Towards a reading of temporal ecology and differentiated natural temporalities (durations, rhythms, tempos) in the narrative timescapes of modernity
Towards a reading of temporal ecology and differentiated natural temporalities (durations, rhythms, tempos) in the narrative timescapes of modernity. The film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) was notable for being one of the early Hollywood made, high budget general release films that addressed issues of climate change. Setting aside both its interesting twists – American citizens crossing into Mexico for security reasons, cynical and disbelieving national politicians eating humble pie, and mawkish family based sentiments that beset so many American movies – what interests me is the treatment of time in relation to narrative and plot. To affect a classic Hollywood pattern of quest, conflict, suspense and resolution within the narrative, the writers and director simply speeded the process of climate change so that America (and in fact the whole Northern Hemisphere) was subject to a new ice age in the period of six weeks!! Standard Hollywood motifs of (car) chases were created in a new forms. Killer temperature gradients literally chasing a protagonist and his comrades through the streets of New York, who just make their refuge in time, the killer weather sounding menacingly at the door just as they slam it shut. And two military helicopters being over taken and frozen out the sky by a another high speed killer weather front. This, and similar examples, tells us a lot about the challenges of representing ecological time within the temporalities of human narratives. Stories are the tissue – or essence - of life itself as A S Byatt says. They underpin constructions of the self, individual and collective identities, and cultural, social and political atmospheres more broadly. The narratives which dominate enlightenment culture are set at human pace and to human durations -so narratives of lives and generations of lives, and the twists and turns in the common time frames of human life, be they in hours, days, week, season, years, stages of life. There is little tradition or skill within these modern narratives of extreme human exceptionalism and a split nature-culture, of weaving many forms of natural temporality into our stories. Indeed it could be argued that modern narratives rest in part on stripping non-human temporalities out of our stories. Be they the differing processes speeds of non-human brains; the very other life cycles of other beings (from weeks to centuries): the ‘long’ rhythms within the biosphere such as ice ages, and sun spot cycles, we don’t know how (with some emerging exceptions) to tell stories with these other temporalities woven into the plot. This is one reason why, as the one of the greatest (most tragic) events ever unfolds (the unravelling of the current diversity of the biosphere by a self-other destructive single species), as the band Talking Heads put it, “as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention”.
Owain Jones is Professor of Environmental Humanities, School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University.