She Taught Us to Do Nothing. Now Jenny Odell Wants to Save Time.

SAVING TIME: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, by Jenny Odell

Climate change is doing strange things to time. Last year, ancient Roman ruins emerged from the Tiber as extreme drought parched the river, revealing history in the shallows. The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there were trees at the South Pole. All of our fossil-fuel burning is accelerating or rewinding all kinds of natural phenomena, mixing geologic eras and warping the previously well-defined strata of Earth history. We are hurtling into the future at a breakneck pace, only to be outrun by the distortions of nature we have unleashed by rampant extraction and consumption.

All of this makes it harder (if not impossible) to believe in a Whiggish interpretation of history, in which life constantly improves. That’s not really how we encounter lived history, but it’s often how it’s told; history is usually written by the victors, and things typically get better for them, at least for a while.

It is in the gap between present and future, where outcomes are not yet determined, that Jenny Odell enters with her paradigm-destroying new book, “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.” This grand, eclectic, wide-ranging work is about the various problems that swirl out from dominant conceptions of “time,” which sometimes means history, sometimes means an individual lifetime and sometimes means the future.

Odell, an artist and writer, has said that “Saving Time” grew out of her 2019 best seller, “How to Do Nothing,” about resisting the dangers of the “attention economy.” “Saving Time” began, she tweeted, as an exploration of the phrase “time is money” and “the relationship of time to power.” But while investigating that relationship, she found that it intersected with the climate crisis, and that both contributed to her existential dread.

The book is loosely structured around a daylong trip in the San Francisco Bay Area — from the Port of Oakland to a beach nearby to a community library and a columbarium — which allows us to see different time scales at play: the immediacy of the on-demand economy, the geologic history of a rocky coastline, the collective gathering of knowledge over time, and eternity. Vignettes of the trip alternate with discussions of the histories of labor, personal “time management,” leisure; time in space; the Anthropocene; alternative ideas for time and care; mortality and mass incarceration; a vision for the future.

Exploring these various time scales puts in perspective the asynchronicity of human and planetary time. (Odell often describes human time as “time pressure,” by which she means the fungibility of time that makes it interchangeable with “stuff,” thereby giving it a price — which is to say wage labor.) These two timelines are so mismatched, she writes, as to inspire feelings of “lonely absurdity.”

The phenomena of “individual time pressure and climate dread,” Odell writes, “share a set of deep roots, and they have more in common than just fear.” European colonialism, she argues, let loose upon the world an economy of extraction, both of human labor and of natural resources. Our problems stem from the economic model that makes “stuff” and assigns a monetary value to that which is priceless: our lives, the miracles of physics and coincidences and evolution that have given rise to everything on this planet, and our continued ability to live here.

Odell’s undertaking is massive and ambitious. The book cites everything from Frederick Winslow Taylor to bird-watching to travel influencers to the racial geography of leisure in the United States to niche but influential zines about office work in San Francisco to the work of disability activists, to Indigenous philosophy and historical scholarship, to the writings of Henri Bergson, to her own life experiences, diary entries and dreams from childhood to the present — and even this hardly touches on the diverse sources and forms of knowledge she impressively unites. Much of the book was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was an experiment in time perception for many of us — monotony alongside urgency and panic; wanting to speed up the future so things could go “back to normal,” as if the world could be unchanged by our collective experience.

Sometimes, in her race to gather all of this information together, Odell elides narrative inconveniences or leaves things unexplained.

But singling out any specific moment in this book feels like a betrayal of the whole. The narrative logic is purposefully meandering and elliptical, a formal underline of the book’s arguments against a linear understanding of time. The ideas fold back on themselves in ways that require rereading or pausing to travel down the tunnels of association that Odell’s generative spirit blasts open.

Instead of trying to explain “Saving Time,” it seems more useful — more like the experience of reading this book, maybe — to write about one of the things it made me think of: slime mold. In a 2010 paper, scientists reported that when slime mold was confronted with a small-scale landscape of Greater Tokyo (with oat flakes for urban hubs and bright lights as obstacles like mountains), the slime mold made a route that was nearly identical to the actual rail network in the region. In places where the slime mold took a different path than rail engineers had constructed, it was just as efficient. I learned about this experiment a few years ago in an amazing book about fungi, but my heart still swells at the idea that knowledge and wisdom can be amassed over millions of years by even the most “simple” forms of life.

One way to relieve ourselves of time pressure and climate dread, Odell writes, is to restore agency (in our own minds) to the nonhuman world, to remember that everything in the universe — like slime mold or, for Odell, atoms and rocks — can initiate action, “an understanding of agency that is atypical of the Western mind-set,” she writes.

This agency she takes as an indication of aliveness: “If you are feeling some resistance to the idea that rocks could be alive, I simply invite you to ask yourself why,” she writes. “Seeing more of the world as constitutive of time, full of agency and deserving of respect means abandoning that hierarchy … between the actor and the acted upon.”

She quotes Daniel R. Wildcat, a Yuchi member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma: “Indigenous thinkers not only acknowledge contingency and humans’ lack of control in the world; they also see it as empowering and humbling, not something frightening.”

Empowering and humbling may sound like a paradox, she writes, but only “because of how we normally conceive of power” as a hierarchy rather than mutually constituted.

To accept the agency of slime mold (or atoms or moss or rocks) allows us to accept the contingency of time and history; to understand that nothing is inevitable. Time, history, knowledge, experience — whatever you want to call it — is what we make together in each moment.

If the future is predetermined, with certain outcomes inevitable, then it becomes one “in which something new can never happen.” In fact, only in the gap between the present and the future is action possible, Odell writes, because only there can we locate hope and desire — wishes for things to be different, new things to happen, the ability to change.

It’s in this lacuna that climate action is possible, she writes. She doesn’t provide answers or policies for how; that’s not her project. But she has opened up a space between the present and the future in which it might be possible.

After all, there’s no time like the present, or the future.

Tatiana Schlossberg, who completed her master’s in history at Oxford, is a former climate reporter for The Times and the author of “Inconspicuous Consumption.”

SAVING TIME: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock | By Jenny Odell | 364 pp. | Random House | $28.99

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