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A review of Paul Huebener’s Nature’s Broken Clocks (2020)


Accompanying the escalating global ecological crisis there has been a deluge of publications about our current predicament, invariably converging on the notion that ‘time is running out.’ In Nature’s Broken Clocks, Paul Huebener probes this concept of time, which is central to narratives surrounding ecological collapse but is often uninterrogated. Outlooks on the present crisis – whether they are sceptical, optimistic, or fatalistic – tend to employ simplistic conceptions of temporality. Temporal contradictions abound: climate change is too slow to ‘see,’ yet too fast for the complex machinery of human society to forestall. Humanity’s acceleration of geological processes in the Anthropocene is difficult to reconcile with our understanding of geological time and stable natural systems. Positing that cultural narratives of time are deeply implicated in ecological change, collapse, and renewal, Huebener argues that foregrounding temporality in environmental analysis can equip us to better meditate and mobilise before mounting ecological pressures. Compellingly, he looks to literature to illustrate how diverse and tangled temporalities are.


The crux of Huebener’s argument is that time isn’t linear and intransigent, but a limitless set of intersecting, unfixed temporalities. The book is divided into five ‘Clocks’ (chapters), each serving as a starting point for a critical, often philosophical, engagement with time. Huebener delves into the diverse, disrupted nature of temporalities in a multispecies, socially unequal world undergoing ecological crisis resulting from unfettered capitalism. We explore the ‘domestication’ of time through standardisation; how privileging this single ‘official’ temporality hurts us and our earthly cohabitants (say, by muddling circadian rhythms); how those with ‘temporal power’ deploy it to impede ecological interests; and even how the existence of wildly varying temporalities (microbial, human, geological) necessarily confounds the concept of ecological ‘resilience’. An appreciation of temporality, he claims, provides useful perspective for citizens of an earth in emergency. Huebener christens this temporally-aware approach ‘ecocritical time studies.’ The broad field of ecocriticism examines how environmental concerns are conceived within literature and wider cultural narratives. Nature’s Broken Clocks explores the intersections of time and the environment across cultural domains from conservation to environmental law. Huebener believes it is imagination that encourages an expansive and critical approach to temporality – a project he encourages everyone interested in averting (or coping with) ecological collapse to undertake.


The concept of ‘natural’ time versus ‘human/cultural’ time is convincingly explored. Locating it in the more widely understood project of the ‘mastery’ of nature following the Scientific Revolution, Huebener explains how the mechanisation of time created a temporal hierarchy by designating one clock as the true clock. This clock’s unfaltering regularity reflects the logic of colonial (post)industrial modernity where organic processes are suppressed by technological innovation. Relentless social acceleration blinds us to alternative temporalities. However, ecological time still exists – otherwise, we wouldn’t be in this mess. This interpretation frames clock time as anthropocentric, not absolute, a principle undergirding Huebener’s deconstruction of depictions of nature as either ‘atemporal’ or ‘lost to time.’ These perspectives deny the environment a temporal life beyond the human gaze, encouraging unproductive attitudes to ecological crisis. Beliefs that nature will always ‘bounce back’ are disproven by the scale of recent environmental change. Equally, understanding nature as inexorably vanishing into the vortex of time because it cannot ‘keep up,’ and nurturing romantic thoughts of ‘returning’ to nature, are misguided. Instead, we recognise that ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ temporalities are diverse and, while increasingly unsynchronised, interweave critically.


This enables Huebener to critique how ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ time are understood. Take the assumption that natural time is slow and cultural time fast. This dichotomy is common but essentialistic. The Slow Food movement, wherein people defy acceleration by returning to a ‘natural’ pace of cultivation/consumption, presents a pertinent example. Whilst well-intentioned, it takes a rosy view of ‘natural’ time, sidestepping how temporalities have co-evolved. By imagining natural time can be extricated, it obscures the problems of ‘slowing down’ in an otherwise accelerated world – what does it cost in time, money, fossil fuels to participate in Slow Food? Moreover, the entrenched idea that ‘slow is good’ is deftly weaponised to keep pro-environmental initiatives crawling at a snail’s pace. The practice of ‘predatory delay’ sees corporations invoke the importance of thoroughly assessing new regulations to stall urgent action. Therefore, temporal literacy as the ability to perceive the artful moralisation of temporalities is crucial for environmentalists.


The ultimate strength of Nature’s Broken Clocks is how it nurtures imagination, advocating for its transformative power and necessity to political movements. I felt this keenly in the discussion of Emily St John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, which Huebener analyses to illustrate how intertwined ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ time are. The novel describes the aftermath of a devastating fictional pandemic where all technologies are dead.

…stationary airplanes are hulking metaphors for the termination of the acceleration society [...] As the technological infrastructure of speed is instantly disabled by a fast virus, then very slowly rusted and consumed by rain, wind and moss, the narrative not only recognises the force and multiplicity of the temporalities of nature but also casts natural time as an initiative towards irony. (p157)

After the Covid-19 pandemic, this picture feels prescient. Recalling the havoc the pandemic wreaked on schedules everywhere and even our perception of the passage of time, I realise we are living through proof that ‘our’ time is still beholden to other temporalities – and I cannot believe I had to be reminded. The pandemic exemplifies the unpredictability of the ecological future, but my realisation is a reminder of the stickiness of hegemonic cultural time. It compels me to entertain Huebener’s idea that expanded temporal narratives can bolster resilience, equipping us for an anything-goes world. Fidelity to cultural time may obstruct a productive orientation to change. Would we have been as rattled in 2020 if more of us read Station Eleven? The exploratory power of art is critical because unlike science it can give a voice to the future, albeit an imagined voice.


Another refreshing aspect of Huebener’s enthusiasm for imagination is the range of temporal outlooks he is willing to explore, countering the presentism, even myopia, of certain reflections on ecological change. A discussion of resilience is illustrative, where he boldly considers that from a certain perspective, anthropogenic global warming is ‘restoring’ a prehistoric climate.

If ancient human-free ecosystems “bounce back” due to our carbon emissions, there is a sense in which the concept of resilience becomes our enemy. (p173)

Similarly, Huebener invokes a poem about the re-speciation of Earth after an imagined mass extinction. Without value judgments about anthropo- or ecocentric views of ecological survival, it playfully engages with the more troubling (or heartening!) aspects of decentering humanity – an acknowledgement that our world might end, but the world probably won’t.


Nevertheless, the book’s broad and meandering style remains a drawback. This unstructuredness doesn’t prevent Nature’s Broken Clocks from being a rewarding trip through Huebener’s mind map of temporality and the environment, but perhaps impedes his aim of explaining ‘ecocritical time studies’ as an analytical approach. I came away unsure how the swirl of intriguing ideas might be directed.


The metaphor of the clock provides one example of such analytical haziness. It is used to convey the heterogeneity of temporalities: there are as many clocks as there are objects, species, and processes, each telling a particular time story. A clock is anything that signals a change from one state to another. A turtle, as a time-telling device, informs us about seasonal shifts, overfishing, and other interlinked events it is interlinked with. Attending to multiple temporalities can clarify our efforts to appreciate other ways of existing than the modern human mode. Regarding the environmental crisis, Huebener posits that clocks are being ‘broken’: natural processes artificially sped up, species derailed from traditional life courses. Nevertheless, ‘broken’ clocks still keep time in essential ways, as indicators of ecological disruption. Humans, too, are ‘broken’ clocks. Habits of (over)work and consumption force us out of sync with nature’s temporalities; we are also victims of the ecological asynchronicity we create. The clock metaphor uses the idea of temporal harmony to underscore the importance of multispecies conviviality and sustainable living.

However, one can’t help feeling that the metaphor is shaky. The notion that ‘everything can be a clock’ provides a springboard for excavating overlooked temporalities and exercising the muscle of temporal awareness. However, the metaphor is stretched so far as to become obfuscating:

…we are simultaneously nature’s clock-makers and nature’s clocks. Yet we are also the very part of nature that is straining and disintegrating the timing function of ecosystems [...] We are nature’s clock breakers and nature’s broken clocks. Can we relearn the art of clock-making by testing the everyday stories that shape our temporal knowledge? (p26)

Clocks are existing organisms and processes, but also temporal narratives we can rehabilitate through imagination. Humans are simultaneously clocks, clock-makers, and clock-breakers. Individually such framings are illuminating in their respective passages, but considered altogether, this liberal application saps the conceptual power of the metaphor. We begin with the ostensibly eco-centric notion that human and ecological clocks should be rebalanced, but later the role of humans as ‘clockmakers’ (and human narratives as clocks) remains privileged. These inconsistencies arguably impede the clarity of Huebener’s points, making the metaphor feel like a rhetorical flourish rather than a tool to aid ‘temporal literacy.’


Likewise, there is no systematic account of the prior understanding of the intersection of time and ecology across any critical discipline. Some discussions feel as if they aren’t followed to their conclusion, considering Huebener’s desire to reveal how temporal literacy can furnish environmental thought. Huebener quotes poets of colour to illustrate how colonised people can complicate narratives that (dis)place catastrophe as a future event. However, despite the stated commitment to ‘alternative’ temporalities, there isn’t further reflection on how the apocalyptic narratives indulged by some Western environmentalist movements might produce apathy in, or alienation of, people who feel that there is nothing new to the idea that their world is ending.


This lack of exploration of how ‘temporal literacy’ can inform action, despite ample opportunity, is the book’s critical shortcoming. Huebener states that standardised time’s desire to construct “invariable temporalities within an ecological context [...] tends to exacerbate rather than ease the pressures of unsustainability” (p83). This carries an implication for environmentalism he doesn’t tease out, but which I find suggestive: a call for environmentalists to orient away from numerical goals and arbitrary cultural timescales. Similarly, he quotes a poem by Don McKay where the poet destroys his watch after pondering the history of the ancient quartz trapped within, realising the watch is a poor timekeeper which cannot account for ‘subjective qualities of temporal experience.’ Still unsatisfied, he discards his clothes, fingers, and the poem itself, aware they all represent human artifice. This leads Huebener to locate the ‘critique of human agency’ contained within the idea of deep time, but he doesn’t consider what such thought exercises, which shear away human agency, might imply about our responsibilities before the ecological crisis. Although I read in this poem a highly suggestive implication about the limits of critical deconstruction as a tool for ecological justice, Huebener only offers it as an example of how creative forms can expand temporal ideologies. This feels like step one of thorough engagement.


These musings lead me to critically consider the conceptual contribution of ‘ecocritical time studies.’ While the fresh lens of ‘temporality’ produces an invigorating read, the conclusion – that ‘time’ is socially constructed, lacks synchronicity between human and ecological realms, and constitutes a form of power deployed to harm certain groups disproportionately – is nothing you couldn’t have assumed. Huebener’s call for ‘temporal justice’ alongside other forms doesn’t provoke disagreement, but rings as possibly redundant. Is temporal power qualitatively different from socioeconomic power? This, together with the dearth of practical examples, means the utility of ‘temporal engagement’ remains hazy.


Nature’s Broken Clocks doesn’t quite make the case for a field of ‘ecocritical time studies.’ In its analysis of cultural narratives, however, it paints a vivid, persuasive picture of the imaginative potential of a more explicit engagement with temporalities. Its human perspective on the ecological crisis is refreshing, honest, yet hopeful – no easy balance. Thus it remains, as the blurb provided by poet Di Brandt succinctly puts it, a good ‘place to begin’.

 

Rup Priodarshini is a London-based geographer and researcher currently working towards a master's degree in Environment, Politics & Society at UCL. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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