Today's Reading

Inside this strange encounter among the travel influencer, the café, the mountain, the miners, and the sun is a dense intersection of different lenses on time. Several things are being extracted at Ijen—a marketable picture of Nature, an experience of leisure, a bunch of sulfuric rocks—and one of these things is labor time. Whether miners are paid by the piece or by the hour, time for them is a wage, a means of survival, and the most valuable thing they have to sell. The man trying to sleep in the café might have been a miner, given that, like the hundreds of tourists who climb the volcano each weekend during the high season, the miners must also make predawn trips up the mountain from the base. They do it out of necessity, to avoid the heat and the winds that might blow toxic smoke toward them. While labor time is disembodied and uniform for the buyer, who can always buy more, this is not the case for the laboring person, who gets only one life and one body.
As the economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal has noted, the tools that we would now call spreadsheets were used on colonial plantations in America and the West Indies to measure and optimize productivity, and they concerned work like sulfur mining—mindless, backbreaking, repetitive. The labor hours recorded in these ledgers were as interchangeable as the pounds of tobacco or sugarcane being shipped away. As it so happens, sulfur and sugar are linked at Ijen. Most of the sulfur being hauled out by the miners there is processed and sent directly to local factories, where it's used to bleach and refine cane juice into whitened granules of sugar—that commodity so intertwined with the history of colonialism and European wealth. Ultimately, what describes rock-as-commodity and sugar-as-commodity also describes labor-time-as-commodity: In one sense, all are standardized, free-floating, infinitely divisible. In another sense, they are indelibly linked to both human and ecological exhaustion.

Meanwhile, awake at night and running a business that caters to tourists, the woman at the café adjusts her sense of time to accommodate the temporal needs of people who arrive to consume the image of a sunrise. This phenomenon, in which one adapts her temporal rhythms to those of something or someone else, is called entrainment, and it often plays out on an uneven field of relationships that reflects hierarchies of gender, race, class, and ability. How much someone's time is valued is not measured simply by a wage, but by who does what kind of work and whose temporality has to line up with whose, whether that means rushing or waiting or both. Keeping this field in sight is all the more important amid exhortations to "slow down" for which one person's slowing down requires someone else to speed up.

"Slowness" is an ideal that often dovetails with leisure, and though he's technically working, Morris is performing leisure time in his video. Travel influencers are a keystone species in the experience economy, itself just one part of the elaborate relationship between leisure time and consumerism. When they coined the term 'experience economy' in the 1990s, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore were thinking of cut-and-dried examples like the Rainforest Cafe (a jungle-themed restaurant chain with animatronic crocodiles, fog machines, and simulated thunderstorms). Since then, Instagram has turned every corner of the world into a menu of backdrops and experiences. Now you can shop for life itself in a virtual mall where posts about self-care and retreat come across as ads for self-care and retreat. Tap to add this to your life. On the Tropicfeel website, you can find shoes, backpacks, and a sweatshirt similar to what Morris wears in the video. In this case, "shop the look" and "shop the experience" are even closer than usual.

In the experience economy, nature (and everything else) appears devoid of agency, a backdrop to be consumed. But the Ijen volcano sits uneasily in such a framing. It's alive. Its story began around 50 million years before Morris visited—when the Indo-Australian ocean plate collided with and then subducted beneath the Eurasian Plate. As the ocean plate melted, lava rose to the surface of the Eurasian Plate through a series of volcanoes that formed the islands of the Sunda Arc, of which Java is a part. A giant stratovolcano (now known as Old Ijen) formed, erupted, and collapsed, leaving an enormous caldera (depression) whose outline you can see on Google Earth. Inside that ancient caldera some smaller stratovolcanoes popped up, including modern-day Ijen. This, too, erupted and collapsed, creating a depression that filled with meteoric water. When Ijen erupted in 1817, the depth of the caldera doubled, the soon-to-be-Instagrammable lake got bigger, and dead forests stood in twenty feet of ash. Meanwhile, sulfur that used to be part of the subducted seafloor escaped—and is still escaping—through vents in the crater and into the miners' pipes. At night, escaping sulfur gas reacts with the air and burns with a blue flame.

In 1989, Bill McKibben wrote, "I believe that we are at the end of nature." Then he clarified: "By this I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall, and the sun will still shine. When I say 'nature,' I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it." An active volcano provides as good an opportunity as any to consider "our place" and what it means to see "Nature" not as an object but as a subject, as something (someone) acting in time. The lava moves, and it's not because of us.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the structure of my life was held constant, I began noticing changes that used to escape me: a hill slowly turning yellow; water carrying rocks down a hill; a buckeye branch budding, flowering, and dying. A red-breasted sapsucker registered time each day by adding to a dense pattern of holes on the same tree, and the tree limb became like a calendar. The Mojave poet Natalie Diaz asks, "How can I translate—not in words but in belief—that a river is a body, as alive as you or I, that there can be no life without it?" What if these actions were not the mindless ticking of a clockwork universe, but the actions of a who? At the time, I was learning that whether you see an inert world or an agential one—whether something like Ijen is a pile of stuff or a subject deserving of regard—is an outgrowth of an age- old distinction about who gets to occupy time and who (and what) does not.

This excerpt ends on page xxiii of the hardcover edition.

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