NEWS REPORT Good morning, everybody. Time now for the most important question of the morning.
NEWS REPORT Yeah, what day is it? It's Friday. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So many of us are stuck at home, stuck without a paycheck and even stuck outside of time. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. You may think it was only a matter of time until Coronavirus overran a city like New York, but…
SAM KLING You're ignoring the people in the small towns, people in the suburbs and vulnerable populations in cities who are particularly at risk, not because they live in dense neighborhoods, but because they have to keep going to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE To see the risks of overcrowded spaces and ill protected people look to the prisons and jails.
NEWS REPORT We tell social distancing. Pray, whatever y’all gotta do, whoever y’all pray to pray. It ain’t no protection for the inmates. They don’t care if you die, nothing.
BOB GARFIELD There's more coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Was New York City's epicenter status just destined to be?
BOB GARFIELD What if pestilence is a city dweller? Pandemics naturally thrive most in big cities, Joel Kotkin wrote last month in Tablet Magazine. Quote, people live cheek by jowl and are regularly exposed to people from other regions and countries.” The Boston Globe predicted that social distancing will reignite, quote, America's suburban instincts. Sounds reasonable, even obvious.
SAM KLING Well, it seems to make sense. You know, cities are places of crowds, interaction, lots of movement. New York is, of course, the world's hot spot.
But as Sam Kling wrote this week in City Lab, when you look at infections on a per capita basis, you'll notice that Coronavirus does not always seek out the most crowded city blocks.
SAM KLING But outside of New York, a lot of the suburban areas have rates that are just as high, sometimes higher than Manhattan.
NEWS REPORT Towns and villages presenting a united front as Nassau County declared a state of emergency.
NEWS REPORT The Coronavirus map shows the town of Ramapo with the most cases by far in Rockland County. [END CLIP]
SAM KLING Small towns in Georgia and Louisiana that are also struggling with coronavirus.
NEWS REPORT As the virus rips through their rural community, for so many here, it's overwhelming.
NEWS REPORT With us being in a small city, we’re not New York, but we are still impacted. [END CLIP]
SAM KLING In northern Italy, it wasn't really Milan that was hit hardest. It was the smaller towns and villages surrounding it. There are cities that are denser than New York. Some of the most built up places on the planet, like Hong Kong and Singapore and Tokyo and Seoul. They've all managed to overcome, I think, cities vulnerabilities. So I think it's a bridge too far to say that density is destiny. In the coming months, in the coming years, we'll be able to look back and get a better sense of how this actually played out. But in the absence of data, I think people are really making assumptions. And this idea that cities are particularly vulnerable to disease, to crime and vice and all these things, this is a very old idea making a reemergence right now because people don't really know what to think.
BOB GARFIELD Cities have maybe always been associated with language like squalid, hotbed, miasma. In your piece for City Lab, you quote one of the great American anti-urbanists, Thomas Jefferson, writing, quote, “Pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” He didn't seem very thrilled about city life. He was not alone.
SAM KLING No. And this really came to a high point in the mid 19th century in the United States. Before the mid 19th century, there weren't really many cities of size. But then all of a sudden, with industrialization and urbanization, cities were growing faster than ever before and people noticed great poverty next to great wealth. Political radicalism, social unrest, poor sanitation. And a lot of it was encapsulated in this new type of neighborhood that people called the slum. Civic leaders and reformers, they noticed that disease and vise and crime all concentrated there. And their explanation was that these social problems were a product of their environment, the physical space of the city, the built environment. This is something that historians call moral environmentalism, the idea that the environment not just shapes people's physical character, but it also shapes their moral character. And of course, if the problem is the city environment, then that suggests all sorts of policy solutions that are aimed towards improving the city environment.
BOB GARFIELD Well, on that point. Over the years, social reform has been conflated with and central to urban reform. And speaking of central, you in your work cite one famous park. At the time, a well intentioned answer to the physical and moral infirmity to which you refer, but you say the wrong answer.
SAM KLING Well, a partial answer. Parks were really the centerpiece of this urban reform movement based on moral environmentalism. The most famous example is Central Park in New York City, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. And the idea there was that the design wouldn't just give people fresh air and open space and all of these things that we appreciate today, but that it would literally solve the most pressing social problems of the 19th century city in Central Park and in a lot of other Olmsted parks, he would build these promenades that were visually prominent so that if you were sitting on a lawn, you would be naturally inclined to look at it. And the idea was that moneyed people would walk down these promenades in their nice clothes and their middle class manners and working class people would observe them and as if by osmosis they would adopt their values and they would become good Republican citizens.
BOB GARFIELD What, let's like, go to the privileged zoo?
SAM KLING Yes, sort of. And some of the things that we take for granted in parks today, like playing ball or even walking on the grass that was banned in Central Park because Olmsted wanted this to be a place of quiet reflection where you could escape the busy chaos of the city and just relax. And he didn't want people engaging in active recreation.
BOB GARFIELD In the 20th century, we saw that mentality of anti urbanism laid bare by the language of the slum clearance movement.
NEWS REPORT In an effort to correct blighted conditions, city land reevaluated and undesirable areas are leveled to the ground. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Whether it's a gangrenous limb or in Dutch Elm disease, the treatment is removal of the rot. And you believe that these metaphors actually dictated or at least influenced public policy?
SAM KLING Yes. The ways that people understood the city in the 19th century, in the 20th century and even in modern times is often through metaphors. And one of the most prominent metaphors in the early 20th century was that the city was like an ecosystem and like ecosystems, it suffers blight. That suggests certain policy prescriptions. You want to remove the blight or else it will spread throughout the city. Now, of course, when you have a metaphor like that, sometimes it kind of obscures the real contours of the problem. So maybe the solution to blight isn't to cut it out, but it's to address the root cause. One thing that happens when we picture density as destiny, it really lets our political leaders and our bad policies off the hook. We look past the inequality, the structural racism. And if we're focusing on the densest neighborhoods, well, that doesn't really map onto the most vulnerable populations. Now, I'm not arguing that density doesn't play any role, but density can also bring strengths. Big cities have a lot of tools in their toolkit to combat coronavirus. They can concentrate resources, they can concentrate social services and density can nurture what the sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure. These are the community organizations, the senior centers, the libraries and, yes, even the public parks that nurture social ties among people. Klinenberg found in a study of the Chicago heat wave of 1995 that neighborhoods that had the stronger social ties tended to do much better in disaster because people check up on their neighbors. They make sure that everyone's doing OK. The challenge for cities is to figure out how to build on those strengths and minimize the weaknesses.
BOB GARFIELD This whole conversation is premised on the idea that we as a society have already sort of begun to formulate the notion that we've gotta get out to the fresh air. You know, it's like Green Acres.
BOB GARFIELD What is the risk, you know, in the wake of Coronavirus wave one that people flee?
SAM KLING By blaming density, you're putting people at risk. Fleeing to the suburbs doesn't help you necessarily. We don't have evidence of that. Social distancing is much more important than the place that you live. By defining this as a density problem, we're really missing a lot of how this actually plays out. You're ignoring the people in the small towns or ignoring the people in the suburbs, and you're ignoring the vulnerable populations in cities who are particularly at risk not because they live in dense neighborhoods, but because, you know, they don't have PPE or they have to keep going to work or they don't have health insurance. And those are some of the big structural problems that I think we have to address.
BOB GARFIELD Sam, thank you.
SAM KLING Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Sam Kling is a global cities fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So urban centers shouldn't be regarded as inevitable hotspots, but we have seen some congested quarters hit hard by the spread of COVID-19, namely our prisons and jails.
NEWS REPORT Coronavirus within New York City jails is spreading at a rate to get this seven times faster than in New York City itself.
NEWS REPORT I'm Omar Jimenez in Chicago. Cook County Jail here, the largest single-site jail in the country is now the largest known source of Coronavirus infections in the country outside of medical facilities.
NEWS REPORT Coronavirus spreading rapidly among Ohio inmates, nearly 4000 cases confirmed at prisons across that state. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Earlier this month, one of those Ohio inmates incarcerated at federal prison, FCI Elkton, posted a video to Facebook live using a smuggled cell phone in which he implored the public.
We tell social distancing. Pray, whatever y’all gotta do, whoever y’all pray to pray. It ain’t no protection for the inmates. They don’t care if you die, nothing. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yet another case of the notion of the virus as a great equalizer, proving to be a triumph of hope over experience. Ashley Rubin is a professor of sociology specializing in penal history at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. She says that what makes jails so susceptible isn't just the crowding, it's also the isolation and neglect.
ASHLEY RUBIN The concentration of human life in such tight quarters as you would get and, say, elderly care facilities or cruise ships. It's worsened by other factors, including the lack of the ability to stay clean. A lot of prisoners, for example, have to purchase soap, use watered down shampoo. Keeping clean in the same way that we're told, too, of washing your hands is quite difficult in a prison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've made the observation that jails and prisons also concentrate people who have preexisting conditions than older people.
ASHLEY RUBIN The situation with our disproportionate representation of elderly people in prisons has to do with our really long sentences: 20 years, 30 years, life. You end up with people who have been in the prison for decades and even people who are kind of middle age have the same health status as an older person because it's hard to live in a prison. It takes a toll on you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've noted an ebb and flow in the conditions of our prisons. So let's start before the beginning. Lousy prison conditions were a tradition in the colonial era. Right?
ASHLEY RUBIN Right. What we had before we had prisons, as we think of them today, were jails and jails were just these usually large rooms filled with a whole bunch of different people, not just convicted criminals, but accused criminals, witnesses, debtors, vagrants, people who had already been tried and who were awaiting their punishment. In just one big room. And so they're very overcrowded, dirty and then, of course, people would also have disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE After the revolution, our earliest reformers emerged and they were influenced by their counterparts in England, John Howard is a person you particularly note.
ASHLEY RUBIN Yeah so he was a British noble or aristocrat who became a sheriff and unlike most sheriffs, actually went and visited his jail and was horrified by what he saw. He talked about various cases where people had caught disease in the jail and then spread it to other places. So he talks about the black assizes of 1577, where people were brought into court, what they called assizes and within 40 hours, over 300 people had died because the prisoners had brought the disease with them into the courtroom and everybody at court that day was exposed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Then we got some penal reformers. One of them was Benjamin Rush and he promoted all sorts of changes, that's how we got what is now known as the prison uniform. Right?
ASHLEY RUBIN Right. You would also be bathed. The jail was also supposed to be regularly cleaned. The prisoners slept on straw at the time. And so that straw had to be changed on a weekly basis. There would also be a physician.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you think that part of the reason for worrying about prisoners is because some of the people holding the keys identified with them that there was a certain there, but for the grace of God, go I feeling after the revolution?
ASHLEY RUBIN Definitely. During the American Revolution, loyalists were put into jail or put to death. The founding fathers themselves knew that there is a very real chance that they could be executed one day. So this idea that it's not just kind of people who are different from us, but really all of us could be a criminal at one time or another. If that's the case, we want to make sure that our punishments are, you know, decent and humane. Over the course of the 18th century, various political theorists championed the rights of individuals. And as part of that, they didn't believe that governments have the right to execute people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How about capitalism?
ASHLEY RUBIN In fact, one of the arguments was we want our country to grow. We want our markets to grow, and we probably shouldn't be executing our workers because workers are so scarce. And also, if you execute too many of them, then that kind of increases the power of the worker and they can demand better working conditions and better wages. And so instead, there is this notion that we need to essentially recycle or people we need to take them from criminals and reform them into the phrase that they used was, industrious, virtuous, useful citizens.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mean productive members of society, which is how that phrase has come down to us today?
ASHLEY RUBIN Yeah, exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So given all of this, can you give me an example of a jail in America acting effectively to prevent the spread of a contagious disease?
ASHLEY RUBIN Sure. So Walnut Street Jail, which eventually became Walnut Street Prison, they suffered several yellow fever epidemics in Philadelphia, first in 1793 and another major one in 1798. And they were pretty good about releasing people when they first showed symptoms and diverting them to the makeshift hospital at Bush Hill that was designed for treating people with yellow fever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Prison officials actually started competing over which prison had the lowest death rate in the late 18th and early 19th centuries?
ASHLEY RUBIN They would write these annual reports and a large chunk of it would be about the health of the prisoners, which, by the way, were also published in the newspapers and literary magazines around the country. So everybody could read these.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When did jails and prisons stop emphasizing the spread of infectious disease?
ASHLEY RUBIN In the 1970s. We see this idea that prisons are supposed to be painful, which historically wasn't really something you were supposed to say out loud. It was considered unseemly. In the last couple of decades, it's been something that people aren't embarrassed to favor. They think it's a good thing and it's been pretty much in vogue. Before, in the 50s and 60s, we called them correctional institutions. Prisoners were given therapy. They were given access to books and writing educational classes. In the 1970s, we started to remove those items. There is a belief that if prisoners are essentially just bad people, then we just should lock him up and throw away the key. We embarked on what we call mass incarceration. And even though we were building many more prisons than we've ever done before, we still didn't have enough beds to put everybody in. And so overcrowding really became a problem in the 1970s onwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What about mass release of prisoners with regard to the Coronavirus? I think in New York, there's actually been some release of older prisoners. Aren't people worried about them bringing disease into their communities?
ASHLEY RUBIN These prisons are just going to explode with coronavirus cases, as is already happening in Ohio and some other places. And the problem is we can't really just throw away the key this time. There's still correctional officers going in and out of these prisons and then they bring it home to their families, into their communities. And one consequence of this that my colleague John Easton has mentioned is because so many correctional officers are disproportionately African-American and Latin X, in addition to all the other vulnerabilities these communities are experiencing, prison officers coming home from prisons with the disease might be one factor that's causing the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on these black and brown communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's been a lot of conversation about how the Coronavirus could change America in some fundamental ways. The New York Times was addressing the issue of inequality. The environment has come up. Do you see any changes in our penal system as a result of the coronavirus?
ASHLEY RUBIN A number of prison abolitionists are pretty optimistic that some of the policies that they've been working really hard to get passed for decades at this point might actually go through. It's kind of like universal basic income that, you know, now something that's a fringe idea is actually pretty mainstream. But I think there's also a possibility that we go in the other direction. There's already a lot of apathy towards a number of vulnerable groups from Asian-Americans experiencing hate crimes to even health care workers out there fighting for us. We've already seen how many thousands of Americans have died, and we're not seeing as much of an outcry as they probably thought we would have. And if that's our reaction to, you know, free Americans, how are we going to react to, you know, thousands of incarcerated people dying?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ashley, thank you very much.
ASHLEY RUBIN Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ashley Rubin is a professor of sociology specializing in penal history at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, her recent piece in The Conversation is entitled Prisons and Jails Are Coronavirus Epicenters, But They Were Once Designed to Prevent Disease Outbreaks.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, wildlife is now roaming abandoned city streets. Is humanity the virus?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. One of the first memes to emerge alongside the pandemic proclaimed that, quote, humans are the virus. The idea that while hundreds of thousands of people are dying and so many more shelter behind closed doors, the air and waters are cleaner and clearer and nature's healing. Take the popular story of pandas mating after a decade of efforts by zoo keepers. What really happened, though? It's not clear if the pandas' newfound privacy was a factor. But some of the most popular stories about nature bouncing back in this moment are not real. The viral story about dolphins returning to the canals of Venice that never happened. The story that elephants in China got drunk on corn wine and napped in a field during quarantine?
NEWS REPORT How great is that? They got drunk. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE No they didn't. Brian Kahn is managing editor at earther.com. He says the fake news aside, there's a dangerous belief, inspiring far too many variations of the meme that Coronavirus is good for the environment. Welcome to the show.
BRIAN KAHN Hey, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You began to think that this trope was becoming sort of a problem when you saw it on CNN?
NEWS REPORT Blue skies in several Chinese cities. The air pollution has improved, especially with Wuhan. [END CLIP]
BRIAN KAHN There's a piece from mid-March and said there's an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: the planet. And that's a dangerous way to think of it because it divorces us from our relationship with the planet. So that to me, was a sign that, you know, these ideas were not just going around on Twitter. They were things that were actually becoming part of the mainstream media coverage and framing of these issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But why is it wrong to think that nature is getting its due at this moment when humanity is being brought low?
BRIAN KAHN Do I view what's happening with nature coming back positively in a vacuum? Sure. It's great. I love to see whales returning to the wires around Vancouver. These things are really magical and they can spark your imagination. But for me, it sparks in my imagination to think what can we do better to make sure that these things, you know, exist after this pandemic passes as an opening to think about creating a new world and not opening to be like, ha ha, like humans are getting their comeuppance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote those cheering the coronavirus is the answer to healing nature dabble in a handful of ideologies.
BRIAN KAHN Yeah. The first thing it does bring up is this concept that's burble to the surface in recent years called eco fascism, seeing humans as a disease, as a virus. And that leads to a very dangerous place where who are we talking about as the disease? Who's getting wiped out? And I think with coronavirus, it's really laid bare when we talk about we are the virus cause this is a virus that's disproportionately affecting communities that are black and brown, impoverished people living near air pollution. There's a growing body of research showing that air pollution is really strongly correlated with deaths from COVID-19. And so when we talk about we are the virus, I mean, it's just a substitute for these very kind of racist and classist ideas. And then, you know, when it gets down to this other idea that nature and us are separate, that we're you know, we're seeing the virus heal nature that also plays into this idea that nature is this wall-off special place. And as a former park ranger, I am a big believer in national parks. I love them. But there's this kind of classic idea that nature exists within these parks, the boundaries there outside of that, it's the terrible human world. And we may draw boundaries on a map to show where a national park exists. But the atmosphere doesn't respect those boundaries and certainly other human influences don't respect them either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think about the price of oil going into the negatives? People are cheering that. Do you think they're cheering for the wrong thing?
BRIAN KAHN That kind of thinking really misses some really critical things to understand. Well, it shows that demand is really, really low right now. It also is a signal, at least to certain governments like our current administration, that it's a great time to buy more oil and use more oil. And that's downside number one. But downside number two is really what it means for the people that are directly impacted by those negative prices, because negative prices means it's not profitable to dig oil out of ground. We need to think about how to transition people out of the oil rig work, out of the coal mine work. The coal industry is a perfect example of all these coal companies that declared bankruptcy, wiped out miners pensions and CEOs scooted away with millions of dollars. That, to me, is an example of the exact thing we don't want to happen right now. That means taking this opportunity not to cheer people losing their jobs. It means we need to actually do what we can to support those people that are in precarious positions now in the fossil fuel industry. They need help. So when I look at the negative oil prices, I don't see it as a cause for cheering. I see it again as a chance to think about how do we make sure that we're supporting everyone through this transition that we need to go through.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Climate scientist Kate Marvel wrote in Drilled News this week that, quote, There is a bad but persistent narrative that climate change and pandemics are caused not by greenhouse gases and viruses, but by human nature. We're greedy for food, shelter, adventure, self-fulfillment, human contact, and, says this narrative, we must be punished for our sins. But the current situation. Death, poverty, loneliness is an ineffective blueprint for climate solutions. That's what you're saying, right? But this schadenfreude we're feeling on nature's behalf is not getting us closer to a solution. It may be pushing it farther away because it suggests that the very presence of human beings means that catastrophic global warming is inevitable.
BRIAN KAHN Absolutely. I mean, you know we've seen at least this year that there's projected to be a 6 percent drop in carbon emissions, which is great. That's basically what we need to do every year for the next decade to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. I mean, it's real and it's also a drop in the bucket. And there is a concern that when we come back from this, there will be this rebound effect if we just go back to business as usual, because suddenly folks may want to hop a flight to Aruba to sort of blow off some steam. We may see industrial production pick back up. There are all these things that could potentially happen if we want to just go back to the way we were. But I think, you know, there's this opportunity that we can again think about the things we want to change and actively work to change them when we do eventually get a vaccine, come out of this pandemic and start to build the world of the 2020s that we actually want to see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what is it that we need to focus on? Give me some specifics here, because yeah, if you just say now it's time to do something and people can't envision what that is, they're more likely to fall into pessimism.
BRIAN KAHN One small thing that I’ve seen that’s been really exciting to me is during the pandemic, we've seen people be locked indoors, traffic has dropped and a lot of cities have shut down streets and now that they're playing for coming out of lockdown, some of these cities like Oakland, Milan, parts of Paris, they're thinking about keeping those streets permanently closed. So they're basically becoming slow streets open to people in bicycle's but not cars. It's a really interesting societal shift. It shows that maybe we can start to rely on ways of getting around that aren't cars. So, you know, that's one small thing. But then there are the bigger things, meaning we certainly need to invest much more in renewable energy. We need to make sure that, you know, looking at the impacts that we've seen, where these communities that have been choked by air pollution and are seeing higher death rates from COVID-19, how do we bring them into the solutions? That's why we need everyone on board to change and work on their own little part. We all need to come together and find these collective solutions that can really start to shift the entire system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It doesn't fill me with inspiration to hear that I've got to get together if I don't know what it is I'm supposed to do that is gonna make a material difference.
BRIAN KAHN You know, part of it is actually just talking about these issues. There is a wealth of research out there showing that there is this so-called climate silence. People don't talk about climate change much because they think other people don't care. The reality is that three quarters of Americans care about climate change and want action on it. They just don't know that everyone else does. You know, step one that any person can take listening to this right now is just to talk with your family, with your friends, with your neighbors about climate change. Not just the things that worry you, although those are certainly really important topics. But also what can we do about it? What does the world that you want to live in look like? We as a society need to do a lot better job of trying to envision a better future. So I don't know if that gives you more or less hope, but asking those kinds of conversations are step one to really figuring out what we want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hope really is the issue, isn't it? I mean, Amanda Hess wrote in The New York Times, there's a tantalizingly dark escape in getting a glimpse of nature that we cannot otherwise see because we're always out there ruining the view.
BRIAN KAHN When you think of it that way, it's easy to say, well, how are humans ever going to exist unless we have done a lot of bad stuff so it's better to imagine a world without us. I don't, like I said, subscribe to that view at all, but I can understand where it comes from. And I think that that's where we're seeing this memes, why it's taking such a strong hold right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's fatalistic.
BRIAN KAHN It's this belief that the systems that we've created, it's obviously not great for us or for the planet, so we have to go. And to me, that shows that we just can't picture what comes next yet. And that's what we really need to be working towards more than anything right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN KAHN Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brian Kahn is managing editor at Earther. This week he wrote What the Humans Are the Virus Meme Gets Wrong.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, sometimes time feels like a trap. Its presence brings ceaseless demands. What does its absence bring?
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield. Since news of the coronavirus first reached our shores, our plight mostly has been framed in terms of time. From how long it takes for the virus to take hold…
NEWS REPORT Most estimates of the incubation period range from 1 to 14 days. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD to how long we'll be sheltering inside to slow its spread.
PRESIDENT TRUMP Easter is our timeline, what a great timeline that would be. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD to what all the stoppage of time is doing to our relationships.
NEWS REPORT Millions of families across the USA are sheltering in place, but instead of bringing them closer, some married couples are saying it's time at least when the crisis is over, to go their separate ways and file for divorce. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And our pocketbooks.
NEWS REPORT People could not pay their rent this past month and rent is due again in a week. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD We spend our lives bound to a clock and calendar that tells us what to do and what to expect. But now, 26 million Americans are newly jobless, untethered from routine. Hundreds of thousands fight a virus that could cut their time on earth dramatically. And all of us wait out a life stoppage of unknown duration. We may find ourselves outside of time passing it, but no longer marking it.
NEWS REPORT Time now for the most important question of the morning.
NEWS REPORT Yup, what day is it with Todd Meany.
TODD MEANY It's Friday. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Astronomer and anthropologist Anthony Aveni says that to understand our current time consciousness, we have to return to the land before time or at least time as we know it. Fifth century Babylonia, where they made time as we know it.
ANTHONY AVENI They devised our 360 day year and then began to break it down into ours by using the stick in the ground. The sundial. It starts with religion and the idea of having to pray to God or gods at the same time. The better he will hear us. And that's what leads to the division of time into parts of the day. Certain intervals where you have to begin prayer.
BOB GARFIELD Before time as we know it, people were doing what exactly to order their lives?
ANTHONY AVENI They used all kinds of devices. There's a carved bone from the shores of Lake Tanganyika, dated to 30,000 B.C., with little marks that indicate the days that lead up to full moon and the days that lead back to new moon. Banded candles, hour glasses, water clocks, which would be a tank filled with water with a hole punched in the bottom. And you'd gradually drip away time. We've always been conscious of our time. But before the rise of the city, in most cultures of the world, the sensing of time is the sensing of work time and play time. The time to eat, the time to bring the animals home. That's why so many of the early calendars have the months of the year named after the activity performed in that time period. So we have our harvest moon and our hunter's moon. These come from Native America. Time is the activity. It's not an abstract phenomenon apart from the activity, which is what we in the modern West made it.
BOB GARFIELD So people were celestially marking time, but not measuring it in increments that required calendars and clocks. When did a mechanical clock show up?
ANTHONY AVENI The earliest record we have of anything comes from the pendulum clock, which was invented in 1298, give or take a decade. That is a really interesting phenomenon because there you take the beat of nature, a back and forth movement of the pendulum, which mirrors in a very small scale the rhythm of time that we see, for example, in the rising and falling of the tides. And then we adapt it to a pendulum. We connect that pendulum then to an escapement that moves a bunch of tooth wheels that control the hands of the clock.
BOB GARFIELD This was the iPhone of the 13th and 14th century, right. It was technology that had a dramatic influence on society.
ANTHONY AVENI When the city rose and we had centers of trade, there was the necessity to establish efficiency and productivity in the workplace. And in Munich, you have the famous glockenspiel and marienplatz that chimes out all of the bells, the different tones of the bells, and the number of chimes are to be understood by the shearers and the cutters and the weavers who are now told by the friendly face of that pendulum clock in the center of town what to do and when to do it. Before that clock, one determined when to go to work by flipping a coin early in the morning, when you could barely see the sun, and if you could tell heads from tails, it was time to go to work.
BOB GARFIELD I suppose it's not such a great leap from measuring time to that measurement becoming a dominant organizing principle of our lives. Oh my gosh, 8:00 in the morning already got to start fermenting the mead, what they call the quantitative revolution.
ANTHONY AVENI Yeah. That's the giant step into the abstraction of nature. It's the taking away from nature, the flow of time. It doesn't matter to me where the sun is and who cares where the moon is, my work day is being regulated by now what I have on my cell phone that I used to wear around my wrist and before that the bells that I used to listen to to tell me what the hour was.
BOB GARFIELD This conversation is occasioned by COVID-19, and maybe a sort of wrinkle in time that has been cast upon society. Curiously, time consciousness, as you describe it, also began in the midst of a pandemic, the Black Plague. You write that the effect then was Europeans becoming more tethered to time than ever before.
ANTHONY AVENI Yeah, use your time. Well, said the priests, and I think in a very real way what's happened to us now with this pandemic is that time has released its disciplinary hold on us. Now we're being reminded about maybe some of the things we ought to be thinking about or haven't been thinking enough about and that happened during the plague and it happened on 9/11. Whenever you get some tremendous event that grinds time to a halt, you get outside of that ticking clock and you start thinking about what matters in life.
BOB GARFIELD So we don't necessarily have much time ahead of us. Let's make the most of what little remains?
ANTHONY AVENI We're not used to thinking about these things. And for some of us, it's frightening. What am I going to do with the time I have left? Well, how much time will I have? We all know somebody who's been affected and maybe even someone who's died from it. And so we're suddenly very time conscious in a real sense.
BOB GARFIELD So we have Netflix to kind of distract us and to kill time back during the Black Plague, at least in the cities, they had the pendulum clock, which eventually became a sort of overlord.
ANTHONY AVENI Well, it happened over the necessity to make the worker as productive as possible. And of course, it got a lot worse with the industrial revolution. The railroads had a lot to do with this strict time structure. People began to realize that if you're in a moving vehicle, the time inside that vehicle is not the same as the time outside. We're sitting here in New York and we know that back in San Francisco, the sun is a lot lower in the sky. So then we begin to develop time zones and Greenwich Mean Time, where we all go by a single clock that takes effect all the way around the world. This mechanization of time then becomes a frustration to us. It's reflected in Charlie Chaplin's famous movie Modern Times 1936 where you see him ground up and the wheels of the clock and if you're old enough to remember, I Love Lucy from back in the 50s’, there you see Lucy and her friend on an assembly line and they're trying to put all the chocolates in boxes and the machine is running wild and they can't keep up with it.
If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packing room unwrapped, you're fired.
ANTHONY AVENI Time is money and it's pretty damn stressful and I think now in this time, we're all of a sudden the cuffs are off and God, what are we gonna do? We're going nuts. We don't know what to do. We're bingeing and gaining weight, well, as you say, watching Netflix.
BOB GARFIELD Much as we now say that information is power, leaders and would-be leaders came to understand that time is power. I'm thinking in particular of the French Revolution.
ANTHONY AVENI During the French Revolution they tried to get away from this silly notion of naming days and weeks and months and units of time after gods and goddesses. They wanted a decimal system, a ten day workweek, 10 hours in a day, ten minutes in an hour. Workers didn't like so much having to work nine days to get one day off. It lasted 13 years until Napoleon took it back in 1806. So it's one of the innovations in time keeping that didn't work out and there are others.
BOB GARFIELD Now, forgive me for going backwards, but 300 years before that, there was an imposed change in marking the days that did take hold. The Gregorian calendar.
ANTHONY AVENI Well, the fact is the number of days in the year isn't a nice round 360, it's 365. And in fact, if you measure it more closely, it's 365.2422 days. So how do you make a round number of days out of a fraction like that? Well, we have a leap year every four years, three years of 365 and one of 366 and the average would be 365 and a quarter. Well, that was all well and good, except that time still gets out of whack. And it went all the way from the Roman Empire when that system was installed up to 1585 when Pope Gregory found that the seasons had gained about 15-20 days on the clock. More than that, actually. So it became necessary to actually skip 11 days of the year to lock the two back together again. So one went from October the 4th to October the 15th. That was the next day. Well, imagine if your chariot payment were due on the 15th and all of a sudden you've lost 11 days, that throws everything out of whack. But that was a change that had to be made to put the seasons back in line with the calendar.
BOB GARFIELD Now, none of this timekeeping is actually arbitrary. All systems you write are originating in something tangible in the natural world. But you write about man grabbing hold of the controls, quote, “we changed the order. We manipulated time, processed, compressed and packaged it to conform to our perceived needs.”
ANTHONY AVENI Right. Time is a recognition that there is an order to our states of consciousness. The model I like to use is knots on a string, the events, the things that happen. I woke up this morning, I brushed my teeth, I had my breakfast. I received this phone call. They're all knots on a string. And it's our recognition of that order of states of consciousness and the existence of a duration in between them that's what we're dealing with now in this awful pandemic, that long duration, the space on the string between the knots. You can say it's a string that coils around if you believe in cyclic time, like so many cultures in the world, but not the Western culture, but it coils, it comes back to where it was. I suppose you could say, well, yeah, after Sunday night, there's Monday morning so we can think of the knots on the string coiling around. We could say no, it's a straight line tilted upward. That's progress because we move along these knots on a string. These events in our lives that lead to what? Well, they lead to a better world or if you're in a Christian mood, the second coming where I suppose the string will be cut and then those of us who've done the good life will then live in a timeless eternity. But there's no question, whatever model you use that we've mechanized it, we've changed it into a machine and we think of it as being that machine rather than it’s just this recognition of the order of our states of consciousness.
BOB GARFIELD All right, Tony. So here we are in this place where uncertainty and fear are all wrapped up in the metrics of time. Duration, that you mentioned is a confounding mystery. Productivity has tanked worldwide. What does this suggest to you?
ANTHONY AVENI Well, you know, here we are, all of us in an extended time out in a very high intensity interactive business. I'm trying to imagine the time out in basketball or football that goes on and on and on. And when we get back to playing the game, we've gotten our wish to loosen the shackles that bind us. What do we do? Maybe it's time for us to go out and have a good look at nature whence we derived this whole notion of time-keeping. Watch the stars move. Watch the plants sprout. Watch the birds. And you'll understand what time it was before we undertook this process of hyper mechanization and abstraction. I mean, we weren't compelled to do this. We closed it. We decided to do it for the sake of productivity. This is really pretty much what it is. I doubt we'll ever lose the idea of acquiring material wealth, but for some of us, maybe the time out will cause us to reflect on where all of this came from.
BOB GARFIELD Tony, thank you very much.
ANTHONY AVENI Bob, wonderful to talk to you.
BOB GARFIELD Anthony Aveni is professor emeritus of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies at Colgate University. His new book, Stars, Stories, Constellations and People, is just published by Yale University Press.
There's this thing that's happened, at least to me, as pandemic plays havoc with our present. It's the loss of connection to the future. Not knowing what the passage of time will yield has left me unmoored, spinning in space as if my inner gyroscope were on the fritz. We all know about sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. But there is that often unmentioned Sixth Sense, proprioception, the unconscious awareness of our body position and movement. Could there be, I wonder, a seventh sense? A proprioception of time? If so, it's gone missing. Not just that I can't fathom what the world will be like in a year or a month. It's that in losing a sense of future, I've also all but lost the present. Ambitions, duties, desires, even the sense beyond hunger and fatigue of life itself. I cannot be alone in this because time isn't just a metric, it's a gravity that keeps us tethered to the world. By anticipating future seconds and minutes and days, we're able to field traction and trajectory. But without those hidden comforts of time comes this vertigo, this loss of chronological bearings. Truthfully, I've been crying a lot. Please forgive the muling. God knows half the world's population and 40 million Americans live perpetually on the brink and now who knows how many are sliding toward the abyss, not to mention the dead. So, yeah, perspective. And so you might also rightly wonder, since we're all struggling in our own particular ways, what my personal flavor of distress has to do with you. Well, this. My loved ones are elsewhere and so my tenuous connection to the gravity of life has been reduced to this program, its production, my Zoomed in colleagues, the gorgeous, immutable, unforgiving 50 minute show clock. And, of course, our raison d'être. The audience. You turn out to be my gyroscope. You are how I gain something resembling purchase in the overwhelming midst of disorientation, you are what stops the tears. So I don't know, woe is me and cherished are you.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Anthony Bansie and Eloise Blondiau and our show was edited by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Josh Hahn.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer, now on the mend. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.