Originally published on the Sustaining Time blog, part of an AHRC funded project which asks the question: What would be the time of a sustainable economy?The Grey Gentlemen from Michael Ende's "Momo", as a grafitti on a wall in Trier. (Sebastian Nebel CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
This project tackles not one, but two amazingly complex issues - time and economies - and so as part of setting up the project I’ve had meetings with each of the advisers and project partners to get a better idea of the kinds of issues they think it would be important for the project to address. It’s been fascinating talking to everybody one-on-one and to start unpacking how we might go about researching the question of time and sustainable economies.
A range of themes came up in our discussions, but the most prominent was around the relationship between time, money and value. Arguably one of the key moves made by capitalist economies has been to turn the time of our lives into abstract units of time that can then be sold in exchange for money. One effect of this is that time not spent earning money is devalued. A quick look at the nef report 21 Hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century reveals a wide variety of examples of this, including a critique of the failure to value care work (which is often unpaid or low paid) adequately.
So in thinking about what kinds of case studies we want to develop, one key area will be exploring how people are unpicking the relationship between time, value and money and reknitting it in different kinds of ways. People practising voluntary simplicity, for example, will probably have lots of insights into this since the emphasis there is on reducing your need for money as part of valuing time more. Craftspeople, artists and those engaged in self-provisioning work (food-growing and preserving for example) also regularly confront the mismatch between the value and quality of their work, their experience of time and the kinds of monetary returns they can expect. What kinds of practices have people developed to decommodify their labour and to experience their time as intrinsically valuable?
Another issue that came up turns our original question on its head. So rather than asking what kind of times are the new economics creating, people were also interested in what kind of time is needed to even engage in trying to do economies differently. There can be a tendency to assume that everyone can be involved in this, but the same kinds of opportunities aren’t available to all. Time poverty and low incomes restrict how people can get involved. So we’re also interested in how the ‘opportune moment’ opens up for people to take the leap into doing things differently. When does this happen? At what stage in people’s lives? And with what support systems in place? Importantly how do people negotiate the kinds of compromises they might be required to make in order to open up time for change, or to keep the new project moving along?
More specific issues related to an interest in whether the frameworks already in place around the co-operative and permaculture movements might have anything in particular to tell us about sustainable times. Chris Warburton-Brown, for example, suggested that if time is a resource, and permaculture is about designing more sustainable resource-use, then perhaps those practising it will already have important insights that the project can learn from. He also suggested it would be interesting to explore what kinds of time have already been assumed by the philosophical basis of permaculture.
Issues to do with the role of the past and the future were also important. How might the seven principles of the original co-operative founders developed in the 1800s address issues that new co-ops are facing today? More generally, an important question arising from our interest in ‘thinking forward through the past’ will be how can we inherit from past experiments with alternative economies without being overly nostalgic or romantic? Alternatively, if capitalism has been widely characterised as blighted with short-time horizons is it the case that alternative enterprises are developing a more extended sense of past and future? Does the idea of being accountable to the next seven generations, for example, resonate with the people we will be visiting and working with?
Finally, our discussions also brought up issues of social and environmental change. Time is important here because our understandings of how change happens and what counts as a change are shaped by our conceptions of time. A linear model of time suggests that change happens when an individual decides the result they want and puts in place the incremental steps needed to achieve that result. A more complex model of time questions our ability to predetermine results in this kind of way. Here in particular Debbie Bird Rose and I talked about the contrasts between an ecological time where very slow processes can be combined with feedback loops and sudden shifts between states, and human (often bureaucratic) accounts of change which depend on ideas of stability and predictability. Might a more sustainable understanding of time respond better to the ‘patchiness of change’ which we see in climate data for example? Molly Scott-Cato also raised the issue of how to combine ideas of dynamic change with a need to be fixed within limits. Within capitalism dynamism is linked with growth, but in the arts, for example, creativity and limits can go hand in hand. An important issue here then is challenging the idea that nature provides a timeless and unchanging backdrop to a progressive and inventive human economy. Suggested case studies to explore this topic include working with communities that are experiencing nature as an active and abrupt force in their lives (e.g. through floods, severe weather etc) and what kinds of mechanisms they are using to deal with this, but particularly exploring whether these experiences are challenging people’s understandings of time.
Alex and I are off to the Co-op archives next week to see what we find there so stay tuned!