"Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable." - Four quartets, T.S. Eliot
The concept of modernism seems to be obsessed with the present over the past (learning of now is more valuable than the learning of yesterday) and it is always moving forward to a future present. The anticipated present - the modernist way of imagining the future is to 'imagine oneself there'. Sustainability is precisely the most modern of concepts because it too is the argument for an imagined future present.
Reflect for a moment on another way of viewing Time: the Greek depictions of Kronos as facing into the past (which may or may not be true but is how I remember it) and for a the time being is useful to think about about time being what we 'see in the rear view mirror', the focus is on that which has come before. This Conception of time gives a depth to meaning, even a responsibility to those events which have come before. This is I think how 'traditional' time is viewed. Though again I would raise an apt question " Is this how thing are or merely how we choose to remember them" ? Compare these fragmented thoughts to those modern poet T.S. Eliot. Although this is committing the confusion of blurring the line indistinct lines between 'modernism' and 'modernity'. But to be poetic about it, the 'modern' poets (and Eliot specifically) were lost in the depth and sorrows of a present that they could not understand. In a Macbeth like gesture, 'modernism' (which may ironically be the beginning os 'post-modernity') were left looking at their hand, asking 'what is it we have done'?
But perhaps it would be better to depict the god of time, like justice - blind, faced with an unknown future and a past that exists only in imperfect recall.
John Ruskin said "When we build, let us think that we build forever" - Which can be seen as an anthem for the sustainable. Ruskin is often seen as being at odds with 'modernity', with his personal crusades to save what 'modernity' was gobbling up (skills, architecture, social role of the worker). I think to put it in a Heideggerin language, Ruskin showed a distrust of the way 'modernity' was setting upon or 'using up' more and more (both literally and conceptually). But the quote on building for eternity, reveals (in a deconstructive turn) a 'modern' ideology beneath the criticism. This contradiction is at the heart of the conversation about sustainability: build that which will last so that we build less and consume less. There is no doubt that we must stop consuming, and stop using-up, sustainability is after all conservative turn.
I want to suggest that there should be a counterpoint to Ruskin's call to action. "When we build, let us think that we build for ever - and know that this is impossible". The counterpoint to the modern can not be a stasis, for the modern too sought a stasis a continual frozen present (modern first just meant contemporary, and the modern attitude continues to value the contemporary over the past or future). To counter 'modernity' we can not pretend (as the ancients did) that sooth sayers can lay out the path of the future. Modernity anticipates the future as a sustained present, a continual present, that which is good now (more work, more pay, more stuff, more productivity) will still be good tomorrow. Saving only makes sense when that which is saved will be the same or greater value in the future.
Moving beyond 'post/late -modernity' - When we build let us build as visitors, let us build as transients, let us know that all things come to an end, let us know that all things are transient, that even when facing the infinite we ourselves are the limitation, impose the limits. I do not want to live in either a 'modern time' or a 'post-modern' world (which is just an apologetic modern one - hint: the apology does not pull CO2 from the atmosphere).
Do not design to last, but design to fade. Although many current commodities fade quickly in terms utility, in terms of physicality they last long into the future. Sustainability calls for utility to conform to the physicality - Instead lets consider the reverse. Build so the physicality conforms to the utility, fading quickly, touching the earth lightly. Contemporary technology gives the choice, to decide how long something will last (toys, mobile phones). It is time to celebrate our tools that can rot, disintegrate and return to the earth. Modern man separated himself from the rest of human history - having more impact in 500 years than in 10,000 (by certain measures). We are only visitors, let us respect those who came before and those who will come after.