Time & Sustainability – An appraisal of Douglas Coupland’s novel ‘Player One’ from an Urban Planning Perspective

-virginal commentary

Time & Sustainability

 “…what makes human beings different from everything else on the planet—or possibly in the universe, for that matter—is that they have the ability to experience the passage of time and they have the free will to make the most of that time…” (Player One – Douglas Coupland, 2010)

The concept of time may be said to be intrinsically linked to the notion of sustainability.  The 1983 World Commission on Environment and Development, convened by the United Nations, now colloquially referred to as the Bruntland Commission, in publishing their 1987 report, Our Common Future, included a now oft-cited definition of Sustainability:

“…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Our Common Future – United Nations, 1987)

To define the nebulous entity, ‘time’, really is however, not possible in a few lines of the English language.  Indeed art, at times, has a greater capacity to convey that which is difficult to know or explain.  Douglas Coupland, writing in 2010, weaves a dramatic, apocalyptic tale referencing concepts of sustainability and the future of mankind in a fictional piece entitled Player One.  An over-arching theme of this story is the concept of time—how it is perceived as a reality, how it is understood with regard to the way life is lived as well as its affect upon decisions made in future tense.

Coupland is well known to create and define new manners of conceptualizing socio-historical reality and does so with great flair within this story. Player One’s title refers to identities portrayed in cyberspace, while unable to process many subjective human apprehensions.  He labels these as Binary Subjective Qualities[1].  Those who experience life with neural pathologies, as with his character Rachel, or those who exhibit Autistic Spectral attributes, for example, may be said to lack the ability to apprehend these subjectivities—much as when one negotiates the world as a cyber-avatar. 

Ann Dale, writing in Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, articulates a concept which Coupland’s seudo-character Player One conjures, in describing the whole of humanity as a Holon—with a new sense of meaning being created from perceiving human interconnectedness in a very different way (Coupland, 2010). The concept of Holonism entails leaving behind subjective sensitivities to apprehend systems as a whole.  In Dale’s reference this implies the connectedness of humanity as a unitary system juxtaposed with the eco-system which supports it (Dale, 2001).  Cybernetically speaking, this is reinforced when our subjective personalities are diminished online, while simultaneously objective human connectedness is greatly enhanced.


Time Appreciation

Urban Planning necessarily entails an appreciation of the progression of time; with the concept of sustainability soliciting a consideration for the future.  At the level of analysis of Urban Planning, sustainable initiatives are concerned with, amongst other issues: “air quality, water quality and conservation, energy consumption, solid waste production, and levels of recycling, green buildings, open space, brownfield development and equity initiatives.” (Saha & Paterson, 2008)  To these may be added the preservation of both the natural as well as human environment.  The consequences of our relationship with time deems proceeding indefinitely without consideration for the future liable to eventually create in Coupland-speak the sadness of Chronocanine Envy[2]—the realization that life can not merely be lived in present tense—as with the life of a canine. Quoting Kierkegaard, Coupland states, “Life must be lived forward.” (Coupland, 2010)

Many issues facing Urban Planning Professionals today derive from past planning endeavours which lacked long-term perspectives for what in their time, were considered solutions.  The Suburbs are a widely recognized example of this—ostensibly solving problems of inner-city crowding and disease transmission, but resulting with issues of social isolation, and community disconnect, not to mention traffic, pollution and many forms of waste; loss too, of the dynamism found in earlier more concentrated urban settlements and, in many instances, the built form around which it occurred. Contemporary Planning attempts a more holistic approach, promoting the three Es: Environment, Economy and Equity (or social imperatives).  Saha & Paterson’s work speaks to the necessity for questioning and altering lifestyles.

The furthering of economic security, ecological sensitivity and social justice in the name of the future is said to require a shifting of paradigms (Greek for patterns) occupationally; recreationally; as well as existentially. (Saha & Paterson, 2008) 

Only through such multi-pronged strategies, it is claimed, will current planning decisions have enduring positive influences on contemporary cities, towns and natural environments, both for the inhabitants of today as well as beyond contemporaneous lifetimes.


The Story of a Lifetime

Our curse as humans is that we are trapped in time; our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events—a story—and when we can’t figure out what our particular story is, we feel lost somehow.” (Coupland, 2010; p5)

An interesting element of time that the characters in Coupland’s story ponder is that of the narrative of life.  Mentioned in multiple circumstances, by distinct characters is what in Coupland-speak, three concepts allude to: Narrative Drive[3], Denarration[4] and Sequential Dysphasia[5].  The first of these terms describes the ascribing to life, a storyline, plot, or narrative thread.  Denarration is said to be the loss of such a Narrative due to Sequential Dysphasia.

         By definition, the question of a narrative to life implies the observance of a sequence of events, and apprehension of a purpose within this progression.  Narrative structure is composed of a beginning, middle and end. This vision of timescape exists within the context of Sustainable Planning as well.  Douglas Farr, in Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with Nature (2008), notes the transience of North American existence and life progression. In contemporary built-form, such as within urban sprawl with imposed socio-economic and inter-generational segregation, neighbourhoods are unable to support the ‘aging in place’ of community residents, through the provision of “housing suited to every phase of life,” (Farr, 2008) thereby precluding vibrant, enduring social connectivity and strong relationships from flourishing both between individuals, as well as between places and people. In the vibrant neighbourhoods mentioned in Jane Jacobs’ popularly cited works, the most significant elements are the relationships between all the residents of a bustling diverse neighbourhood, composed of the youth and the aged, immigrant and native, financially modest and well-to-do.  This rich tapestry is what created the socio-spatial narrative for Jacobs’ cherished Manhattan of the 1950s. (Jacobs, 1961)

Sustainability with regard to neighbourhoods is enriched from the planning for, and adapting to, the natural progression of life (and successive lives), so that a sense of togetherness and connectedness may be preserved without the disruption of necessary population upheavals on regular intervals from shifts of individuals and demographics.  Planners, by challenging norms of corporate branding and market segmentation which have dominated city-building over the last several decades, can exert some influence on encouraging development which accounts for life progression and provide thereby, within the same geography, for the needs of a diversity of individuals in the narratives of neighbourhoods, and future generations.  Historically, a failure of this has been witnessed in the socio-spatial fragmentation of traditional neighbourhood structures over the past several decades.  (GHRS, 2009:p41)

Time Crystallization

An interesting observation Douglas Coupland makes in Player One is that humans have the ability to commodify time and opportunity.  In coining the term Crystallographic Money Theory[6], he postulates that money is a ‘condensate’ or ‘crystalized’ combination of time and free will.  The logic behind this contrivance carries over to sustainability once more, as it has been argued that the concept of sustainability signifies the striving to proffer future generations as many options as possible (Crabbe, 2006)—‘options’, it may be argued, are composed of free will and time.  In the calculus of the three Es an attempt is being made to account for the current costs of future deprivation.

Dale states in no uncertain terms that unsustainable patterns of the recent past have persisted due to the transference of costs to the future, to other geographies or “to the buffer/sink capacity of the surrounding ecosphere.” (Dale, 2001)  Having endured for over two generations, these unsustainable patterns have altered the landscape not only literally, but also figuratively with regard to systems of finance, land-use regulation, and the provision of, and infrastructure for, transportation. (Farr, 2008) Such composite elements entrench a sense of inevitability to the North American urban lifestyle.  Long term strategic planning and policy initiatives are called for to cement the reorganization of priorities required to address sustainability concerns.  This however would imply the raising of awareness of those who elect the officials and pay the taxes.

Awareness of Time

The introductory quotation of this paper makes reference to Time-Will Uniqueness[7], or in Coupland-speak, the belief that Free Will and Time Awareness is that which fundamentally separates humans from other earthlings.  This cognizance is also that which allows humans to plan for the future, avoid untoward happenstances, and recognize patterns such as the weather and business cycles and work around them.  Sustainable Planning evokes the idea of ‘Backcasting’ rather than Forecasting for the future—the former indicating working backwards from an ideal circumstance, rather than attempting to predict a future end result, as with the more common, latter, notion. (Dale, 2001)

The greatest gift or the greatest curse for humanity is being able to perceive the direction in which it is headed.  Coupland as explanation for his term Proscenial Universe Theory[8], quotes Joyce Carol Oates as stating that Time is indeed “the element in which we exist.  We are either borne along by it or drowned in it.” (Coupland, 2010).  A Procenium is the small area on a theatre stage between the orchestra and the curtain.  Coupland explicitly states at one point in Player One that “Fate is for Losers, and Destiny for Winners” (Coupland, 2010).  This would suggest that those who remain passive with regard to the progression of time, must deal with their consequential fate; while those who embrace life actively, can appreciate their destiny.  The metaphor here, for sustainable planning could not be more cogent.  As the effects on the environment from human activity become more and more apparent and accepted, there are those who may choose merely to observe, while failing to alter their actions and behaviours.  It is incumbent however, upon the vast majority of humanity to take action, to participate in altering the fate not only of the species, but of the entire biosphere, so as to appreciate a greater, sustained, destiny.  As Farr pointedly exclaims, the “time for half measures has passed.” (Farr, 2008).  Piecemeal efforts at urban planning sustainability may be argued to lack the coherency and the strategic force necessary for significant, real change to occur. 

An unfortunate reality of humanity is that most do not perceive time beyond their lifetimes either historically or with regard to the future.  As a very self-absorbed species, the present seems the most important as it is the time-frame being personally experienced.  Coupland-speak refers to this as Centennial Blindness[9], and it may even lead to many not being able to contemplate further than the day after tomorrow, let alone further than a decade.  This lends itself to justify the significance of the planning profession in furthering socio-political awareness of the issues facing the world today, and potential solutions in our lives at a municipal level.

When to Act

“Jesus, Rick, only losers make decisions when times are bad.” (Coupland, 2010) states a character in Player One. Coupland-speak refers to this as Castastrohasic Shifts[10]—the dramatic, life-altering changes one attempts in the middle of a crisis—changes which are perhaps made in haste, without full consideration of the situation.  Dale observes how humanity is hard-wired to react quickly to threats, emergencies, scarcities—to the immediate and personal, yet ignore the white-noise of the apparently routine.  This she laments is what makes raising awareness about the gradual negative shifts in our biophysical environment so difficult.  The world is not facing an acute natural disaster from human activity but rather a slow abiotic decline.

Anthropocene[11], Coupland explains to us, represents the time period, or distinct ‘geological epoch’ which is defined by the human footprint on the planet Earth—there was a time before and after the advent of Man, and this is unfortunately ecologically observable. Player One reminds us however that the Anthropocene has in fact been quite short—especially in relation to other earthlings, current and past—with every human alive today having only 19 previous generations coming before.  This knowledge should give us pause to the thought of how many future generations are to come.  This destiny truly is available to be won.

“Humans have to endure everything in life in agonizing endless clock time—every single second of it.  Not only that, but we have to remember enduring our entire lives.  And then there is the cosmic punchline that our lives are, in fact, miniscule compared to geological time or the time frames of the galaxies and stars.” (Coupland, 2010)

Coupland draws a parallel between current generations of humans not having consideration for their progeny, and the tragic fate of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.  “Alzheimer’s makes your parents forget you”, a character laments.

Alzheimer’s may be a “punishment sent to (humanity)” for refusing to change its ways, states another.  Coupland’s use of the theme of time and humanity’s gift of awareness of it, reminds us that we must pay heed, or suffer the consequences.  Current populations are the creators of their legacy and if they fail to consider them in the present, they all may as well be parents suffering from Alzheimer’s.


Works Cited

Coupland, D. (2010). Player One: What is to Become of Us? House of Anansi Press Inc. Toronto. 

Crabbe, J. (2006). Challenges for sustainability in cultures where regard for the future may not be present. Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy. Fall 2006. Volume. 2. Issue 2.

Dale, A. (2001). At the Edge: Sustainable Development in the 21st Century. UBC Press. Vancouver.

Farr, D. (2008). Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with nature. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Global Report on Human Settlements. (2009). Planning Sustainable Cities. UN HABITAT. United Nations Human Settlement Programme. Earthscan: London.        

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House. New York.

Our Common Future (1987).  Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 – Development and International Co-operation: Environment. United Nations.

Saha, D. & Paterson, R.G. (2008). Local government efforts to promote the “Three Es” of Sustainable Development. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 28, pp. 21-37

[1]Binary Subjective Qualities: Subjective human qualities that most of us take for granted but which remain elusive for some people with brain anomalies.  These include humour, empathy, irony, musicality, and a sense of beauty.  Subjective sensitivity is often regulated by specific nodes in the right side of the brain that fine-tune and contextualize the information we take in.” (Coupland, 2010)

[2] Chronocanine Envy – “Sadness experienced when one realizes that, unlike one’s dog, one can not live only in the present tense.  As Kierkegaard said, “Life must be lived forward.” (Coupland, 2010)

[3] Narrative Drive – “The belief that life without a story is a life not worth living—quite common, and ironically accompanied by the fact that most people can not ascribe a story to their lives.” (Coupland, 2010)

[4] Denarration – “The process whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story.” (Coupland, 2010)

[5] Sequential Dysphasia – “Dysfunctional mental states do stem from malfunctions in the brain’s sequencing capacity.  One commonly known short-term sequencing dysfunction is dyslexia.  People unable to sequence over a slightly longer term might be “no good with directions.”  The ultimate sequencing dysfunction is the inability to look at one’s life as a meaningful sequence or story.” (Coupland, 2010)

[6] Crystallographic Money Theory  – “The hypothesis that money is a crystallization or condensation of time and free will, the two characteristics that separate humans from other species.” (Coupland, 2010)

[7] Time-Will Uniqueness – “The belief that awareness of time and the possession of free will are the only two characteristics that separate humans from all other creatures.” (Coupland, 2010)

[8] Proscenial Universe Theory – “The notion that time simply provides a medium—an arena—within which emotions are able to plays themselves out.” (Coupland, 2010)

[9] Centennial Blindness – “The inability of most people to understand future time frames longer than about a hundred years.  Many people have its cousin, Decimal Blindness-the inability to think beyond a ten-year time span—and some people have the higher speed version, Crastinal Blindness—the inability to think past tomorrow.” (Coupland, 2010)

[10] Castastrohasic Shifts – “Enormous, life-changing decisions that are delayed until a crisis has been reached.  In most cases this is the worst time to be making such decisions.” (Coupland, 2010)

[11] Anthropocene – “A term recognizing that human intrusion on the planet’s surface and into the atmosphere has been so extreme as to qualify our time on earth as a specific geological epoch.  Along with vast increases in anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, which have drastically raised the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, our human footprint now covers more than 83 percent of the earth’s surface, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.”


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