Jenny Odell Is Reimagining Time to Tackle Climate Change

Jenny Odell Is Reimagining Time to Tackle Climate Change



photograph by Stefan Dotter / Connected Archives

The Frontline speaks with Jenny Odell about her latest book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.

Before Jenny Odell began writing her latest book, she felt stuck in nihilistic patterns of thinking. 


“We equate time moving forward with things getting worse,” she said, referencing climate change. “When you see the future, all you see is decline, which means you are not motivated to do anything. You feel paralyzed.” 


It is precisely this vision of time that Odell set out to challenge in her latest book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. In her book, Odell argues that capitalism has co-opted our conception of time: we live in a society that has structured time for profit, not for people. Throughout her book, Odell shows how clocks emerged as a “tool of domination” that today has made us beholden to a doctrine of optimization: a logic that teaches us to optimize not just our work but our leisure. The idea that “time is money” has made us and our planet sick, she said. It has disconnected us from other more natural rhythms of life. The result is that many people feel hopeless about the future and disempowered to address climate change.


But by tracing the history of time—and showing how recent phenomena like waged labor and clocking in and out of work emerged—Odell reminds her readers that there is nothing innate or inevitable about our current relationship to time. 


“Uncovering this history has been horrifying but also liberating,” Odell said from her home in Oakland, California. “It forced me to recognize the contingency of the past—that nothing was predetermined, which means that the future, too, is not yet written.”


Odell, an artist and writer that teaches digital art at Stanford, published her first book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, in 2019. The book, which became a bestseller, argued that social media has shattered our ability for deep focus, that our obsession with self-optimization has made us unhappy, and that the solution is to carve out more unstructured time for contemplation. If we did so, Odell argued we could be happier, more politically imaginative, and ecologically mindful. Her second book, which reads as a kind of sequel to the first, asks a different question: what happens if you do not have enough time? 


The beginning of Odell’s book sets out to understand how we have all come to feel so time poor, tracing this anxiety to the colonial era of the 19th century when colonizers imposed a standardized approach to time and labor. Prior to this, different paradigms of time prevailed across cultures: some communities used sundials, others clepsydras. Time was not seen as a finite resource that should be optimized for production. 


Across the world, many cultures saw no need to track or divide time into numerical units. When an Italian Jesuit brought mechanical clocks to China in the 16th century, for instance, locals viewed clocks as aesthetically pleasing objects that filled no basic needs. Similarly, in Australian Aboriginal cultures, time was (and continues to be) seen in a circular pattern rather than a linear one where events are placed in time according to their importance to an individual or community. 


Even until the end of the 20th century, people actively resisted the idea that “time is money.” In 1998, for instance, when researchers at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics were asked to clock in and out of the lab, worldwide backlash followed. Hundreds of scientists from around the world wrote in support of the Italian researchers who were resisting the move, arguing clocking in was insulting to scientists and that good work should not be measured simply in productive terms.


Today, however, the idea that “time is money” has taken hold, cementing itself into our collective psyche. Books about productivity have risen in popularity. Even the slow-living trend that has popped up on social media as a counter-movement remains embedded in a capitalist paradigm where mainly the rich have the ability to perform their leisure to their followers, as Odell describes in her book. The result is that we have come to believe busyness is a virtue and that it is human nature to spend one’s time on self-gain.

“Nothing was predetermined, which means that the future, too, is not yet written.”

Jenny Odell

Odell explores how this conception of time has affected several aspects of our political and social lives but is particularly interested in how it is interwoven into our ecological crisis. By ignoring other measures of time—such as the Earth’s natural cycles—we have depleted our natural resources at a faster rate than they can replenish themselves. We have come to view time in much the same way we view our environment: as something that needs to be mined for profit. 


But this vision of “time is money,” Odell argues, has not just contributed to the climate crisis—it has limited our imagination for how to solve it. 


Throughout her book, Odell argues that if people believe it is human nature to use time in selfish ways, they don’t believe it is possible to come together collectively to fight climate change. Instead, this idea has led many people to feel nihilistic and disengage in climate action because they see ecological collapse as a foregone conclusion. 


Odell taps into a tricky question at the heart of the climate movement: how do we communicate the urgency of our ecological crisis without pushing people into despair?


In many ways, Odell’s approach to talking about time stands in contrast to the logic the mainstream climate movement follows where the language that “time is running out” is leveraged to encourage people to take action now. This language of urgency, used by scientists and activists alike, is tactful: if you tell someone they might miss their train, they will likely walk faster to make it in time. 


But Odell’s book raises questions about the unintended side effects of this approach. “The ‘we’re running out of time’ framing conveys urgency, but it also puts the problem in the future as if it’s coming toward you as this grim inevitability,” she said, noting this ignores that climate change is already affecting people. “The reaction is often paralysis and fear.”


As a result, people turn inward, bracing for the impact of a future calamity rather than preparing for the one we’re already living through where wildfires burn villages to the ground and where extreme weather from climate change is already killing an estimated 5 million lives a year. Instead, it is more useful to view ourselves as having been born into the climate crisis. 


“When I think about it as something already unfolding, I lose some of the dread and resistance to thinking about it,” she said. “When I’m not anticipating it in the future, I can think about how I can respond to it creatively today.”


Odell wrote this book to save her life. 


Depressed by the way society encourages people to commodify time, Odell wanted to find visions of time that were slower, kinder, more contemplative. “I set out to try to find a conception of time that wasn’t painful,” she said. “Something other than time as money, climate dread, or fear of dying.”


She found several. From geological timescales to Indigenous ways of seeing the natural world, other paradigms of time where people are kinder to each other and the planet reignited Odell’s own imagination for what’s possible. 


She tells readers, for instance, to experience the passing of time by picking a spot in nature and paying attention to it: over time, one might notice that a giant, jagged rock that once sat on the beachfront is now permanently out at sea and smoother after water has worn it down. Looking at other cultural models of time—where the value of one’s day is not measured in productivity but in depth of connection with others and nature—might, too, offer a new way to move through life. Discovering these other rhythms of time, Odell said, has helped her adopt a worldview that is not so deterministic. 


“I hope if someone is experiencing that feeling of paralysis, that this book can restore some agency in them,” Odell said. “That they can be rendered more open to future possibilities.”


Throughout the book, however, Odell is hesitant to prescribe a single vision of time. Instead, Odell, who is an artist by training, lays out different conceptions of time much like one would put together a collage: she collects different ideas and places them next to one another, letting the viewer decide how they all fit. 


When asked how she now wants to use her time in the future, Odell paused. “I want to be more generous with it.” Now that Saving Time is published, Odell hopes to shift her attention to her latest fascination: habitat restoration, a practice that makes her feel like “we’re going backward and forward at the same time,” she said.


After writing this book, Odell no longer struggles to imagine different paradigms of time. We need to look no further than the migratory birds that fly above us or to our grandparents who can spend hours sitting still, watching the world go by. They teach us that time can take many forms. 

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