How Long Is Now? Reflections on Berlin, Deep Time and Planetary Futures

By Stefan Skrimshire

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Walking westwards along Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin-Mitte, the building-high mural How Long Is Now dominates the horizon, eclipsing nearby landmarks. It is, as I learned, a now legendary artwork adorning the derelict art centre Kunsthaus Tacheles (‘straight talking’ in Yiddish). The building embodies what is true for the city as a whole, at least as it is initially experienced by an outsider: wearing on its sleeve a succession of external and internal revolutionary changes. Once an SS centre and Nazi prison, the building sits a stone’s throw away from the impressive Neue Synagogue (one of the few places of Jewish worship in Berlin to have survived the pogrom of 9–10 November 1938), it was a public building in the GDR and—post-unification—a squatted arts centre, then a public sculpture park. Today, it is a ubiquitous memorial and perhaps nostalgic (‘ostalgie’) glance back at Berlin’s recent, creative past.

The Tacheles mural: melancholic sigh of resignation or utopian gesture?

‘Epoch’ is a frequently overplayed concept in historical studies (one suspects that their endings and beginnings happen too neatly) but one can’t avoid sensing that, in Berlin, epochs both overtake and lag behind themselves. The impulse to forget and to remember (the excess of which, Nietzsche once said, leads to a kind of historical indigestion) seem to be held in dialectical tension, rather than regulating one another by their successive replacement. The city’s constant reconfiguring and reinterpreting of social spaces, their functions and meanings, recalls what Reinhardt Koselleck, the German theorist of history, called the “contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous,” meaning that we live in multiple and overlapping histories rather than one dominant and “homogeneous” time sequence.

Denied a question mark, How Long is Now is half melancholic sigh of resignation, half utopian gesture. On the one hand it laments the quality of lived time as a continual perishing of the instant, the present moment. On the other, it suggests the eternal significance that the present moment might hold for us. Perhaps it also hints at something like Walter Benjamin’s critique of history. Benjamin sought a radical alternative to the perception of history as a one-way street, as an empty succession of ‘nows’. This latter we can associate with a still dominant philosophy of progress, dialectical progression in the service of some ideological future or another. For Benjamin the messianic power of ‘now’ would be the antithesis of this approach to history, in its reaching backwards into the past, redeeming its ghosts, laying bare what was once lost.

Do people expect the future of humankind to be a long one? Why does it matter?

The connection was, for me, serendipitous. Benjamin’s memoire Berlin childhood around 1900 reflects a child’s ability to recover urban images of the past as utopian objects for new use in the present. He is therefore the thinker that came to mind when the mural first arrested my vision. And a reminder of Benjamin’s critique of “homogeneous, empty time” also became a conceptual anchor for my research fellowship at the IASS in Potsdam. The fellowship marked the first stage in the development of a monograph in which I will explore the relationship between Christian eschatological (end-times) belief with contemporary environmentalist narratives of the future.

A contemporary question this project seeks to engage with is: do people expect the future of humankind to be a long one? Why is that an important consideration, and on which philosophical or religious grounds? In this first stage of the research, I wanted to approach the question by understanding the recent trend of ‘deep future’ thinking in environmental discourse. Deep future refers to the imagination of the longer term (hundreds of thousands of years) future impacts of human behaviour upon the planet. My interest in this trend came about largely through my engagement with the currency of the idea of the Anthropocene epoch—the idea that human activity has shifted Earth into a new and distinctive geological state, which would be distinguishable to some far future observer of the planet.

The time horizons that matter

What has always fascinated me about this discussion has been this thought experiment: the science fictional far-future explorer who discovers the human story through our fossilised traces is used in order to engage the ethical and cultural as well as scientific significance of the Anthropocene. For really what is being asked of the environmentalist is that he or she rethinks some far more fundamental questions about what time we live in. Which time horizons (of which length and depth?) matter to us—now? What does the ‘time of humanity’ signify, now that human time is seemingly implicated, through its environmental impacts, in the vast temporal stretches of geological time? Should we care about what legacy humans are leaving to the deep future? How have concepts of human origins and destinies, which are so essential to theological and humanist narratives, become troubled in the light of our far future imagination?

Such questions require new thinking in the fields in which I work: theology and philosophy. But here they provoked me to engage more directly with the concept of time in popular environmental discourse. Why, and how, do environmental reporters, campaigners, and ethicists engage with the much longer timeframes now provided by Earth systems analysis? How does one imaginatively inhabit those timescales? The first clue that emerged from my research in Potsdam was that manifestations of deep future imagination in futurology and popular science (I focussed on two examples in the USA: The Long Now Foundation and the popular science publications of Curt Stager) are based on a confident moral premise of the Anthropocene concept. For such authors, to see further into the planetary future ought to generate greater care for the immediate (human) future; projecting a vision of some far future explorer like us, discovering our legacy to the planet, ought to motivate an ethic of planetary stewardship. Second, they are premised on an unquestioned (or as yet unchallenged) assumption that the survival of the human species is the ethical principle from which all other considerations ought to flow.

Human activity delays next ice age by 50,000 years, well beyond likely extinction

My second observation was that such confident moral starting points belied a kind of ‘uncanniness’ that has crept into environmental discourse and which seems to accompany this sort of temporal shift. For it is not so much the ‘long view’ that troubles moral reflection. Rather, its juxtaposition alongside the more immediate ethical concerns of environmental and social justice. Despite the historian Chakrabarty’s now canonical reflections on what the Anthropocene means for thinking about history, stating that we must “think human agency over multiple and incommensurable scales at once,” what this means in practice for environmental activists and policymakers has never been successfully articulated. At the outset of my research at the IASS I found a fascinating example of this ‘uncanny’ temporality close to home. In a research paper for Nature (January 2016), co-authored by Potsdam’s own professor Joachim Schellnhuber (director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research), it was confirmed that human activity has delayed the next “glacial inception” by 50,000 years. Humans have cancelled the next ice age in other words—due under ‘normal’ circumstances to occur in around 50,000 years— neatly confirming the Anthropocene thesis.

But consider an interviewer’s synopsis of Schellnhuber’s proposal: “On the positive side, we can sigh with relief that we have called off the next two ice ages that would represent a very difficult challenge for civilisation. However, temper that relief with the growing likelihood that if we don’t wake up to climate change, it is unlikely that humanity will exist on Earth in anything like fifty thousand years!” (Envisionation January 2016). This juxtaposition of temporalities illustrates what the literary theorist Timothy Clark calls “Anthropocene disorder”: that “unstable emotional tone” produced by attempting to think of big picture narratives of the far future alongside and within the traditional parameters of environmental ethics.

What impact do different beliefs about time have on environmental activism?

Finally, over the course of my stay in Berlin and Potsdam, I found these observations leading me back to some of the classic critiques of ‘secular, modern time.’ This has meant returning to texts of Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben, and Charles Taylor to examine them in a new light. For those thinkers the legacy of secular modernity’s concept of time was a notion of linear, forward motion, shorn of the Christian belief in an end point, the eschaton. In the modern period the focus on time as unending process took on, in Arendt’s words, a backwards and forward facing infinity, the individual moments of history shorn of any existential significance.

These thinkers were critical of how such modern time would endorse and facilitate the logic of factory labour and the ‘unending growth’ paradigm of global capitalism. But its warning is relevant to my specific context too. The suspicion that Anthropocene imagination represents a deep-seated and paradoxical desire to place the human back on centre-stage in the planet’s history could extend to this reflection on the deep future as the indefinite continuum of ‘nows.’ It might be reflected in the desire to view that far future in terms of human time, as is the case with the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ in the US (a clock driven by solar energy and buried deep within the Earth, designed to endure for the next 10,000 years). Exploring what alternative beliefs about time (including a return to theological notions of messianic and apocalyptic time) are levelled as a critique of this assumption, and what meaning they hold for environmental activism, will be the next stage in my research.

Header image (cropped): Brad Warner

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