On being in time for Transition

Sharon Te Apiti Stevens

We are called to prepare urgently for Transition. We are reminded by Rob Hopkins [1] and other movement leaders to motivate one another by sharing our visions of a positive future, a future made from well-connected communities taking time to laugh together in a garden paradise. Or something like that. We know we should go plant a garden, take up bee-keeping, organise a walking school-bus, and volunteer for conservation planting on the weekend. We really, really should. “We have little time, and much to accomplish”. [2]
It’s urgent.

The limits of urgency

Urgency. It’s worth a momentary pause to consider the consequences of our experienced urgency. Even the most positive possible future hangs under the pressure of crisis. We face the perturbation of ecological systems on a large scale. We confront the increasing scarcity of oil, phosphates and other key business-as-usual resources. From hemisphere to hemisphere, and in our own communities, we witness an increasingly active spectre of radical financial instability, a demon of aggravatingly unsustainable social inequality. In our personal lives, in our family and friendship networks, in our workplaces and communities, we feel and struggle against the strain of alienation from oversized and insufficiently responsive organisations and governments.

These well-rehearsed — and partially warranted — indicators of potential crisis hover like an apocalyptic cloud framing this article and most any other environmental communication. These disaster scenarios have penetrated collective consciousness and everyday discourse to the point that they are present regardless of whether they are invoked explicitly. We can determine to be positive in our outlook as well as our actions, but when we make this choice, we agree to struggle for our future at the level of cultural consciousness, not just at the level of manifest reality.

All of us living today were born into an era of a fraught collective relationship to nature. The apocalyptic trope has been seeded in our consciousness at least since Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, since early modernism, when the Romantic split pitted a cultivated poetic sensibility shaped by mystic reverence against scientific disciplines forming for knowledge, agency and control. From the early twentieth century, a Prophet Jeremiah pattern of language use began to appear regularly in nature writing,[3] an initially American genre that has shaped the worldwide conservation movement’s growth, priorities and general development pattern. “Millennial ecology” [4] crystallised as a major aspect of international environmental discourse from the 1960s forward, through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1960), the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972) and the debut of acid rain discourse in international politics.[5] This discourse, with its deep patterns echoing the religious rhetoric of end times, gave birth to a popular, international environmental movement, one that joins intrinsic to extrinsic motivation for change by underscoring that personal and social reform are both morally urgent and necessary for survival.

We have now lived for five full decades with our consciousness shaped by the shadow of imminent doom from ecological collapse. Our consciousness of urgency — and our failure to clear away its causes — presents human behaviour as a strange puzzle. Social and communication researchers indicate that, to a degree that is underrepresented in the mainstream media, people have long accepted the basic reality of the problems predicted by climate change scientists; they care about these problems; and they believe urgent action is required. In spite of this, and ironically, one of the major reasons people respond inadequately to global climate change is because people believe their agency is inadequate to address a problem of such scope; the nature of how we conceptualise environmental problems contributes to people’s unwillingness to act.[6]

There is a time when the apocalypse’s pressure overwhelms the human spirit. The only fitting solution seems to be escape. To rapture. Or to survivalism.

At a time when entire peoples — and species — have lost their homes to flooding, deforestation, war, agribusiness and other forms of hatred and greed, when health has been lost to the increasing toxicity and the decreasing nutritional quality of food, it may be that we no longer have time to indulge in the moral miasma of an urgent need to create a more positive future.

Our only time is now, a now that holds the whole complexities of hope and suffering, joy and negativity.

Adding sustainability to the should-really-do list

Two years ago I spoke to a number of persons who were highly motivated to develop more sustainable lifestyles. I was interested not only in how these people successfully changed their lives, but also in where they perceived barriers to change, where they experienced friction in their lives. These interviews pointed repeatedly to the challenges people face in finding the time for their dreams of a more eco-friendly life. Often, making sustainable choices simply required more time than people believed they had available. In their time-constrained choices people experienced a painful friction, that feeling caused by two world-views rubbing against each other, or by the failure of one aspect of a lifestyle to fit harmoniously with another. Friction can wear down even the most highly motivated.

Or it can raise their consciousness.

Anthropologist Kim Fortun, studying and abetting ongoing grassroots responses to the Bhopal disaster in India, argues that double binds are the stuff of social movements.[7] When facing up to a seemingly impossible situation, embracing the irony of a double bind can serve as a spur to inventiveness. The way we relate to time is full of such ironies, full of potential energy for a major social movement.

Consider these scenarios.

  • A key volunteer in efforts to establish community gardens and build skills for Transition buys packaged, processed food on her way home because her day is busy, she is tired, her kids have sports practice just about already, and she doesn’t have time to cook.
  • A city professional has decided that the future of her young children depends on her taking Transition more seriously, and she wishes to set up a large lifestyle block and start managing it for high density, sustainable food production. The purchase will lock the family into a long-term commitment to the bank and a longer daily commute. By the time the mortgage is paid off, the children will have left home.
  • Staff in an overburdened medical system see so many patients that the stress impacts their own health, but no matter how many people they see, they only have time for the most urgent cases. Some leave their careers prematurely because they cannot sustain the workload, adding to the strain on those who remain behind.

We are embedded in complex, unsustainable systems. These systems work well enough in some respects, and therefore they may be experienced at the day-to-day level as sustainable, but they do so by externalising as many social and ecological problems as possible. Sociologist Anthony Giddens calls this process the “sequestration of experience” to highlight how the day-to-day security of our social life is maintained by alienating ourselves, through routine, from both social problems and from nature. He argues that reflexivity, and the desire to take reflexive control over our life, challenges the “ontological security” we have created through this alienation, and is likely to provoke existential crises that we have too few social and spiritual resources to deal with.[8] We need to reclaim our being from this alienation, to build our security in new ways, but we intuitively recognize the cost of doing so.

Those who choose to add sustainability to their to-do list risk not only the additional time burden of one more thing, but also the experiential friction of one more thing. They risk facing the painful ironies that our social systems have been set up to help us sequester. Where will we get the social and the spiritual resources necessary to challenge our culture’s time consciousness?

Enough problem statement already

If time — not just the amount of time, but the way we experience time — is a deep part of the problem, then time is part of the solution. Not the urgent sort of time, except to the extent that urgency contributes to our critical experience of a double bind; but time, existential time, that is open and expansive. When we can relate to time as a friend, not as a taskmaster, we can move more freely within it. We need to become more conscious of our being in time.

Step 1: Make friends with time

I no longer remember the name or the allegiance of the theologian who, two decades ago, persuaded me that we have a moral imperative to love the era we have been born into. It goes against the grain of environmentalist discourse, but to love our Earth means to love the inheritance our parents have given us. It also means to love the inheritance we will leave for our children, casting off the moral discourse of right and wrong that saturates environmentalism. To overcome the sequestration of experience and to free ourselves from the deadly routines of our lives; to stop using our energy to feed regret and fear, anger and shame; we need to open ourselves to what is. The Earth that is. The society that is.

What is, not what we wish that we and those before us had chosen. We are called to love our era, and love this moment, now; to stop regularly, as Eckhart Tolle urges in A New Earth, and remember to be present in the day. [9] To Breathe. To take our shoes off and tune our feet to tell us whether we are standing on soil or on dirt. To take time to see others as persons, not as systemic functions, even when we have been brought together with them by an organisation for organisational purposes.

We cannot make more or less time, but we can change our experience of it. This requires solitude, reflexivity, nurture.

The simple act of loving ourselves at this moment will generate friction with business-as-usual. Love can turn heads, and embodied action will follow after. If we first love ourselves while remaining conscious, without denying the complex socioecologies,[10] the human and natural systems we are embedded within, in time we will come around to act in love with the Earth. Believe it.

Can we believe this even when the seeds of action are still buried in the dark soil of our hearts and consciousness? Can we believe in those seeds when our hearts have been as burnt by late modernity’s time consciousness as our fields are burnt by chemical inputs? Believe it. If we change our experience of time, we will heal, we will see the shoots from action rooted in love rather than fear, and we will heal the Earth.

Step 2: Reclaim time

On an individual level, experiment with, then put into place strategies for creating boundaries around the time spent doing business-as-usual. We may not be able to unplug from unsustainable systems altogether, but we can transition away from them. Perhaps only a slow step is possible at first, but a small amount of time reclaimed for sustainability will prepare the way for reclaiming further time later. There is value in reclaiming time from unsustainable systems even without knowing what will be put in their place. Better activities will suggest themselves in time, but expansive time for reflection may be required first. Time alone might be needed, time walking amongst paths and along rivers without deliberately planning the steps necessary to conserve them.

What activities might reclaim our time?

  • Spend at least a day a week without touching the computer.
  • Spend at least a day a week without reading.
  • Cut television time in half.
  • Be conscious of routes to connectivity, and set boundaries. How much, and with what rapidity, does each one of us communicate through social networking software, mobile phones, email, eating meals with our families, playing with children, spending time hanging out in local spaces where we might create new local connections, where we might build a shared understanding with neighbours who are likely to be more different from us than those we work with?

Interestingly enough, already decades ago, before the Internet explosion, conservation farmer Wendell Berry wrote that more conscious choices about the technologies we adopted would have led first to more leisure, and subsequently, out of the wealth of leisure time, to better land management and increased care for our communities.[11] His argument (in his case, applied to farm technologies) was not anti-technology, but rather pro-thoughtfulness, in favour of using a good technology to shift our use of time, not to make us more productive according to the same old unreformed economic measures. Leisure is the seed-bed for creativity, and hence for the energy to change direction.

What else might we do to reclaim time?

  • Cut the regularity of errand running trips in half, for example by consolidating errands. (This will likely cut consumption as well, as if naturally.)
  • Don’t bring work home. Those working from a home office can still contain their work hours.

Don’t bring work home. Don’t bring home the laptop, email or reading. Build routines that leave behind the burdens of even the most socially and ecologically valuable roles, freeing minds and creative energy for anything else. Those who are unaccustomed to setting boundaries around working hours will likely fail in any attempts to do so because of workplace pressures. They may need to think about how some of their responsibilities could be restructured. In other words, those who make a conscious choice to give themselves the luxury of a little time may likely find themselves experiencing the generative friction of a double bind.

In North America, a Take Back Your Time movement is developing as a coalition that cuts across standard interest groups. Its message is that, if you’re not staying late at the office, you could be resting, helping a child with homework, developing a hobby, volunteering. From this message, a working group has created a public policy agenda appropriate to the U.S. context.[12] What would an appropriate policy agenda be for Aotearoa?

  • Make six weeks’ paid vacation the standard, even in an economic downturn. Pay people less and employ more people. Aotearoa really can’t compete in terms of salaries, so stop trying. Keep skilled workers by giving them a high-quality life. Give a good quality of life (and a good wage) to the less skilled, too, and see if it pays off (literally) in terms of less strain on the social safety net and fewer social problems over the long term.
  • Create career leave opportunities. Encourage workers to apply for two weeks’ leave each year for a personal or professional development purpose, regardless of whether that purpose is explicitly a part of a workplace’s mission. Make this paid where possible. Do the same on the longer-term scale by encouraging applications for three months of career leave every three years.[13]
  • Shorten the full-time work week to 32 hours.
  • Alternatively or additionally, encourage businesses to create an increasing number of part-time jobs, even for professionals. Mandate income and benefit parity for all part-time workers. Set policy to make the equivalent of single-income households more attractive again through providing meaningful opportunities to combine part-time incomes, which would lower consumption, increase civic participation and give people more time to spend with one another, all of which are necessary for transition to greater ecological sustainability. Allow both men and women the satisfaction of fulfilling their career potential, being involved in the management of their households, and having time for other activities. In other words, seek gender equity and equal freedom to participate in all sectors of society not only by valuing how women contribute to what was traditionally men’s work but also by valuing work that was traditionally done by women (work that both men and women in part-time jobs could usefully contribute to): child care, kitchen gardens, volunteering and the crucial work of local community connectivity. Ensure that the minimum wage is sufficient for supporting a family on a single full-time income.
  • Strengthen unions especially with an eye to addressing work-life balance and quality of life in the workplace. There is some evidence that work overload has a more negative impact on people’s experience of time and balance than do actual hours spent at work.[14] As workplaces increasingly demand more productivity per person — cutting back on staff without cutting back on goals — the strain will be felt by workers before the work stops getting done. In addition to undermining the long-term sustainability of workplaces, that strain will have negative impact on the experienced free time and motivation people bring to anything else in their lives, including the spare capacity they have to engage in the personal work of lifestyle change and community resilience-building.

Step 3: Bring cooperation and creativity into open time to design sustainable, human-scale systems that will open up yet more time

Most of what is suggested in this section requires a bit of time to begin with, and will not be successful — will not be sustainable — except where people and communities have reclaimed a bit of time. Wherever that time has been brought back into self-nurture and community, however, it can be used to build new systems that are more sustainable, responsive and human-scale. Where those systems are built with an eye to using cooperation effectively and sustaining “human resources” as well as other resources, they can help local areas begin to hold even more time within community, nurturing face-to-face networks and local projects.

What sort of cooperative structures can help move time back into local community?

  • Form outward-directed intentional communities to share resources. If these are designed right, they will need less income per person to maintain, freeing up time for food growing, participating in the local region beyond the intentional community, and otherwise supporting the work of transition to more sustainable and resilient regions.
  • Form purchasing cooperatives that can cut down on errand trips to save both time and petrol.
  • Form babysitting circles that are robust enough to give children a sense of extended family and parents opportunities not only to spend time alone with one another but to attend evening meetings and participate in community activities.
  • Create a time bank.

Cooperative projects such as these will build community in myriad ways. Where those involved are explicitly committed to sustainability, and to nurturing themselves in ways that will make burnout-induced consumption less necessary, these projects can grow enough spare capacity to sustain resilience-building even beyond the group.

For those who find themselves unemployed through recession or other reasons, building local networks and creative cooperatives is a particularly valuable social activity. A sustainable future will require significant employment change throughout society. Those who are among the first to be “set free” from unsustainable systems still benefit from those systems to a degree — from still-functioning (partially-functioning) social welfare, from family and friends who are still in gainful employment, from still-functioning medical systems, and so on. Over time, it will become more and more apparent that these systems cannot bear their load, but to the extent that alternative social systems have been constructed from the grassroots, we can transfer that load from the large-scale unsustainable systems to more sustainable and local systems. Imagine, for example, a leaner but simultaneously more responsive national medical system, with its burden relieved by a healthier food supply and a proactive alternative health centre readily accessed within neighbourhoods defined by walking distance.

Step 4: Finally, let us be patient with ourselves and one another.

Perhaps this is simply a return to the first step, to making friends with time. There is no need to deny the real state of current socioecological systems to admit our humanity, including our limits, and to accept that the generative aspects of a fallow field also apply to the human soul. When our stories of urgency and the material conditions that accompany them keep us from “thinking like a mountain”,[15] let us at least respect a pace of change that allows us to think like a tree, rooted and aware of the slight changes in the wind and the seasons. If we do so, we are more likely, not less, to plant an orchard.


Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (Totnes, UK: Green Books, 2008), 94-103. See also Nikki Harré, this volume.
Richard Heinberg, from the cover and foreword to The Transition Handbook: 10.
Scott Slovic, “Epistemic and Politics in American Nature Writing: Embedded Rhetoric and Discrete Rhetoric,” in Green Culture, ed. Carl G. Herndl and Stuart C. Brown (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 82-110.
M. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer, “Millennial Ecology: The Apocalyptic Narrative from Silent Spring to Global Warming”, in Green Culture, ed. Carl G. Herndl and Stuart C. Brown (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 21-45.
Maarten Haajer, The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
K. M. Norgaard, “‘People Want to Protect Themselves a Little Bit’: Emotions, Denial, and Social Movement Nonparticipation,” Sociological Inquiry 76 (2006): 372-396. Also, S. C. Moser, S. C. and L. Dilling, “Toward the Social Tipping Point: Creating a Climate for Change,” in Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change, ed. S. C. Moser and L. Dilling, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 491-516.
Kim Fortun, Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Create a Better Life, (London: Penguin Books, 2005).
The word “ecologies” should be enough, but I use “socioecologies” to be explicit about how ecologies include humans, our inputs and outputs, our technologies, our populations, our economies, our means of governance, our knowledge and so on. In doing so, I nod to anarchist Murray Bookchin’s social ecological way of seeing connections. I am not, however, specifically advocating his social programme, as my emphasis is on what is real, not on what is ideal. See my discussion in 65-66 in A Place for Dialogue: Language, Land Use, and Politics in Southern Arizona, (Iowa City: The University of Iowan Press, 2007): 65-66.
Wendell Berry. “Horse-Drawn Tools and the Doctrine of Labor Saving” (1978), rptd. in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, (San Francisco, North Point Press, 1981): 104-112.
“Time to Care Agenda,” Take Back your Time, < \a href="http://www.timeday.org/time_to_care.asp">http://www.timeday.org/time_to_care.asp (accessed June 9, 2011). See also John de Graaf, “Reducing Work Time as a Path Toward Sustainability”, in State of the World: Transforming Cultures, from Consumerism to Sustainability, (The World Watch Institute): 173-228, online at http://www.newdream.org/programs/beyond-consumerism/reclaiming-our-time/recommended-resources (accessed 9 June 2011).
Jessie Vandeweyer and Ignace Glorieux argue from study findings that male career leave may be one of the best routes to gender equity in the home. See “Men Taking up Career Leave: An Opportunity for a Better Work and Family Life Balance?” Journal of Social Policy 37 (2008): 271-294. It may well be that the reform of social policies and social systems that condition our experience of time may be an issue that connects feminist, labour, and ecological issues and points the way to a healthier socioecology across the board.
Natalie Skinner and Barbara Pocock. “Work-Life Conflict: Is Work Time or Work Overload More Important?”, Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources 46 (2008): 303-315.
Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain” in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).