Many of us experienced a ripple in the fabric of chronological time during the calendar year of 2020. We (humans) may know (intuitively) that time is a relative thing and that chronological time is an imposition upon the ebb and flow of bodies in movement through space. For a young child, a day might seem like forever, and the anticipation a child has during the few weeks leading up to a holiday or birthday may make that time seem as long as the rest of the entire year. Personally, as a teenager I remember times when I actually felt bored. I’m not sure I have felt that way since I started college. On the contrary, each day now seems like an hour and each year seems to get faster and faster. I remember as a graduate student, telling my eighty-something-year-old grandmother about how fast time seemed to be going, and without skipping a beat, she turned to me and said: How do you think I feel?
Philosophers and scientists alike have tried to explain this phenomenon of time. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when we are young, every experience is fresh and new, and the more we experience the world, the more our brains prune out information and relegate it to the background. If it takes contrast and difference to experience the feeling of time, then the less we pay attention to it, the faster it seems to go. And there is also likely a physiological reason for the seeming increase in the speed of time as we age. Maybe certain parts of our brains are shrinking, or we have less of a certain hormone. Regardless, the experience of the relativity of time, the fact that it is not stable, is, I would wager, not something most humans think about during our waking lives. Instead, we (especially we Moderns) point to clocks when asked what time it is or what time itself is: it’s based on the GMT and has seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, decades, centuries, and millennia. Strangely, we tend to ignore the different times of the Jewish, Muslim, Chinese, Buddhist, and other calendars. Instead, the chronological calendar of modernity (also the Christian solar calendar) gave up its BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) and opted for BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) so that it would seem universal. The modern chronological calendar literally wrote out its Christian/Roman cultural heritage and just hitched itself to the chronological passing of time. But what has any of these calendrical times to do with the nature and experience of time?
Rarely do we stop and ask ourselves about time as an experience. There was a time, very recently, before the standardization of the twenty-four-hour GMT day, and a time before clocks. How was time experienced before that? Surely most readers would not argue that time didn’t exist before the invention of something to measure it. In the twentieth century, Einstein came up with a physical description of time in his famous theory of relativity: E=MC2. For him, energy and matter are not different, and matter is a collection of energy in spacetime. In his equation, the speed of time is relative to the gravitational pull between two objects: the more gravity, the more time slows down, so the further away from the gravitational pull, the faster time goes. The gravitas of this situation: there is no constant time.
I’m not qualified to argue the ins and outs of Einstein’s theory of relativity, but instead, I want to talk about what the relativity of experienced time means for embodiment and the multiple bodies that make up this planetary community of which we are a part. In particular, I argue that the current pandemic has given many of us an opportunity to experience the relativity of time in new ways, and to see the imposition of chronological time over the face of the entire planetary community as an illusion. This imposition was strengthened in the nineteenth century through the fossil-fueling of time. What I want to argue in this short essay is that in order to address some of the problems of the Anthropocene, or Capitolocene or “fossil-fueled” era, as I like to call it, we need to take advantage of this ripple in the seemingly stable fossil-fueled chronological spell of time many of us moderns have fallen under.
Fossil-Fueled Times and Certainty (and Confusion)
If most people don’t think about time on a daily basis, probably even fewer see “thinking about time” as an issue of justice or environmental sustainability. With so much going on in the world and in our daily lives, thinking about time is—well, something we don’t have time to do. At best, “thinking about time” is probably viewed as a luxury that maybe academics such as myself can afford. I want to argue the opposite: thinking about time is something we who are concerned with issues of social justice and ecological degradation should—and must—do more of. My argument has a lot to do with what fuels our common understanding of chronological time. In this day and age, that fuel is fossilized.
As those in the energy humanities or those who talk about “petrocultures” know well, the fossil-fueled era that we are all subject to on this planet has changed the way that we think about what it means to be human in every way, including our relationships to the rest of the natural world. Let me begin this discussion of fossil-fueled time with a simple question: What do you think of when you think of nature? This is the question I ask all of my college students on the first day of class in “Earth Ethics.” I usually get answers such as: trees, the blue sky, whales, the ocean, and rivers. Very rarely do I get answers that include humans, technology, the buildings we sit in, cities, and so on. This then becomes a launching pad for the question that drives the whole course: How have we thought ourselves outside of nature, and how can we begin to rethink ourselves back into the rest of the natural world—or what I call “the planetary community”?
Over the years of teaching this course, a lot of provisional answers have emerged, but one thing I keep coming back to is the importance of the fossil fuel revolution in humanity. True, there is the argument that Christianity historically paints humans as special and “made in the image of God,” and this has contributed to the rise of technologies that led to the extraction of fossil fuels; but there is no point in history we can single out that featured more drastic change than the Industrial Revolution. The extraction of fossil fuels—first coal and later petrol—has led to the speeding up of time and the ability to impose the chronological time of modernity over the face of the planet. This imposition of the twenty-four-hour GMT clock, though never fully complete, was not realized globally until the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, it took a lot of effort to bring nearly the entire world under the spell of GMT, and the speed at which fossil fuel enabled some humans to increase the pace of life only cemented the need for this chronological time.
Chronological time is the mechanical tick of the clock, metaphorically aligned to Newton’s mechanical universe and a mechanistic understanding of life. It is a vision of time created in the image of a machine, which then creates the technologies that lent it ascendency in the world during the Industrial Revolution and beyond into the present. Chronological time all but demands that our inquiries be limited to efficient causality—what immediately causes one thing to lead to another—rather than encompassing the complex deliberations required when thinking about formal and final causalities (which question how systems help to guide actions into certain ways of becoming over others, and how goals and dreams and purpose help lead life in certain ways more than others). The mechanism of chronological time also works best under a system and reality that is made up of discrete parts: individuals, distinct categories, boundaries, kinds, and species. The messiness of hybridity and interrelatedness does not lend itself well to chronological time. Finally, chronological time, because it moves in seemingly lock-step independence from bodies and the flow of life, demands certainty: we can’t build on the second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour flow of time, which of course must be “progressive,” if we are muddled with complexity and uncertainties. Thus, chronological time projects uniformity onto the past, present, and future: we will always have the slow but steady movement that eventually leads to progress built upon the (specifically Western) past. This projection of uniformity, as I will discuss further below, has led to a whole host of violent acts toward bodies (human and other) because messy, embodied reality does not and cannot conform to this projection of uniform, chronological time. And the violence only gets worse when chronology becomes fossil-fueled.
Chronos (chronological order) and the standardization of space and time go hand in hand. The effort to enforce a single time over the face of the globe in industrialized nations, like the push for sobriety—in both the sense of disposition and in substance abstention—was also rooted in capitalism. Sober workers, and workers who showed up on time and worked a specific amount of time, were much more efficient for emerging industrial and mercantile markets. This chronos and what could be done during the workday were propelled by the “great acceleration” that happened toward the end of the Second World War.
The so-called great acceleration was when fossil-fueled technologies began to really take hold in the industrialized world, and those technologies were then imposed on so-called developing nations. The increase in speed of communication, transportation, and production meant that a lot more (of certain types of work) could be done in a single day. More goods and services produced, more distance traveled, and faster communication meant that bodies, materials, and energy could be moved around the planet at a faster and faster pace. My grandparents’ generation in the United States (the Depression-era kids also known as the “Greatest Generation”) mostly lived their lives within a one-hundred-mile radius. Like most peoples around the world, they were born and died within a specific region. And the social bonds that go along with such local lives were also much different. What could be done in a single lifetime, who one could fall in love with and marry, and the hopes and dreams one had were much different. Lives were lived at a much slower pace, so what was possible in terms of quantity was also much less.
Fast forward to now: we moderns are able to travel and move around the world, if we have the means and desire to do so, on a daily basis. This movement is, of course, faster or slower based upon race, class, sex, and other markers of our embodiments, but nonetheless there is a whole lot more movement now than there was one hundred years ago. Our technologies bring global flows of energy, materials, and information to our households on a daily basis. Where one is born is much less likely to be the place where one goes to school, gets a job, finds a lover, has multiple careers, and then dies. This speed also means that what we can hope and dream to do in a single lifetime is—in terms of quantity, not necessarily quality—way more than what one could hope and dream for a hundred years ago, and way more than what some who are outside of the so-called modern world or who don’t benefit from the fossil-fuel extraction of the modern world can hope and dream for today. This fast-paced, chronological time that is fossil-fueled is really only available to some humans and favors maleness and whiteness. Yet the idea of progress that such a perspective invokes and promotes is said to be possible for all. This is the great lie of chronos: that there is a progressive lock-step time and that it benefits everyone equally.
Not only does this sped-up time wear out human bodies through stress (for those who benefit from this fossil-fueled time and for those who do not, though at an unequal rate), it also incites violence toward many humans on a daily basis (some more than others), and to the Earth bodies that make up the rest of the planetary community. Fossil-fueled humanity, in its imposition of chronological progress over the face of the entire planetary community, is literally outstripping the carrying capacity of the Earth and most bodies within it. Once one is inducted into the fossil-fueled chronological time of progress, one begins to understand humans as out of this world, because our hopes, dreams, desires, and daily lives literally outstrip the carrying capacity of the planet. Living “out of this world” is when one’s ecological footprint is more than one planet.
Furthermore, the homogenization of time glosses over the different times of humanity, of love, of creativity, of justice; the different times of the planet, of other animals, of mountains, of rivers, of plants. It makes time-bending experiences, such as those found in religious rituals and in the ingestion of mind-altering drugs, hostile to progress. At the same time, it forces us to think in efficient, causal ways and in terms of certainty. Efficiency and certainty are the only epistemological tools that can keep up with the pace of fossil-fueled progress. Uncertainty and complexity just slow everything down. As a result, fossil-fueled humanity looks for and projects certainty where there is none: hence alternative facts, fake news, conspiracy theories, and the ignoring of the injustices and ecological degradation caused by fossil-fueled time. It actually takes a world-crumbling event, such as this current pandemic, to stop us in our tracks.
Planetary Times and Complexity (and Ambiguity)
For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has meant that the fabric of our times and of our worlds has unraveled a bit. With the frayed edges of worlds now exposed, we have time to think about and critique different types of worlds and different paces of life. Yes, I am among the very privileged group of folks who still has a steady paycheck, a place to live, good healthcare, and who is relatively “safe” when it comes to such a pandemic. From my position, I obviously have a different beginning point of critique than do those who are not so fortunate. Let me refer to my own shift in thinking about time as the “time of sourdough bread,” and its relationship to another shift in time from those who are more immediately threatened by daily life as “the time of justice.” These are not unrelated, but obviously very different. So, before I offend anyone by suggesting sourdough baking and justice making are on a level playing field, let me explain.
Within the history of many different religious traditions, one finds the importance of both contemplation and action. These traditions often espouse that one should not be had without the other, and they feed off of one another. Both intentional action and informed contemplation take the kind of time that chronos tends to gloss over. A uniform timeframe based upon efficient causality, parsimony, and certainty does not lend itself to the complex thinking that a relational world of evolving, porous bodies requires. Many religious concepts, rituals, and traditions, at their best, have understood this complexity. We might think of the porous boundaries between humans and non-human animals, or the living and dead that shamanic journeys often cross over and highlight. Sometimes, these experiences are aided by the use of mind-altering drugs. These altered experiences (in religious settings or otherwise) can be huge aids in understanding reality from different perspectives, and one of the primary ways these experiences work is through altering our sense of time.
We might also think of the mystics in many traditions who have operated on the boundary of religious authorities and have often been considered dangerous. They are dangerous precisely because they challenge the dominant received narratives and a certain ordering of reality, and they ask people to cross borders, blur boundaries, and turn assumptions on their heads. A primary theme that mystics write about is altered experiences of time. The beginning and the end are often blurred, for instance. Rumi, for example, writes of “being freed from hourly time, from sequence and relation.” Or take the Gospel of John’s understanding that in Jesus one finds both the Alpha and Omega. This destroys a linear, chronological understanding of time.
Furthermore, the more socially active mystics, such as St. Francis, seemed to understand the time of the rest of the natural world and that human time was only a small part of this. His preaching to animals was a form of action within a cultural context in which most animal lives didn’t seem to matter. Or we could think about the localism of Gandhi, also something that takes a different understanding of time: we must take longer to produce our own goods locally versus continuing to buy cotton and fabrics that are produced in ways that further injustice toward other humans and the rest of the natural world. Or think about Martin Luther King’s understanding of dreams and how they shape reality. Dreams are definitely of another time. Or his understanding of the arc of the moral universe as much longer than the time of most humans.
In all these cases, time is lengthened, shortened, bent, and/or suspended. Such a blip in the usual experience of chronos can enable a glimpse into another world and/or into another perspective. It offers an apocalypse, an unveiling of the current world and perhaps a glimpse into another. One begins to realize that reality contains multitudes: multitudes of worlds and bodies with different understandings of time. We can talk about cosmic time, the time of the known universe in which we exist, or the time of the sun, or a comet; we can talk about planetary times: the time of the planet as a body; or the times of rivers, cats, mice, flies, forests, different peoples, and molecules and atoms. There are so many different times that together make up the planetary at any given moment. We can never be expected to be aware of them all at once, but we can get a glimpse into other times through various experiences I have already mentioned, among many others. These times are the times of living, complex, and deeply related things, bodies, and events.
If we are to create a more just, equitable, and flourishing planetary community that is for the entire planetary community, then we must encourage practices that listen to these different times. The time of flourishing and justice requires attending to multiple Earth bodies and how they are affected differently by different world constructions. I don’t think it is mere coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated action and awareness during the time of a global pandemic. Pandemic time has enabled many of us to slow down, pay attention, and be jolted out of our routine chronos time so that we can be outraged at the broken systems around us (especially in the United States). In addition to this, modern peoples (especially white ones) are beginning to see just how much climate change and fossil-fueled time are also issues of race. Recently, Leah Thomas coined the term “intersectional environmentalism” to address the intersections of race, class, sex, and so on, as well as environmental degradation. In addition, speciesism is being seen as a function and support structure for white racism and supremacy. It takes time, and listening to multiple voices that are not necessarily part of the dominant ethos, to make these connections between justice and environmental well-being. Furthermore, as Rob Nixon has already alluded to, injustice is often the result of slow violence: not planes crashing, buildings burning, or hurricanes. It is something that spans geographies and lifetimes so that it cannot be seen living merely within the fossil-fueled chronological time. In order to address and correct the ills of slow violence and social and environmental injustice, we must find ways to carve spaces outside of the fossil-fueled time of chronos. We must not rush away, but as Donna Haraway suggests, “stay with the trouble.”
Staying with the Trouble at a Planetary Pace
With chronological time, there is a tendency to move toward goals and specific ends. We go to college to get a job; and/or we get a job to make money so we can hopefully have a place to live and maybe some health insurance; we academics write books and articles because we care, but also so we will get tenure. Moving toward ends, we can treat the world around us as means to greater and lesser degrees. But what has happened now in a time of corona is that these ends have all been upended. The very goals we have are often those that contribute to climate change and social injustice. And because of climate change and this pandemic, many of the goals we once held will be impossible. What is left is the immediacy of life bubbling up around us. Not attached to ends, but gratuitous bubbling, whether good or bad. If getting “back to normal” means paving over this immediacy for some new end that will inevitably cause social injustice and environmental degradation, then we need to abandon this type of ethical and moral thinking. What might an ethic and morality of the immediacy of life look like?
Rather than paving over the world with a fossil-fueled chronos, what would happen if we began to dig in and stick with the particulars of everyday lives? Tending to, mending, and caring: these are old components of many a feminist ethic, not to mention religious ideals. They are also represented in habits and actions rather than ideas. The end is often so far away, all we can do is think about it. But what if the end is over, and all we have is the present and multiple planetary times that make up our daily lives? During this time of corona, many of our daily lives have been disrupted, and many people have not just sat around staring at the illusion of their former life, awaiting its return. No, people began to create different times: bird watching, gardening, sourdough baking, protesting, biking, puzzling, board gaming. These are all different ways of understanding time that are more focused on the action of the present than on some end that is far away. These pandemic practices help keep us focused on the present. And maybe we should find ways to hold onto all these pandemic practices, so that they help us resist the return to “normal.” What could a return to “normal” mean after a decrease in greenhouse gases, the tearing down of racist statues, and the passing of legislation and reform that aim to root out systemic racism? Is there a “return to normal” that doesn’t include these? Or gay marriage? Or women’s rights? Or concern for the rest of the planetary community? If that is the goal, then I hope we all practice the art of failure. Holding on to these practices of alternative times, of slower times, of times that are more at the pace of planetary bodies, may help us to structure our worlds differently and outside of the neck-snapping and back-breaking confines of fossil-fueled chronos. Our lives, and many lives of the planetary community, may very well depend upon this shift.