A Geographers Take on “Ancestral Time”

Climate change expands our temporal horizons. Burning fossil fuels, land use change, and modern agriculture have raised certain communities of humans to agents of planetary history. And while a significant portion of industrial carbon dioxide emissions will be hanging around in the atmosphere for the next 400,000 years, other traces of these communities will be readable millions of years into the future. Amidst this expanding temporality, I see ancestral time as a secular concept that pulls our horizons of care in three directions. Each works to ‘dissolve’ the idea of a self-certain, autonomous human agent as the centre of ethical concern.

  • Future ancestors: For me, ancestral time isn’t so much about ‘future generations’ or our ‘own grandchildren’. Such direct lineages certainly have emotional pull (especially since future generations may well in inherit a damaged earth). But ancestral time, to me, should open up a much more open, longer-term future: into deep time, the unknown future-to-come which we cannot grasp, manage or save. Ancestral time points to a realm of potential stretching into geological time. Because it is so uncertain and unknowable, this future is not contractual: it is not reducible to discount rates or population statistics. This deep future requires response and care beyond calculation.
  • Obligations to past ancestors: In as much as ‘we’ must respond to the potential of the future that by turns burdens and animates the present, we must also inherit what previous generations have bequeathed us. The balance sheet is mixed. In Scotland our ancestors have left a legacy of material and energetic excess on one hand, and a legacy of destructive instrumentalism on the other. For me, ancestral time signals that our culpability is not a matter of what we do, but of who we are. This requires not just action, but much deeper change.
  • More-than-human kin: Thirdly – and this is most important in my own work – our ancestors are not all human. Profoundly, we only become human thanks to the gifts of other species (think of the ~4% of our bodyweight made up of microbes). More broadly, modernity has been a multi-species project; industrial life relies on the dead labour of trees and sea critters. And ecosystems are not just ‘destroyed’, they are hollowed out, changed, made anew, but not just by ‘us’ – think of chicken factories incubating new viruses, palm plantations replacing rainforest, or sterile monocultures replacing diverse smallholdings. Acknowledging nonhuman kin – past, present, and future – takes us far beyond saving Nature, and embeds us amid messy knots of more-than-human community in which care and response is difficult and never innocent.