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Time on the border

By Shirley Clerkin

Living on the border defines and determines. You are on one side or the other. You go over it. You go back again, developing an intense and intimate relationship with its nuances and grey areas. The border is the edge and the beginning, like two silk scarves with rolled French seams lying end to end, but also a place of buffering, transition and, because of that, cultural richness.

Little details that ornament south or north – the road surface, the metric miles, the Slán Abhaile’s, narrate the government policies that have accumulated a different finish to the countryside and towns. If you dropped me on either side, I believe I would know which I was on eyes-shut, because I am of the border. It is in me.  It is a unified place, not a line, unified by its edginess and the distinction of experiencing  many perspectives.

People interrogate you about it – your experience of “living along the border”. It becomes an exotic thing because it is deemed to be by peace-builders, social scientists and historians. Peace-funding and other EU cohesion monies are available for storytelling projects that allow you to get it off your chest, but only while a person “from the other side” gets it off his or her chest too. It is an ailment to be overcome, like a bad cough.

But, what if border belonging made you a better problem-solver because of the unique experience, like Kilkenny makes better hurlers because of the unique heritage and self-belief of that place and people. Like Cork people, being so far away, and having such a rich and sophisticated hinterland, never lose the run of themselves. The ingenuity of many home-grown companies, particularly in engineering, on the border is unreplicated anywhere else on the island for example.  Problem-solving is also about co-operation and collaboration, behaviours that have been hard-wired into many, for reasons of necessity and because of initiatives to bring trans-border standards into line with each other by public authorities.  But also because those woolly sounding “storytelling projects” are much more than a hug from a warm jumper. It is not easy: cooperating is challenging, but it can be learned through doing.

We need to encourage and teach these types of behaviour to force a change in how we manage our resources and how we challenge climate change and biodiversity loss. Because we in effect need to cooperate with future generations as well as with each other.  ‘Time Lapse’ from Lodovico Einauidi’s new album evokes a moving through the seasons, beaten out on the piano and other percussion – sparse, noisy, busy, constantly rhythmic but with increasing franticness.  It sounds like years ticking past, generations flickering briefly like-time lapse photographs from birth to death in a glimpse – generation upon generation – each dependent on the earth left by those who went before. Ecologically.

I sometimes wonder if there would be a change if photographs were available of our ancestors. Would our sense of time shrink to see the real transference between generations, past and future? Would we become real geologists, and understand human time as just a pinhead in the history of the earth, and would this help us co-operate to protect our nature, our DNA’s future?

Why people are willing, or unwilling, to make present-day sacrifices for future generations is the topic of a recent study called ‘Cooperating With The Future,’ from researchers at Harvard and Yale.

They tested the conditions under which co-operation with future generations can occur in a game, the Intergenerational Goods Game (IGG). Oliver Hauser et al. developed this laboratory model of co-operation that differs from previous games in which selfishness creates social-efficiency losses for group members. Instead, selfishness negatively affects subsequent groups. Experiments involving more than 2,000 people demonstrate that when decisions about resource extraction are made individually, the resource is rapidly depleted by defectors. But, when participants are forced to vote on how the resource should be exploited, it is exploited sustainably across generations. Voting allows a majority of co-operators to constrain a minority of defectors, and as all players receive the same amount after a vote, co-operators need not worry about losing out relative to others.

To be honest, the study seems like a bit of common sense, not a great discovery as such, but perhaps the best ideas are already taken in the real world outside the lab. My eye was drawn to it because if its snazzy game-show name. Unfortunately without ever-cheerful Bruce Forsyth to declare “Didn’t they do well?” no matter how poorly the contestant performed, it will hardly precipitate any great changes in behaviour. Brucie was an encouraging and motivating host. We need him now to tell us to stop the belt conveying prizes to vested economic interests and to share the cuddly toys among ourselves and our children. Time is not what we think. And it is not, nor ever was, on our side.

Like Einaudi’s composition, the metronome is relentless. •