Climate breakdown - a matter of time

Source: US National Archives.  Description: Two people birdwatching in a lush forest
US National Archives.
We need a radical reimagining of the relationship between society, time, and nature In this era of global scorching.

If time must be used to generate maximum profit, it follows that all other aspects of life – including nature itself – must also be reduced to resources to further this goal. 

The natural world is collapsing. The IPCC currently reports that our window of opportunity to preserve a liveable world is ‘rapidly closing’. 

Averting climate breakdown is increasingly high on the global political agenda – but our current market-based solutions aren’t working.

The commodification of everything in the neoliberal era - especially our own time - has isolated us from the natural world around us. 


Our tenuous relationship with the living planet revolves around profit, loss, extraction and exploitation. It’s unsurprising, then, that our attempts to ‘fix’ it are failing. 

We live in a culture of consumerism and commodity, where economic calculations of profit and loss take precedence over traditional systems of care. 

Where does this leave us? We are abstracted from our very means of existence, the planet we live on and with. 

In a commodified world, our time is valued by society only when it is in service to profit and economic growth. 

If we wish to change course in a meaningful way, we need to remove the blinkers. Rather than seeing time as a commodity, we must see time in common, as commons, to reconstruct our relationship to the living planet.


The commodification of nature and our relationship with it is a natural corollary of the understanding that “time is money”, which became truly dominant in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. 

Time forms the fundamental, overarching framework through which our life is lived, and therefore our understanding of it influences all other aspects of our world.

If time must be used to generate maximum profit, it follows that all other aspects of life – including nature itself – must also be reduced to resources to further this goal. All action, all interaction, follows the pursuit of profit. 

This not only distances us from the living world, but from ourselves and others; in neoliberal countries such as the UK, we live in increasingly atomised, isolated worlds where we exist in competition, rather than in common, with the people around us. 

This ouroboros of commodification and consumption in the name of ‘growth’ - both personal and economic - can especially be seen in the current trend towards mindfulness and the commercialisation of nature connection itself. 


Jenny Odell highlights that increasingly, luxury forest bathing and wellness retreats are a market of the participant's own time. 

If time must be used to generate maximum profit, it follows that all other aspects of life – including nature itself – must also be reduced to resources to further this goal. 

The absence of commodification has itself been commodified in the name of increased efficiency on return to the ‘real world’. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, nature and nature connection are still considered mere amenities and resources in this framework.

From this standpoint, it is easy to see why current climate goals are failing: we see everything around us as fodder for unending growth, even in the face of climate catastrophe. 

Seeing time as currency has divorced us from the fundamental realities of a finite planet and has isolated us from the nature around us, leading to a focus on profit, growth, and short-termism. 

Even government projects that aim to preserve the natural environment - such as the Dasgupta Review - continue to look at nature through the neoliberal lens of profit and loss, seeking the ways in which caring for our planet can itself be commodified in the name of growth.


What does this tell us? That we need to step beyond the isolationism of current society and climate solutions. We are isolated from nature, from each other; we treat symptoms of climate change in ways that are economically profitable, isolated from their causes. 

Instead, we need to shift from competition – for success, for resources – to a commonality that aims to preserve the planet for the future.

The consequences of this divide of society and nature are profound. Preventing climate breakdown requires a relationship of care, rather than commodity, with the living planet. Instead of repackaging commodification, solving the climate crisis requires a radical reformation of our relationships with others. 

Rather than a focus on profit, we instead need to consider Professor Jason W. Moore’s “web of life”: the holistic system of relationships and reliance that exists between all beings (human or otherwise). 

This is not a short-term solution, but a programme of systemic change. Rather than sanitised, commercialised nature retreats, we must re-engage with ourselves, with the natural world, and with the communities around us. 


This requires a step away from commodity culture and accelerationism, and towards a more holistic model of society that embraces relationality and an ‘alternative hedonism’. 

Our time and our world cannot so easily be placed into simplistic narratives of commodity as dominant contemporary narratives lead us to believe. 

We must reclaim our ideas of time, not in service of profit but of relationality, of ‘making-with’. This time-as-commons - or time-in-common - can help us reframe our relationship with the living planet and address the climate breakdown in the radical ways necessary.

While enacting this in practice remains difficult, small steps are beginning to be taken. Action for Conservation’s Penpont Project provides an example of this, working intergenerationally to create a landscape that has nature and culture deeply embedded and intertwined. 

The Project encourages a diverse range of people, both young and old, to come together and create a common, ecological future for 500 acres of the Penpont Estate on the River Usk. 


Treating both time and the natural world as commodity is antithetical to the slow, deliberative timelines of the Project, which rebels against the accelerationism and short-termism of the current economic paradigm. 

Focussing on the future that awaits our descendants, as the Project does, highlights the communalism and ecological thinking that reassessing our conceptions of time can create.

Our current marketised climate solutions are insufficient and fundamentally flawed. We must turn to an emancipatory, ecological future – an embrace of the messiness, complexity, and inter-relatedness of life on planet Earth. 

This requires a shift from competition and isolation to commonality, a shared sense of time, and an embrace of the plurality of visions that exist in a locally embedded world. 

This Author

Ione Howells (@ione.rm.h) is a postgraduate student in environmental policy and management at the University of Bristol. She focuses on human-nature connection, access to nature, and the importance of youth advocacy.