Will ‘Pandemic Time’ Save Us From the Inhuman and Destructive Demands of ‘Fossil-Fuel Time’?

Business not as usual.

In our recent book on environmental ethics, Kevin O’Brien and I deal quite a bit with the concept of time. We argue there, and I argue here still, that the chronological, anthropocentric (or human-centered) time that’s been imposed over most of the planet is one of the sources of social and ecological ills around the planet today. This “fossil-fueled time,” has literally been constructed over the past century as the mining and use of fossil fuels have sped up the processes of transportation, communication, and production since the time of the Green Revolution after WWII, a period some sociologists refer to as “The great acceleration,” which has now led to the geological time known as the Anthropocene. 

Such acceleration has created what some in the energy humanities refer to as ‘petrocultures.’ We, all of us moderns, are born into and anointed by oil. Our deepest desires, hopes and dreams are shaped by this sped-up understanding of what’s possible within one human lifetime (and what people born two centuries ago, and even in some places today, could never imagine). This fossil-fueled time is accompanied by a shrinking of causality to efficient causality, and a reductive, and (above all) productive model of science. In other words, we look for how technologies of all kinds can benefit human beings (often just some human beings) in the most efficient and economically productive way. We are literally re-creating the planet in the image of a fossil-fueled humanity. 

From this perspective, because ambiguity and complexity are too time-consuming and cannot be tolerated, we project certainty where none exists through externalizing social and ecological costs: the bulk of which are borne by poor, and black and brown bodies. The only other option than certainty, from this perspective, is confusion: which is part of the reason we have a whole host of people latching onto ‘fake news,’ ‘alternative facts,’ and conspiracy theories. Rather than deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the fossil-fueled time of humanity where every second counts, we opt instead to comfort ourselves with false certainties. 

The cumulative effects of this fossil-fueled time, fossil-fueled humanity, and the re-making of the planet from within this version of sped-up time are outstripping the carrying capacity of the planet: human bodies, animal bodies, plant bodies, mineral bodies, ecosystems, bioregions, and even the climate itself are all buckling under the pressure of fossil-fueled time. For short, we refer to this fossil-fueled time, over the last century as “progress.” Progress in science, technology, medicine, agriculture, etc. If mass economic injustice, systemic sexism and racism, and mass ecological degradation of the planet is called “progress,” then I want to fail at this whole project, and start thinking differently about how we might live within the planetary community. 

Perhaps we’re beginning to witness a different understanding of time from within the “slow-down” many (though not all) of us have experienced during this pandemic. What my colleague and I call “planetary times” or the time and pace of ambiguity. As philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers argues, perhaps instead of the goal-oriented thinking of “progress,” and all the tragedies that pile up along with it, we ought to think about time and our place within the planet as a palaver: a meandering or a wandering about with no specific goal but to “go on a walk.”  What in German is called a Spaziergang or stroll. 

This sense of time isn’t about rebuilding the world in terms of progress for some humans; which, again, involves reducing the complexity of the world toward certain human ends. But, rather, it’s about noticing the multiple times of the planet: the times of rivers, of sourdough bread, of birds, or plant growth, or a River or Mountain. This is the time of creativity, mourning, and justice: none of which can be forced into efficient causality or chronological time. 

In my own academic discipline of religious studies, this understanding of time is found in meditation, in yoga, in those moments of “aha” or connectivity that some Christians call Kairos moments. This is the time of spiritual wandering that some aboriginal Australians speak of, or the shamanic time of inhabiting other lifeforms and dead ancestors often brought about with the help of mind-altering substances. These different times help us to recognize the ambiguity of language and concepts, the porous nature of bodies, the interconnectedness of the bodies that make up planetary systems, and how different bodies experience the planet in different ways. This is the time that enables us to see multiple perspectives, inhabit multiple understandings of time, and gives us a more informed sense of the complexity and uncertainty of the worlds we inhabit which make up this planetary community. 

Perhaps, if we can begin to re-think our desires, hopes and dreams away from the fossil-fueled time that takes humans “out of this world,” and re-ground them in these ambiguous, multiple, planetary times, we can begin to think about and co-construct post-pandemic worlds that are more about the flourishing and resilience of the entire planetary community.