Posted on 17 June 2024 in bulletin, climate change, temporality, time

After Time

In this contribution to Bulletin 30, Eva van Roekel explores the messiness and multiplicity of different cultural experiences of time in the face of climate disasters and a sense of impending apocalypse.

Eva van Roekel

Image: Author’s Own.

Are we in the end of times?[1] We appear to be in a moment in which we are constantly overwhelmed with images and words of drought, floods, blizzards, starvation, extinction, scorching woods, and war and conflict, all due to climate change and environmental upheaval. For some people we are living in a world where we are approaching some kind of finale from there is no escape. With this in mind, stating that the current state of the world is worrisome sounds shallow. The scale and depth of what is coming appears beyond any words or concepts. Yet, I cannot stop wondering if we can think of ‘ending’ in non-specific ways? As an anthropologist, I tend to think we cannot.

It can be dangerous to claim relativism when we are increasingly subjected to deliberate disinformation and fake news. I do not in any way wish to contest the meaning nor likely outcomes of a breach of the 1.5 Celsius climate threshold. Let that be clear from the start. I believe that is not my task as an anthropologist. However, I do think that a critical attitude towards far-reaching claims about the end of times and approaching apocalypses has value in and for the world we inhabit; if only because it helps us to understand how life under threat is experienced and understood in different ways. I believe that there lie important ethnographic tasks at hand to figure out how people across the world think and feel about human-made disaster, extinction, and ruin. The following is no more than a concise reflection on temporalities and crises that situates this enormous ethnographic task.

Read about Eva’s ISRF Political Economy Fellowship project: Radical Gold: Emergency Resource Extraction and Trade in the Northern Amazon

I think a vital and recurrent theme in these ethnographic queries relates to the experience of past, present, and future. In what way, for instance, do time and temporality—or the way we dwell in time—shape the way we envision the workings of nature and the way we live in climate? Current experiences of ‘ending’ and ‘post-apocalyptic’ worlds belong to specific temporal notions concerning how life (of any kind) comes to exist in the world. This way of understanding the workings of time often tends to be conceived in linear fashion, in which case a definitive end to time is indeed possible or even about to happen. Yet, to claim that this temporal linearity applies to the experience of time for everyone and everywhere in the world is, in my view, a leap too far. The experience of time can turn in multiple directions, as will hopefully become clear in the way I have (often accidentally) stumbled upon time and temporality in different fields of research as an anthropologist over the years. A plea for a culture-sensitive approach to time is not, of course, to bring thoughts on time and temporality to a close. I see it rather as a continuation of vibrant debates in the anthropology of time.

As an ethnographer I first became interested, somewhat unwillingly, in the workings of time when I did ethnographic research on post-conflict and transitional justice. In the context of pursuing a doctoral degree on retribution for and commemoration of crimes against humanity in Argentina, I engaged with both victims and perpetrators of violence, making it almost impossible to write one coherent history of the violence. I became aware of the unbreakable link between history and what it meant to be a person, as Clifford Geertz rightly suggested.[2] Particularly experiences of violence tend to be fields of contradicting stories and truths. Conflict about how one remembers the past and what one expects of the future express the specific ways in which we engage with and in the world. Historical facts, present events, and their lived experiences and attached meanings and scenarios do not exist separately. Meaning, fact, and conflict all converge to constitute pasts, presents, and futures within people’s lifeworlds. I therefore opted for a temporal approach to avoid threading coherence into a history of violence and impunity that was inherently fraught with contradicting interpretations and multiple temporalities that favoured past, present, and future in highly different ways.[3] This turn to time became pivotal to my anthropological ‘becoming’, so to speak.

Related Project: For and Against Change: Temporalities of Disruption in the Expanded Field of Design (Craig Martin & Giovanni Marmont)

 Time has been a perennial object of anthropological inquiry and runs through almost all social analysis. Ernest Gellner, for instance, asserted that ‘the way in which time and its horizons are conceived is generally connected with the way the society understands and justifies itself.’[4] Decades later, Richard Irvine similarly observed that ‘conceptualizations of time emerge from social interests, activities, and relations.’[5] The way we understand time thus largely depends on to whom and for what we think ourselves responsible, as well as with whom and what we interact daily. People’s experiences of time are often related to a jumble of biological rhythms, daily routines, seasonal practices, and social calendars. The impact of time on people’s everyday lives depends on these competing or coexisting relations between natural and social tempos, cyclical and linear times, and repetitions and irreversibilities.[6]Time is multiple for this reason.

In recent years, the anthropology of time has moved from juxtaposing temporalities in specific cultures to interweaving multiple experiences of time into one. The recent ‘temporal turn’ in anthropology has emphasized the profound heterogeneity of temporal experiences other than a linear one.[7] Circular or spiraling temporalities may very well run in parallel with a linear progression of past, present, and future, for instance. The struggle, therefore, should not be to determine which temporality has it right, but to do justice to a much more indeterminate relationship of multiple social representations of temporality and the many varieties of experience of being-in-time.[8] What is of importance here is that temporal experience can be upended in times of crisis and disaster. Time, then, stops being something we take for granted. I think this is where anthropology has the potential for a critical inquiry into the way people across the world experience and make sense of such phenomena as flooding, drought, extinction, and famine. This can allow the foregrounding of additional temporal dimensions and ways to dwell in time, such as the temporal concept of deep time that refers to geological periods of time.

In my current ethnographic research on the complex humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, which has displaced more than 7 million Venezuelans from their country, the workings of time again inform my thinking on what it is to be human. Over the last ten years, Venezuela lost almost 80% of its Gross Domestic Product due to political conflict, state negligence, and economic sanctions implemented by the United States and several European countries. For those that did not flee from crisis and conflict, small-scale gold mining has become a way to overcome the crisis. There are no exact numbers of the amount of new gold miners, but satellite imaging shows an increase of almost 300% in excavated lands—and the global pandemic most likely played a significant role in this growth.[9] In current social theorizing on human ecologies and the exploitation of land and people, there is a burgeoning interest in the ‘afterlife of destruction’.[10] These debates often refer to demarcated temporalities, such as “before,” “during” and “after” periods of destruction to address how landscapes and communities develop in the wake of capitalist ruination (like mining). Such change is not a passive undertaking, though. Chloe Ahmann argues, for instance, that we must look first and foremost at ‘how affected groups work time to emphasize their vulnerability.’[11]

The way that, in recent years, the extraction of gold in the Venezuelan Amazon has become a solution for famine caused by barren lands allows us to think about time and temporality in intersecting ways. The workings of time amid catastrophic destruction and survival consist of coexisting temporalities of people, lands, policies, and things. Time is heading towards some apocalyptic finale while at the same there is deep acknowledgement of the circular aspect of extraction and the degenerative and regenerative character of the Amazonian land and its people. Just as the afterlife of one gold mine gives birth to future mining desires and activities, so is the present-day extraction sometimes experienced as an aftermath of earlier boom years of the same or another resource. In gold country, the past, present, and future are often all over the place.[12]

More often than not, the experience of time is messy and multiple. How people reckon the beginning and ending of a certain time in their life may vary significantly. I therefore think, following Geertz, that there exists an unbreakable link between the way existence comes into being and how people experience the impending extermination thereof. Questions I find particularly valuable to carve new pathways for thinking about disaster, ruin and extinction are: how does social existence manifest in the world? How do people rationalize its violent loss and grieve it (or not) on their own terms? Elsewhere I have argued, following Judith Butler,[13] thatnot every death nor every aspect of loss is lamented the same way. Some lives are deemed more worthy of mourning than others.[14] ‘Such differential allocation of grievability [a priori] defines what is normatively human and what counts as a livable life and a grievable death.’[15] While being with my Venezuelan friends and family, the everyday presence of dearth, flooding and famine never feels the same as when I am in the Netherlands. There seems less anxiety around the impending finale of humankind. There appears to be a form of acknowledgment that human beings are just one thing that constitutes the immensity of what life entails. While being in the field, fraught with crisis and little to no prospect for improvement, I must admit that this acknowledgment of human humbleness can be strangely comforting at points. Life will move on, yet perhaps (or perhaps even better) not with human beings at the centre. I do not wish to bring these nascent thoughts to any close as I think anxiety of endings and human humbleness are not opposites. Dutch anthropologist Johannes Fabian rightly warns that we should not deny the coevalness of time of the ethnographer and their so-called Other.[16] Alternative experiences of time should never become a device that unfairly exoticizes people or land. There is simply not one way of being in time and neither is there one way of experiencing the end of times.


[1] Parts of this text have previously appeared in Jesse Jonkman and Eva van Roekel, ‘Muddled Times: Temporality and Gold Mining in Colombia and Venezuela’, International Development Policy 15, no. 1 (2023): 1-19 and in Eva van Roekel, ‘Ecocidio and Genocidas: Anthropological Reflections on Existence and Extermination in Latin America’, in: J.S. Bachman (ed.), Genocide Studies: Pathways Ahead (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming).

[2] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973), 389-404.

[3] Eva van Roekel, Phenomenal justice: Violence and Morality in Argentina (Rutgers University Press, 2020).

[4] Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), 1.

[5] Richard Irvine, ‘Deep Time: An Anthropological Problem’, Social Anthropology, 22, no. 2 (2014): 157–172, 158.

[6] Alfred Gell, The Anthropology of Time: Cultural Constructions of Temporal Maps and Images (Berg, 1992).

[7] Laura Bear, ‘Time as Technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 45 (2016): 487-502; Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight, The Anthropology of the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[8] Michael D. Jackson, The Varieties of Temporal Experience: Travels in Philosophical, Historical, and Ethnographic Time (Columbia University Press, 2018), xv.

[9] See for instance, Luis Salas Rodríguez & Wataniba, ‘Illegal mining in Venezuela: a map of the issue’, accessible at (accessed April 28, 2024).

[10] Gastón R. Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (Duke University Press, 2014).

[11] Chloe Ahmann, ‘“It’s Exhausting to Create an Event out of Nothing”: Slow Violence and the Manipulation of Time’, Cultural Anthropology, 33, no. 1 (2018): 142–171, 144.

[12] Jonkman and van Roekel, ‘Muddled Times’.

[13] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (Verso, 2009).

[14] Van Roekel, ‘Ecocidio and Genocidas’.

[15] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2003), xiv-xv.

[16] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (Columbia University Press, 1983).


Eva van Roekel is an assistant professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.  She is co-editor-in-chief of the anthropological journal Anthropology and Humanism and member of the advisory board of the Dutch Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation. Eva’s research focuses on violence, morality, human rights, and natural resources in Latin America.