The Politics Of Planetary Time

Reconciling social and natural history is the key challenge.

Madeline McMahon for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

As the Cameroonian-born philosopher Achille Mbembe observes in Noema, “More than any other time in our brief history on Earth, we are experiencing a clash of temporalities: geological time, the deep time of those processes that fashioned our terrestrial home; historical time; and experiential time. All these times now fold in on one another. We are not used to thinking of time as simultaneous. We think of time as linear: past, present, future. So how do we begin to think about time in a way that takes these concatenations seriously?” 

He goes on: “We are in an epoch when time is no longer differentially distributed along human and non-human scales — that’s what the Anthropocene shows us. … [T]here’s no longer a social history separate from natural history. That is over. Human history and Earth history are now indivisible.” 

There is a strong correspondence between Mbembe’s reflections and the thinking of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who said in another conversation with Noema: 

From a macro-historical viewpoint, all cultures must tackle two general realities. On the one hand, the fact that the Earth has been recognized as a finite, planetary ecosystem that must be managed through a global environmental policy, and on the other hand, the realization that the transition from passéism to futurism has become more or less unavoidable everywhere. 

This implies that many cultures must understand that, while looking back at a mainly separate past, they will experience a primarily common future. This leads to the emergence of a global situationism — that inherent traits do not exist but are shaped by our environment — which places the single Earth in the forefront as a common site for all cultures.

The local narratives are being increasingly forced to coordinate the time horizons of their rooted history (idiochronic) with the virtual synchronic horizon of the common world time.

This synchronous moment of temporal simultaneity could be called “planetary time.” 

Drawing on Africa’s animist cosmologies, Mbembe sees a path toward the alignment of social and natural history in the revival of a principle buried by modernity — animation as the “vital breath” shared by all being that was “born together” and is thus foundationally already one unity. As Yuk Hui has pointed out elsewhere in Noema from another civilizational perspective, the Daoist concept of “oppositional continuity” between humankind and the cosmos similarly traces the way toward this reconciliation. 

Both of these planetary perspectives imply, as Mbembe puts it, a “radical decentering” of humans from their privileged perch in the Anthropocene.

Temporal Gridlock

The challenge is how to transmute the spirit of this understanding into the practical governance of human affairs. So far, any governing consensus along these lines remains elusive, hindered by political systems planted in the territory of the past and constrained by the pressing realities of constituencies more concerned with the end of the month or the end of the quarter than the end of the world.

We seem stuck in spatial and temporal gridlock, a standoff between the centripetal imperative of species survival going forward and the centrifugal pull of tribal belonging yoked to the inertia of immediacy. In short, for our present institutional configurations, the past is too small to inhabit, the present looms too large and the future remains too distant. 

The global situationism of which Sloterdijk speaks has yet to forge a planetary identity with the force of primary allegiance. The sovereign nation-state, still the most potent legacy institution of human agency, exists precisely to affirm historically bound identities and accelerate endless growth, especially in the consumer democracies geared to satisfying gratification here and now. It is the very platform that perpetuates the divergence of social and natural history.

Mbembe acknowledges as much. “Is it at all possible to build anything in common in the face of such agonism? How do we live with irreconcilability? What kind of life is likely to emerge out of conflictive opinions and positions that will never be reconciled? And how can we live with them without opening up the doors to civil war? A civil war not only within specific nation-states, but a civil war at a planetary scale. I think that’s probably where we are.”  

As for a Daoist way forward, Sloterdijk also has his doubts. “In the abstract, yes, we can say that the spirit of Daoism approximates this new consciousness,” he says. “But in reality, the Eastern mind has been colonized by the instrumental reason of Western Enlightenment, which became globally dominant in recent centuries. Paradoxically, at the very moment the truth of the old Asian worldview shows its plausibility anew, it has been lost where it originated.” 

Clearly, it will take an axial shift in distributed awareness to get from “where we are” to a sense of being “born together again” as one with the natural cosmos. If, as in ancient Chinese thought, politics is about reaching harmony through reconciling differences and minimizing conflict, then the vita contemplativa of the philosophers discussed here is itself the politics of planetary time. At this pivotal juncture of momentous transformation, thought is action. 

Only when we first establish a common narrative of where we need to go, even if along plural paths, can we figure out how to ultimately get there.