Nature and culture

At the Tutzing Protestant Academy in Germany, researchers involved in the ’Ecology of Time’ project (Ökologie der Zeit) work with temporality as a key aspect of their analysis of modern society and its relationship to nature and ecology. Since its beginnings in 1989, the project’s researchers have published academic articles and books examining the topic from a wide range of disciplines – but with an emphasis on social science. The researchers whom I will draw on in the following are: Karlheinz Geißler, a professor of philosophy, economics and education, Martin Held, director of studies at the academy, specialising in economics and social research, Klaus Kümmerer, a professor specialising in chemistry and material resources, and finally Barbara Adam, whose research is central to the field. She is based at Cardiff University and has published a significant body of research. Adam has worked with the concept of time from a sociological perspective for many years.

In this context, her thoughts on the philosophical aspect of the relationship between nature and culture are interesting (See Adam 1998 pp. 13-14 and 24-28). First, she considers any strict dichotomy between the two dangerous and false. According to her, human beings have for too long regarded their activities (culture) as distinct from nature, with the result that nature has become viewed as the ’other’ which has nothing to do with the human. Nature has become a kind of ’container’ or ’frame’ within which humans may well live, but which they are not directly part of. However, Adam believes that, from a temporal perspective there is no nature-culture dichotomy: “we are nature, we constitute nature and we create nature through our actions in conditions that are largely pre-set for us by evolution and history” (Adam 1998 p. 13).

The concept of history that underlies this statement is thus inseparable from natural history. Human history is inseparable from that of nature, and since we therefore are a part of nature, human time is also nature’s time. It follows that the question of whether global ecological changes will affect nature or culture is moot: they will have consequences for both.

Yet there is an ambiguity in this statement that culture and nature are inseparable. The dissolution of the nature-culture divide is only a first step. As Adam writes, we are still forced to recognise the important differences between cultural and natural temporalities, as this enables us to locate and analyse different temporal conflicts that are central to contemporary historical conditions. Thus the conceptual pairing should be used as an analytical tool, not as an a priori division of the world.

The timescape

The word ’timescape’ derives from the word landscape, but instead of placing the emphasis on the visible and the spatial, as the word landscape implicitly can be said to do, timescape refers to the rhythms or temporalities that prevail in a given area or situation. In a landscape you can read the history of a given place based on your prior knowledge. There may be a special type of vegetation that says something about the place as a biotope – its soil, temperature, humidity, etc. – but there will also be historical indicators such as different soil layers, hills and valleys that may indicate the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age, and so on. In addition, there may be signs of human intervention: a landscape may have a motorway running, or may even be a town centre. To take these varying factors into account, Adam therefore defines a landscape as “a record of constitutive activity” (Ibid. p. 54).

Similarly, in a timescape you can glean a lot of information about the site’s distinctive character through your prior knowledge and the questions you ask – including questions about environmental problems. How do a given plant’s rhythms interact with those of another plant, of a tree, of an animal? How do the rhythms of the traffic interact with the rhythms of the traffic lights or the diurnal cycle? And how can a machine’s time be described in relation to the rhythms of a biotope? This approach can point to certain conflicts in a timescape, such as the cultural temporality of work compared to the temporality of its surroundings.

The concept of timescapes may expand our awareness of the temporal connections that are everywhere – including the natural environment. In addition, as a viewer you become aware of the ’whole picture’ and the relations of dependence it entails. As Adam writes: “we grasp environmental phenomena as complex, unified, temporal, contextually specific wholes” (Adam et al. 2001 p. 81). Moreover, she believes that in this way we become aware of our own place within such a whole, and that this perspective promotes a sense of responsibility for ourselves and our communities.

The concept of timescapes and Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis complement each other well. Their approaches clearly overlap, but have different areas of focus. Lefebvere’s theory highlights the ways different rhythms interact, while Adam focuses more on environment. Moreover, the concept of the timescape incorporates all modes of time, not just that of rhythms. There need not be returns in Adam’s concept: it can include relatively discrete movements, such as a lump of ice melting, as well as “beats, sequences, beginnings and ends, growth and decay, birth and death, night and day, seasonality, memory” (Adam’s concept as described by Hassan 2009a p. 46).


The German word Eigenzeit (’inherent time’, lit., ’own time’) denotes the temporality that is naturally embedded in any given process, be it that of an organism, an ecosystem or an economic system. As Martin Held writes: “This perspective involves understanding and acknowledging the Eigenzeit of humans, other life forms as well as rivers, landscapes, etc.” (Held 1999 p. 3, my translation from the German). Everything has an Eigenzeit – not just living but also dead processes.

Held speaks of introducing a respect for Eigenzeit as a social ideal. To overlook and thereby risk suppressing the inherent temporalities of things can have grave consequences. This can be seen at both micro- and macro-levels. (One example is when a person becomes stressed due to an excessive workload.) A joint article by some of the Tutzing researchers, referring to the notion of Eigenzeit, states that the project’s goal is “sustainable development that incorporates not just the time scales and rhythmicities of production but also those of regeneration and reproduction (soil and water being examples of key bases of existence in urgent need of such reorientation: developed over millennia, they are currently used up in periods extending over no more than a few hundred years)” (Adam, Geißler, Held and Kümmerer 1997 pp. 78-9 14). This example demonstrates how a regeneration phase after a harvest phase may lead us to abide by the Eigenzeit of environmental rhythms. In other words, there is in this instance a kind of circularity whereby unproductive phases must be allowed to take their course if the system is to remain fertile.


The concept of Eigenzeit can be opposed to the concept of Zeitgeber (’time giver’), which indicates a particular form or ideal of time that governs the temporality of other processes. An example of a Zeitgeber is the Earth’s rotation, which governs the rhythms of most living beings, from the opening and closing of flowers to the diurnal cycles of animals. A timetable based on clock time can also be a Zeitgeber, since other rhythms become subjected to its time.

However, there is a significant difference between clock time and the rhythms of nature. The cycle of night and day, as a Zeitgeber, is different from a timetable, since the Earth’s natural ecology has arisen under the conditions created by the diurnal cycle. The diurnal rhythm is integral to nature’s temporal constitution, which is why the diurnal cycle does not dominate natural rhythms but works in eurhythmia with them. A timetable, on the other hand, is created with efficiency in mind, which is why it often dominates and streamlines surrounding rhythms according to its own rationale – it is isorhythmic. The term Zeitgeber is most often used to refer to the latter kind of ’time giver’, although its original meaning is more wide-ranging. Thus the concept has a negative connotation, since this dominance of other rhythms is considered problematic.

Sensitivity to time

The Tutzing theorists write: “a sensitivity to time in its diverse forms is a precondition to taking account of it in decisions and policies that affect the environment across time and space” (Ibid. p. 75). A sensitivity to temporality can be crucial to the creation of a new sustainable future for our society. It is important simply to become aware of temporality, so that it may be incorporated into future projects and action plans in as wide a social range as possible. The new conceptualisations offered by the terms timescape and Eigenzeit may point the way to a new awareness in this area.

Since this kind of thinking about time is a relatively new enterprise, there is some theoretical work to be done to ensure that time analysis can become as sharp and powerful a tool as possible. A solid conceptual apparatus is of course a good means to this end. But another equally important approach is the bodily and perceptual experience of temporal diversity. One not only needs to know something about different forms of time: in order to understand them better one also needs to actively acquire ’time skills’ and train one’s sensitivity when it come to perceiving time.

Blindness to temporality can result in modes of time that are problematic but are never perceived as such. Conversely, an awareness of this fundamental aspect of any process can be a key to changing basic temporal constitutions in a positive way. The new relation to time focuses on connections. Situations must therefore always be understood and analysed in a broad context. At the same time, a historical approach is essential in relation to both the past and the future, since the present cannot be understood in isolation.

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