There’s no escape. But why do some thinker-practitioners take it as an article of faith that there is no turning back or averting the crisis in the Anthropocene? That we are beyond the point of no return? Can we not hope in the promise of some yet-undefined technology to save the day? Is it not possible to imagine something that turns back the hands of time, purging us of our toxic environments, and wiping the slate clean? Maybe an Aquarian age of newness? Maybe if we loved harder?
It comes down to the nature of time. Most of us readily subscribe to the idea that time is this universal principle that cradles everything. We move in time, act in time, age in time, die in time. Everything happens “in” time. In seeing time as a container, a progressive series of moments that lean forwards, and “now” as an infinitesimal slice of that continuum, it is tempting to think we can merely go “back” to a previous “now”, like browsing through vinyl records and popping the one you want to play. What this imagination reinforces is the idea that we are separate from time. Time itself is unearthly, superior, infallible.
But a relational view of the world queers time, and brings it down to earth. Time is not some distant quality measured by the unnerving harassment of tick-tocking clocks, but a matter of bodies touching other bodies. It’s not that we experience time differently, but that time itself (deep in its bones) is indeterminate – gaining definition in the context of its measurement. The past, present and future are constantly reiterated, and are not static snapshots we can return to, or speed forward to catch up with. We are products of these palimpsests of manifold times, writing upon themselves, without dismissing the previous or ennobling the subsequent.
In other words, we carry with us losses and griefs that cannot be erased. Absences that will not be silenced. Jeanette Winterson, in her book The Stone Gods writes that “everything is imprinted for ever with what it was once.” (I would add to Winterson’s original comments the following: everything is imprinted for ever with what it once was, but also what it might yet be.) Winterson goes on further to remark: Perhaps the universe is a memory of our mistakes. The same gesture that makes memory a geologic affair (not just a matter of brains) is the same gesture that notices that we are tattooed with the cries of wolves, the darkening of skies, the ancient greening of younger earth, and the browning of older earth. It is our backs that were whipped; it is our children that were stolen; it is our lands that were renamed.
There is no averting the crisis, no guarantees, no Edenic arrivals because we cannot walk away from a past that is yet to come. We cannot absolve ourselves from the very conditions that continue to shape us. There is no clean slate in a palimpsestic world. We carry those “mistakes” in our bodies, so that anywhere we go, there we are. There’s no shaking them loose.
Abandonment is not possible in a relational world. And no righteousness is righteous enough to absolve us of entanglement. This is what is rendered untenable: hope as absolution. Leaving way for a different kind of hope: hope as shapeshifting. But that is another story for another day.