Telling Time – A Conversation with Robert Macfarlane

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

Right before Covid hit, I went to visit a friend in Toronto. Recently, the friend texted a picture from the visit with the caption “a year ago today,” and then the question “Does this feel like a week ago or a decade?”

My first response was “a week,” and then “a decade.” Nothing has happened since that visit, I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything, so the intervening year feels like one long moment. But I also haven’t seen friend, gone to a restaurant, or been in a room with a crowd without feeling intense anxiety, and from that perspective, it feels like a decade. The changes brought by Covid have made time unfamiliar and unreliable. My way of keeping time is for another way of life than the one we have all been living this last year.

Robert Macfarlane’s talk on March 4th was about another way in which our relationship to time is inadequate to the present moment, to the Anthropocene and to the climate crisis. Macfarlane argued that we must relearn how to tell time. Most of the cycles that structure our lives are short. The tax year, news cycle, and terms of government; the longest of these is no more than four or five years long. These short units of time make us unfit for decisions that will affect people in generations to come. They also curtail our ability to integrate deep time into our life, to think “forwards into unknowable futures as well as backwards into unimaginable pasts.” Borrowing from indigenous writers and thinkers, Macfarlane suggested we should approach time and our actions in time with a specific question in mind: “Are we being good ancestors?”

To relearn how to tell time, Macfarlane looked to writers, poets, and artists. He used Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future to think about what consideration of future generations might look like if it was integrated into a government structure. He used Richard Powers’ The Overstory as an example of a novel that structures its narrative around the time of trees, rather than human lifespans.

But the examples Macfarlane spent most time on were drawn from visual art. His first example was Olafur Eliasson’s “Ice Watch”. Eliasson harvested icebergs that have melted off the Greenland ice shelf. He placed these icebergs in the formation of a clock face in locations of significant climate events and decision making. As the ice melted, Macfarlane argued, it made present a polytemporal world. Ancient ice melting in modern time, releasing ancient atmospheres from its pockets of air. It passed judgment on our climate decision making, but also caused wonder. The pictures of people interacting with the ice shows children in awe, a woman hugging the ice. The piece both makes present our indifference to times beyond our immediate present, but also draws out love and amazement for such times.

Macfarlane’s second example was a funeral plaque installed in Iceland for the Okjukull Glacier. The plaque reads: “A letter to the future: Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” The plaque evokes several kinds of time. First, it treats the glacier as a being with a lifespan, one that our actions have brought to an end. It names the death of Ok as the first of many possible deaths. It also makes an appeal to an imaginary figure in the future and asks us to consider what that future figure will make of us. Macfarlane calls this view from the future “future retrospect.” It is the tense of “will have been,” but without fatalism. The plaque acknowledges that there is still time to change the things that will come under the judgment of the future, and seeks to jolt us away from hopelessness, to offer a glimmer of hope.

Macfarlane contrasts these uses of deep time against a nihilistic one. Nihilistic appeals to deep time see everything as meaningless, because everything will eventually end. It doesn’t matter that we have caused the extinction in the wild of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino – the sun was going to swallow them one day anyway. Macfarlane argued that this nihilism has been on the rise during covid. He told of walking in a beech wood close to his house and noticing that someone had written in chalk on the trees along the path, one word per tree: “We are the virus, covid is the cure.” This use of deep time is profoundly irresponsible, said Macfarlane. It finds a fix in long time by overlooking the immense suffering that gets us there. Unlike “Ice Watch” and the Okjukull plague, both of which draws attention to our ability to act for the future, this appeal to deep time is an environmental alibi. It lets us off the hook and allows us to treat the suffering of others as irrelevant.  

The final question of the webinar asked Macfarlane to reflect on the limits and possibilities of writing and art for helping reimagining our relationship to landscapes and time. Macfarlane replied that he is weary of overconfidence, the idea that art can solve everything, but that he also believes art is more than window dressing. Cultural change, including meaningful ways of reimagining time, are often slow, and the changes we need to make in order to forestall the most catastrophic climate changes are urgent. And yet, cultural change does happen and art can be part of how it happens. Art on its own can’t solve the environmental problems we face, but together with other forms of actions, it is an important tool as we relearn how to tell time and train ourselves to become better ancestors.

Join us on March 11, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.

Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

All posts by