damp. It now requires significant levels of investment if it is to be available for the future [vi].
Of equal significance is the ability to control the interpretation of the past, which has enormous value as a political weapon.  At the societal level knowing the past is essential to understanding the present, and choosing a future path, we need to look both at the past and back towards the future at the same time.  An old Russian proverb says, ‘look on the past and you lose an eye; look not on the past and you lose both eyes’ indicating that exploring the past requires resources, but to ignore it will be even more costly.  In order to determine the future direction a nation or society should take, our perception and understanding of the past becomes a valuable tool to be manipulated, either by rival political factions and their supporters, or by the state itself.  It is no surprise then, to see constant political interference in education, and in particular attempts to manipulate the history curriculum[vii; viii].

The past as a form of ‘shared memory’ that influences both the present and the future is not a resource that can be easily grasped and privatised, it is a contested asset susceptible to varied and sometimes conflicting interpretations.  It is a ‘public good’ where the resource itself (shared memory or history) is not the object of desire, but control over the way in which it is perceived and understood.  Time past is not neutral, its interpretation has value, but that value is difficult to encapsulate and control.  Far from being a tangible asset, the past is not certain, nor secure, and continually open to revision[xi].



Time future

The future: time’s excuse
to frighten us; too vast
a project, too large a morsel
for the heart’s mouth.

Rainer Maria Rilke


Time future is complex, the nature of this facet of time is more difficult to grasp, and like the past it has both private and public aspects.  It has some of the elements of a private good in that my future time is for me to decide how to utilise (although the extent to which people think they control their own destiny varies greatly).  It is path dependent in that if I decide to follow one path, it may limit or preclude how I can use my future time.  In terms of its public characteristics, time future is similar to the past, in that we share the future as a community or society.  It is difficult for an individual to opt out of the future – which gives it some of the characteristics of a shared public good.  The way in which other members of society utilise their time can affect or restrict the way in which I am able to use my future time resource.  If the country decides to go to war, for example, access to my future time might be severely constrained or its utilisation taken out of my hands and become more tightly controlled by external factors.  Thus our individual utilisation of the future is bound closely to decisions we make as a community about the future we all share.

We cannot physically utilise time future until it happens, i.e. it becomes the present, but this has not stopped society from creating institutional structures to regulate, manage, or even capture the value of the resource in advance of the present.  Capturing a resource that only exists at a future time requires some form investment in the present to ensure access.  Apprenticeships, indentures, and contracts, are all means of capturing and regulating resources available at a future time and ensuring we will have access to them when required.  In the financial world futures markets have been around for a long time to try and manage the risk associated with investing in the future, and initially were focused largely on agricultural products and metals.  More recently futures markets have developed to support trading in the future movements of interest rates, and other financial instruments[x].  Wherever there is potential to generate profit from taking risk, then a market will develop to service the need.

Unpredictability, however, results in a rapidly diminishing value of time beyond the immediate future for individuals, organisations, and governments.  Those with limited resources tend to desire less risk and more certainty of future gains.  The way in which people react in relation to investing resources in the future can be partially explained by Prospect Theory[xi], which was developed on the basis of observed behaviour in relation to potential gains and losses (where the risks are known).  Research has confirmed that people are loss averse, and when the risks are known, have a preference for a small gain now (i.e. a certain benefit) rather than a larger gain in the future (i.e. a larger but less certain benefit), relative to their starting position.  Few businesses or individuals will invest far into the future due to increasing uncertainty and risk.  Where long-term investment is required to secure future action the government normally has to step in to guarantee against loss, or absorb any potential costs into the public sector.  Large-scale investment decisions are highly political and often supported using cost-benefit analysis techniques, which discount financial investments occurring over time at an agreed rate, making costs and benefits occurring in the distant future appear small or insignificant[xii].  The decision making processes we use to calculate the future values of resources, however, are not adequate to deal with investments more than a few years ahead in time[xiii].  Future generations are not only already locked in to certain actions through path dependency but in some cases will have to deal with the negative consequences of decisions we make today (such as the use of nuclear power for energy generation) for a long time into the future.  Our inability to adequately account for the positive and negative impacts of current investments that may occur decades, or even centuries in the future leads us to make some poor choices in the present.

Into the future

Choices made by others and by society in general ‘lock’ us in to a particular path or way forward, which we may or may not agree with (Brexit is a prime example of disagreement over the way forward, with massive implications for the young and future generations).  In that sense we all share in what might be called a ‘common destiny’ or future direction in time, and when it comes to global environmental problems (e.g. global warming, marine pollution, loss of species) we are all going to be affected, (whether or not we had anything to do with creating the problem).  Solving today’s global commons problems will have significant impact on the future, meaning the decisions we make now should be weighted not just for their impact on the present but also on the future.  Unfortunately, we are not good at valuing the future, or giving it enough weight to ensure we make the right choices in the present.


Path dependency – the future is full of uncertainty based on current and previous decisions


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (1916)



i. In 2011 Stonehenge was reported as costing around £2.4 million per year to operate while generating around £6 million per year income.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-13201949 Current visitor numbers and entrance fees are much higher in 2017, suggesting income generated is in excess of £10 million per year, and most likely a lot higher.

ii. State Opening of Parliament.  http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/occasions/stateopening/

iii. Open Spaces society, #FindOurWay.  http://www.oss.org.uk/what-we-do/rights-of-way/what-we-do-find-our-way/

iv. ‘Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London’.  The Guardian, 24th July 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map

v. Loss of land rights among indigenous people is occurring in many areas, Australia is one example, see:  Aboriginal Land Rights/  https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-land-rights  See also the Land Portal: http://landportal.info/ for more  information on land governance issues.

vi. Shropshire Star, 10 November 2016.  https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/2016/11/10/fairytale-shropshire-home-awakens-as-family-return-home-to-mansion-video-and-pictures/

vii. Tait, Peter. ‘The trouble with choosing what history to teach’.  The Telegraph, 7 Oct 2015.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/11915034/The-trouble-with-choosing-what-history-to-teach.html  Accessed 10th December 2017.

viii. Rockmore, Ellen. ‘How Texas Teaches History’.  Opinion Today Newsletter, 21 October 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html  Accessed 10th December 2017

ix. Daley, Paul.  ‘Is the national curriculum biased? Let’s have a classroom debate’.  Australia News: Opinion, in the Guardian, 19 March 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/19/national-curriculum-christopher-pyne. Accessed 10th December 2017.
History is constantly being revised in light of new evidence and new interpretations of the evidence.  This is an essential task of historians but state authorities have sometimes gone further, for example by altering photos, documents and other evidence, in order to present a particular view of the past (for example the Soviet Union under Stalin).

x. http://www.investinganswers.com/financial-dictionary/options-derivatives/futures-market-4895

xi. Kahneman, Daniel; Tversky, Amos (1979). “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk”.  Econometrica. 47 (2): 263; and, Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2.

xii. Stefanie Hellweg, Thomas B. Hofstetter and Konrad Hungerbühler (2003)   ‘Discounting and the Environment
Should Current Impacts be Weighted Differently than Impacts Harming Future Generations?’.  International Journal of Life Cycle Analysis, Vol.8 (1), pp.8 – 18.  Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Safety and Environmental Technology Group, Zurich, Switzerland.  http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

xiii. Julie Rehmeyer, ‘Discounting’ the future cost of climate change: Economists develop new methods to quantify the trade-off between spending now and spending later. Science News, 21st May 2010. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/discounting-future-cost-climate-change
See also: New nuclear power in UK would be the world’s most costly. Carbon Brief, 3rd September 2015.  https://www.carbonbrief.org/new-nuclear-power-in-uk-would-be-the-worlds-most-costly-says-report  Accessed 19 December 2017.