In this thought piece, our Head of Regenerative Economics Ruth Potts explores how our western concept of time stems from the relatively recent industrial past, and considers how we might be better off if we were to consider alternative ways of thinking about it, and reclaim time for our own.
Time and scarcity are hardwired into our economic system. From the advent of the factory, it was important that time could be measured and accounted for in order to extract maximum productive capacity from workers. Yet this linear, finite notion of time is far from many of our experiences of time and a relatively recent development.
Changing the way that we think about time is life changing – for us, and an economic system that is driving us to ecological collapse, widening inequality within and between nations and is built on extractivist colonial foundations. Changing the way that we think about time, could be the key to ushering in a very different kind of economy and society. That is why we have invited Ella Saltmarshe from the Long Time project and Woman Stands Shining, Pat McCabe, to run a short course that invites us all to dive into the long time.
To make time, according to the anthropologist, Paul Williams, is “ultimately an act of love”. For Williams, accepting the passage of time means that we have to be aware of, and concerned for, others. On the biological level, we are quite precisely adjusted to the specific rhythms and cycles of the earth. Chronobiology – the science of periodic phenomena in living organisms – indicates that all biological species on earth are adapted to earthly time and its 24 hour cycle. It was this that prompted Carl Linneaus, the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist, to speculate that circadian rhythms could be used to gauge the passing of time.
Linneas wasn’t the first to observe cyclical rhythms in plants. Written records show that Androsthenes, an officer who accompanied Alexander the Great, noted that some plants raise their leaves during the day and let them fall at night. In many other cultures such observations were held in oral traditions, alive not written down. For those working close to the land, such observations were art of the fabric of daily life. In eighteenth century England, Tragopogon partensis (Jack-go-to-bed-at noon) was considered so reliable that agricultural workers based their lunchtime on its movement.
How did we get to our current concept of time?
Measurement of time was only standardised internationally in the nineteenth century, as the coming of the railways demanded co-ordination and the factory system demanded a more regimented demarcation of labour than the task-based system it replaced. Until that point, a range of measurements had evolved as diverse, and beautiful, as the cultures and contexts they were created in. The earliest example of humankind’s desire to mark the passage of time related to three components that regularly divided the day: the sun, the moon, and the movement of the stars.
Early measurements of time often related to cyclical patterns in nature. Ancient bones carved with markings representing phases of the lunar cycle show the passing of time as tracked, not measured by length. The Islamic calendar is lunar, making no reference to the changing of the seasons. The desert-dwelling people who devised it were nomads rather than agriculturalists, for whom the passing of the seasons would have been critical.
It was monks, not merchants, who first needed to mark the passing of time: to awaken to Morning Prayer, or mark nocturnal devotion. Complex combinations of incense blocks in ancient China would have marked the passing of time for Buddhist monks during durational meditation – as time passed, successive blocks of incense would release different scents into the night air. In the West, mechanised clocks marked the passing of hours in monasteries and town centres.
Socially, the clock had a more radical influence than any other machine: it was the means by which the regularisation and regimentation of life necessary for an exploitative system of industry could best be attained. The American philosopher and historian of technology, Lewis Mumford, identified the clock, more than the steam engine as the key machine of the industrial age, both for its influence on technology, and on the habits of mankind.
Escaping the tyranny of the clock
Now, in the era of snapchat time, Uber time, call centres, target culture, time slots, automation and the dizzying speed of financial speculation, more than ever, we need to reconnect with other, more poetic, forms of time keeping: methods that allow us to connect with the cyclical, as well as the linear, nature of time. What might it mean to rediscover the capacity to enter into the textures or sensations of the moment, to relax and give oneself over to the rhythms of a personal encounter, to pause long enough for contemplation and reflection, to follow the thread of a thought or feeling without knowing where it leads?
Clock time has its uses; it enables us to co-ordinate over great distances but it’s not the only way that can be done. A wider range of approaches to time could help us reclaim time as our own, and in doing so build a more socially just and thriving world. In many ways, the seeds of a different relationship with time are all around us. It is testament to the power of the natural rhythms of life exert over us that even in the digital age our relationship with time is far from heterogeneous. Common customs the world over mark the passing of the seasons, keeping alive an earlier, more cyclical relationship with time.
Join Ella and Pat this September as they explore the implications of diving into the long time for the future of all life on Earth. Together, you will develop the ideas, tools and space to enable a new sense of our place on the planet and the legacy we wish to leave.
For more on the short course, and to reserve your place click the button below.
Ruth Potts is head of our Regenerative Economics programme. She is a researcher, facilitator, artist and activist who also works on the Green New Deal in the office of Caroline Lucas MP.
Ruth is a leading member of the secretariat for the Global Alliance for a Green New Deal, an alliance of 27 lawmakers from 22 nations working collaboratively for transformative economic change. In 2020, Ruth brought together a transdisciplinary team to deliver Reset, an inquiry that opened up space for a broad cross-section of the UK public to explore their experience of the first Covid lockdown and discuss how they might want life to change so that it is greener and fairer.
Previously, Ruth was a senior lecturer in Ecological Design Thinking at Schumacher College, co-developing the innovative MA. She initiated and was Artistic Advisor to, Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility at Somerset House, the Courtauld Institute and Gallery and King’s College London. Ruth was Head of Communications at NEF (the New Economics Foundation) for almost a decade where she helped shape the narrative of new economics, and was a co-editor of Red Pepper from 2016-2019. She is a co-author of The New Materialism, covered by the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Financial Times.
Ruth’s research and arts practice focuses on the phenomenon of political agency, following Donna Haraway’s demand that we ‘stay with the trouble’. Ruth is firmly committed to broadening perception of the possible, and is a member of the Cambridge Commission on Scaling Sustainable Behaviour Change and the Rapid Transition Task Force.