Time to reflect

“We need ecological literacy”, Benjamin Richardson proclaimed at the Time and Sustainabilty Conference (and has written; 2017). One of the many gems, or perhaps in a metaphor more in tune with the topic, seeds, that I took with me from this most enriching conference. More than a month later now, I am unbundling my ‘carrier bag’ (Le Guin, 1996; Haraway, 2016) and sifting through its contents for those seeds. Some of them are sprouting already, some I don’t know where to put, all of them will be planted, somehow, sometime. Patience. Research is slow, it needs attention, care, fertilization. And perseverance. Much like law, I guess.

I know next to nothing about law. I am an organization scholar working with time and sustainability. To get a sense of how law is entangled in these phenomena turned out to make a lot of sense and, really, to extend my own understanding of how we could possibly organize our Anthropocene epoch[1] to the joy and benefit of life in all its many human and non-human forms.


It’s really not so interesting to be talking only about climate change when we discuss present and future sustainability, Beate Sjåfjell stated in her introduction, rather let’s use the framework of the nine Planetary Boundaries (Stockholm Resilience Centre[2]) to guide our questions. I agree! The Planetary Boundaries is a holistic approach with which we see how close Earth is to irreversible and systemic ecosystem disruption. It is not abstract, as climate change can sometimes be (e.g. Wright et al., 2013). It addresses ecosystems we can all see and are all part of, so it’s situated in a way that can be addressed. Understanding that we are part of situated eco-systems also allows for a certain intimacy with the issues at hand – “a sense of being close, even too close, to other life forms”, in Timothy Morton’s words (Morton 2013:139). But current regulations and corporate governance tools are ill-equipped for intimacy, and even less for addressing ecology in its mass of complex interdependencies. Beate Sjåfjell pointed out that EU regulations tend to focus on climate change and CO2 reductions, not on planetary boundaries. Meghan Bowman described how GRI and other corporate sustainability reporting formats are not geared at all towards planetary boundaries – companies are not asked to present information that relates to their roles in various parts of our ecosystems. Could this change? Could companies be asked or institutionally pressured to get more intimate with their roles in global and local ecosystems? Can law – hard as well as soft – make such knowledge requisite?


Time is (also) about space, said Benjamin Richardson. Slowing down creates different spatial engagements; slow food, slow money, slow living (Richardson, 2017:306ff.).  How can we nourish slowness in our organizing? Richardson mentioned that we need meaningful consultation about new laws in good time before decisions are made. Be it law or internal organizational life, making time for space is an almost rebellious notion. When there is time for people to think and to connect their thinking with their own experiences and the (personal, societal, organizational) practices they are part of, their agency in the world can grow and be shared. “Think we must, we must think!” (Haraway, 2016) about what we are part of, about the decisions that affect us. When there is time to involve manifold actors from manifold places into deliberations and discussions, decisions become more sustainable, thicker, longer-term. But in our accelerated world this has become difficult to do (Rosa, 2013). To hold on, to go deep.

One example of what happens when people persist in thinking and connecting people to the environment, people to people, was presented in Vijaya Nagarajan’s case study of the Stop Adani movement, who has managed to block the building of an enormous coal mine in Queensland, Australia. Major investors have pulled out. The battle is far from won; it started in 2010 and the movement keeps fighting, keeps growing. How’s that for slow time? Slow time not just as a notion of relaxation, but as a notion of care, attention, deep fight.


Time is measure. The almost fetishist, yet completely taken-for-granted notion of efficiency in our capitalist societies means that we need to make sure that our use of time creates economic growth. Which has, among other things, resulted in a financial sector based on short-term growth results and nano-second stock trading. What if we measured the value of our (work-)time differently? Developments in corporate law in the UK have clarified that shareholder short-termism is not a legal requirement (sic!) and the 2016 UK Corporate Governance code requires corporations to show consequences of key decisions for the long term[3]

The question is what metrics we will use to understand and valuate long-term developments. The long term doesn’t matter much if it’s just a stretched out version of our current unsustainable growth paradigm (Berg Johansen & De Cock, 2017). The long term is not a plan, it’s not a tech dream, it’s not ‘the end of history’. Long-term thinking is nothing without going deep into what makes our worlds now. Deep present. What is climate change today? Where are the planetary boundaries seen and felt right now? Who is involved – which humans, bacteria, minerals, plants, ...? Where and how are we as corporations, organisations, people, part of Planetary Boundaries, of these ‘hyperobjects’ (Morton, 2013)? How are specific events happening now inside each planetary boundary related to the past; to for example the Enlightenment, or the Carboniferous Period, or the development of the world time zones? We need to think about how we in our each organizational situations can connect the long term – say, 50-10.000 years – to actual, care-full practices for sustainability in the present. Urgent action through slow time that takes thinking and caring seriously.

In a utopian engagement with the topic (utopia as method, not as escapism, see Levitas 2013), future law could be regulating pace to favour the slow and meticulous. Pace is already regulated today, in regulations that favour (and are sometimes even conceived by) fast pace. Could rules and fines apply to lack of care due to impatient behaviour? Could aesthetics be incentivised as a means to connect people more emotionally to the environment? Could the use of materials in non-circular ways be criminal? Could investments in 100-year bonds be rewarded? In terms of the function of law, such imaginaries are entirely possible. In terms of the practices of organizations and the human habits that shape societies, there’s a little more work to be done – as Beate Sjåfjell noted: “the barrier is also in the human brain”. But this will change, too.


[1] Anthropocene: a new geologically defined epoch in which human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems is pervasive. Began around the Industrial Revolution and takes over after the Holocene Epoch, which began at the end of the last Ice Age and the start of human agricultural life

[3] See more in presentation by Benjamin & Andreadakis on the conference website.


By Christina Berg Johansen
Published Aug. 16, 2018 4:35 PM - Last modified Aug. 17, 2018 10:45 AM
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