Today's Reading

Indeed, it's this very awareness of overlapping temporalities that invites a deep suspicion that we are living on the wrong clock. Nothing in the horizontal realm can answer that more spiritual form of burnout: the simultaneous experience of time pressure and a growing awareness of just how out of joint the climate is. Even for a very privileged person who is isolated from the effects of climate change, toggling between a Slack window and headlines about a soon-to-be-uninhabitable earth produces, at the very least, a sense of dissonance and, at the very worst, a kind of spiritual nausea and nihilism. There is a lonely absurdity in the idea of racing against the clock at the end of time, as evidenced in a headline by the parody site Reductress: "Woman Waiting for Evidence That World Will Still Exist in 2050 Before She Starts Working Toward Goals."

At least in part, this absurdity stems from how hopelessly unrelated the two timescales seem. From where we stand, the processes of the planet seem to take place somewhere on the periphery of the clock and the calendar, outside human social, cultural, and economic time. Thus, as researcher Dr. Michelle Bastian puts it, "the clock can tell me whether I am late for work, [but] it cannot tell me whether it is too late to mitigate runaway climate change." Yet these two seemingly unbridgeable realms of experience—individual time pressure and climate dread—share a set of deep roots, and they have more in common than just fear. It was European commercial activity and colonialism that occasioned our current system for measuring and keeping time and, with it, the valuing of time as interchangeable "stuff" that can be stacked up, traded, and moved around. As I will expand on in chapter 1, the origins of the clock, calendar, and spreadsheet are inseparable from the history of extraction, whether of resources from the earth or of labor time from people.

In other words, someone who today struggles to reconcile time pressure with climate dread is dealing on both ends with an outcome of a distinct worldview, one that occasioned both the measurement of work time and ecological destruction for profit. In the body, chronic pain can result from an imbalance in a different place from where you feel it. While you can massage a painful spot and feel better for a few days, if the cause is repetitive stress, the real fix is usually to change what you're doing. In a similar manner, time pressure and climate dread, experienced as distinct forms of pain, stem from the same set of relationships in a larger "body," one distorted into an unsustainable posture after centuries of an extractive mindset. For this reason, being able to connect one's own personal experience of time to the experience of a collapsing climate clock is no mere mental exercise, but a matter of urgency for everyone involved. The only way to address the pain is to fundamentally change what we are doing. The earth, too, needs more than funny hats.
Part of that fundamental change has to do with the way we speak and think about time. While it's true that the clock doesn't determine the entirety of our psychological experience, the quantitative view of time that arose with industrialism and colonialism remains the lingua franca for time in much of the world. This creates challenges for trying to speak a different language, but it also shows how meaningful the effort can be. At an online event called "Is There Time for Self-Care in a Climate Emergency?"—a title that implies no small amount of confusion and shame—I witnessed an example of this challenge. Minna Salami, the author of Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, was ultimately able to answer the titular question only by refusing its premise. Obviously self-care was necessary, but the way the question was posed was part of the problem, since it upheld the idea that everyday cultural time and ecological time are unrelated. If we merely saw self-care as "stealing little moments in which we can prioritize the self," imagining that self-care and climate justice would vie for our hours and days in a zero-sum game, we'd be furthering the problem by speaking that old lingua franca. For Salami, it couldn't be a question of either-or. Instead, learning to speak a different language about time would bring climate justice and self-care together into the same effort.

In Ancient Greek, there are two different words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos, which appears as part of words like chronology, is the realm of linear time, a steady, plodding march of events into the future. Kairos means something more like "crisis," but it is also related to what many of us might think of as opportune timing or "seizing the time." At the climate event, Salami described kairos as qualitative rather than quantitative time, given that, in kairos, all moments are different and that "the right thing happens at the right point." Because of what it suggests about action and possibility, I too have found the distinction between chronos and kairos to be crucial when it comes to thinking about the future.

On the surface, it might seem that stable chronos is the realm of comfort and unstable kairos is the place for anxiety. But what comfort can chronos give when we are, in the words of the 1990s antiwork magazine Processed World, "marching in lockstep toward the abyss"? What I find in 'chronos' is not comfort but dread and nihilism, a form of time that bears down on me, on others, relentlessly. Here, my actions don't matter. The world worsens as assuredly as my hair is graying, and the future is something to get over with. In contrast, what I find in kairos is a lifeline, a sliver of the audacity to imagine something different. Hope and desire, after all, can exist only on the differential between today and an undetermined tomorrow. It is 'kairos' more than 'chronos' that can admit the unpredictability of action, in the sense that Hannah Arendt describes it: "The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation." In that sense, the issue of time is also inextricable from the issue of free will.

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