Interview: Jonathon Keats on His Atlanta River Time Project

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As human society has become more advanced and industrialized, so has the way we keep time. Most of us no longer tell the time by looking at a sundial or a mechanical clock, but by referencing our smartphones, which are synced over the internet.

In doing so, we keep time more accurately, giving us the ability to plan for the future and coordinate with others. Digital clocks afford us many benefits, but there’s an argument to be made that this method of reckoning time contributes to an illusory idea that we humans are somehow separate from nature.

A new conceptual art project called the Atlanta River Time Project aims to challenge this fantasy by offering an alternative method of timekeeping: the meander and flow of a river. Created by experimental philosopher and artist Jonathon Keats, the Atlanta River Time Project keeps time by comparing the current rate of flow of the Chattahoochee River against its historical average. I had the chance to speak with Jonathon about his new project earlier this summer, and now I’m happy to share our conversation with you.

Jonathon and I talk about everything from the intersection of art and philosophy to the industrialization of time and why Jonathon believes this was—and continues to be—a driving force behind the climate emergency. Learn more about the Atlanta River Time Project and Jonathon at the links below.

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  1. The Atlanta River Time Project by Jonathon Keats
  2. About the creator
  3. Transcript
  4. Recommended reading

The Atlanta River Time Project by Jonathon Keats

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About the creator

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A photo of Jonathon Keats wearing a pinstripe suit with a red bowtie.
Image credit: Christopher Adams, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jonathon Keats is an experimental philosopher, conceptual artist, and the author of six books, the most recent of which is titled You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future. Jonathon has been an artist-in-residence at multiple colleges and universities around the country, currently at the SETI Institute and UC San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center. He lives in San Francisco.


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(00:00:04) – Forrest

Thank you for coming on the podcast. First of all, I was just hoping you’d tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became an artist.

(00:00:12) – Jonathon

My name is Jonathon Keats, and I am an experimental philosopher and an artist, although only really accidentally. I studied philosophy in school and fled as soon as I possibly could because I recognized that what I thought I would be doing, which basically was being Socrates, is not, in fact, what you do in an academic setting when you’re studying philosophy and where you have a very particular tradition that you’re working in and methodology and a language that you’re using that doesn’t really allow for much conversation outside of academia and also doesn’t really allow for a very varied or very relevant, I think, in certain respects, a very relevant discourse about the issues that we’re contending with today.

And I think the  need to involve these conversations that is need to involve everybody, and they need to involve everybody in ways that are accessible and our open in terms of what meaning might be made. They really need to be a conversation. And so the accidental part was that I needed to figure out where to go with these big ideas or these notions that I had. And since clearly, academia was not the space in which to be able to do philosophy as I thought philosophy needed to be done, I simply found the ultimate no man’s land. And I think that that’s probably the best description that I can give for the art world, because ever since, well, iconically, ever since Marcel Duchamp brought a urinal into the context of an art exhibition, it really has been a state in which anything goes. And that has probably been one of the greatest act, and therefore one of the most significant enlargements of what art can be and what it can do. But it also has led to a lot of confusion. And as a result, it means that you can do more than simply bring more urinals into more exhibitions, which, unfortunately, has been largely the response to the Duchampian turn. It seems like there’s been a lot squandered on the open invitation to do more with art than to make paintings of pretty landscapes. And I have nothing against a painting or a pretty landscape, for that matter. We don’t have enough pretty landscapes left. And painting is still as interesting as it ever was. It’s continually renewed. But also, the art world is a space where you can do a lot of other things. And so I found that I could take from philosophy some of the ideas that I was interested in, and I could also smuggle out some of the methods. And to give an example of this, probably the most important of these was the thought experiment. And this is how I’ve call myself an experimental philosopher, which, by the way, is a job title that conveniently doesn’t exist out in the world, and therefore I can just make of it whatever I want. There actually was—once upon a time—there were natural philosophers—this was the word for scientists before they were scientists, and “experimental philosopher” was occasionally used as an alternative to that, but it’s relatively unoccupied territory and therefore optimal for self-definition. So, the thought experiment is basically a a counterfactual that you posit in order to make an argument, essentially by bamboozling your opponent into agreeing with what you set out to prove in the first place. It’s a rhetorical turn, but I think, has a lot more potential than that, because it’s basically—in terms of starting with a counterfactual, and then in the classic way that a thought experiment is used, showing that that position is untenable, that it’s absurd, therefore, that the position that the philosopher had up his or her sleeve was actually the position that was meant to be accepted by all from the very outset, that everybody has to go along with it, because anything else would be absurd. Instead of going through that, which would require, first of all, that I actually knew something, which I don’t claim to, and in fact, I’m much more interested in the questions than in the answers. And the answers are interesting to me, mostly for the fact that they generate newer and better and bigger questions. But the thought experiment could be used quite literally as an experiment for a possible world that could be inhabited by people, and that we could inhabit that together and have a conversation within it, or interact within it in ways that would reveal the workings of the world that we know today and might potentially reveal both oversights or blind spots, and also could potentially, in terms of that alternative world, could reveal that there are attributes of that alternative reality that are desirable or that are the opposite, that are to be avoided, and therefore could be a means by which to think about the future in relation to the familiar and do so in a way that anybody could interact. So in a sense, it’s like sci-fi, only without any real narrative, that in the case of a sci-fi film or novel, you’re being sent through a story. And yes, there’s choose your own adventure, which somewhat upsets that. But still, there are basic ways in which you are being transported. And the idea that I had all along was that the thought experiment could be genuinely experimental, and that that would be, that would have a certain kinship to science fiction, which is to say really, to all fiction and really going all the way back to the fable to folklore, but that it could do something different, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and I’ve been using—or abusing, perhaps—the art world for purposes of doing this sort of work, if you can call it work. And I think that it’s play really more than it is work, but I’ve been doing so also outside of the art world. And so at the same time that I accept the title of artist, and I deeply respect people who are artists, I don’t know that I am one. I don’t know if I really want to be one, because to me, there are great advantages out of the completely confused state of the art world that allow for me to do a lot of things that there’s just no other place in the world for them. But on the other hand, the art world sets certain expectations. And it also has a certain threshold that it places in terms of…there are a lot of people who just don’t think that they can understand art. There are a lot of people who just won’t walk into a museum or won’t, accept art as something that is relevant to their lives, either that is frivolous, that it is entertainment, in other words, or, on the contrary, that it’s too serious and too stultifying. And I don’t really want either of those qualities to adhere to what I do. The art world gives a certain sort of space in which to explore an experiment and gives a certain sort of leverage. But it also I think ultimately, like Wittgenstein’s famous ladder, needs to be kept away ultimately. And of course, that means that I ended up stumbling and falling flat on my face.

(00:09:14) – Forrest

Great introduction. Awesome. And I think, too, philosophy is like that for a lot of people as well, which I think probably gets a little bit at what you were saying at the beginning of why you ran from philosophy, if I’m correct in that assumption.

(00:09:29) – Jonathon

Yeah. I think that philosophy and art have a lot in common and a lot to answer for, as far as the fact that both of them seem to me to have come out of fundamentally popular activities. That is to say that they became rarified through a sort of self-reinforcing mechanism that, in the case of art, basically, if you look at art up through the 19th century and you’re really fast and loose with the facts, but nevertheless, the trends are I think that they map on pretty well. And I spent a lot of time in the art world. Another part of what I do is that I am an art critic. So I’m constantly thinking and writing about art. And as I said earlier, I’m really deeply respectful of and interested in art. But basically, what happened was that up through the 19th century, you had a sort of reinforcement of certain genres and techniques, basically the effect of what guilds have done or what guilds did in the crafts. For the most part, the arts were craft in terms of their basis. So it became something that was very specialized in terms of who could do it. But still, it remained for a long span of that time, fundamentally in the service, for instance, of the Church, where you couldn’t be too obscure or I don’t know, you get excommunicated for it. But you certainly would not be doing much good in terms of the propagandistic qualities and, well, the propagandistic qualities are really problematic. I think that, first of all, a lot of artists subverted them, even in the course of seemingly adhering to them. But also there was a way in which this was accessible. You have the Bible in Latin. I don’t want to end up in some territory of religious discourse here, but very briefly—you have, you have the Paupers’ Bible that is as a tradition and the stained glass window, as well as a tradition, both co-existent with a Bible that is inscrutable to most people. So I think that with art, then you end up with this turn toward an insecurity that comes from the de-skilling that is the Duchampian turn I referred to earlier.

(00:12:18) – Forrest


(00:12:19) – Jonathon

That results in the need for self-justification, and that leads to an academic not academic in the sense that art was academic in previous centuries, but a different sort of academic approach where it basically is a barricade. And I think that philosophy also has had that sort of insecurity in terms of the fact that anybody can talk about ideas. So what happens when you think about the history and when you think about the present case of the Academy, when you think about the University. How does the University differentiate itself? How do philosophers in the University differentiate themselves? So part of this is, I think, equivalent to in the sciences, where you have a genuine need for methodology, become more and more complex in order to operate in terms of what has come before and also the body of knowledge becomes increasingly rich and increasingly voluminous. These also are limiting factors in terms of the fact that then it becomes specialized, both out of intentional—a sort of intentionality on the part of a self-protective maneuver, but also in terms of the sheer weight, the sheer scale of this body of knowledge, and it ends up ossifying. So I guess this is all a very long-winded way of saying that what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to figure out how to avoid all of that while sort of helping myself to as much of it as possible. How do I take those legacies, how do I take all the thought that has come before me, and play fast and loose with it? How do I do that in an art world that is, on the one hand, it’s not well funded at all. So I’m not going to say that. There’s the auction market, which I’ll never have any success in whatsoever, but the art world that has some resources and has some capacity to be able to put something in front of a public. How do I do that without ending up stuck in a whole bunch of assumptions that don’t interest me and a whole bunch of limitations that are constraining?

(00:14:55) – Forrest

Yeah. I feel like your work does a pretty good job with that for anyone who is familiar with your work. One thing that does seem like a common thread through what I’ve seen of your work, or your play, as you called it, is that a lot of it seems to kind of question or challenge the common perceptions of time. Is that something you’re really interested in? Why do you think that is?

(00:15:18) – Jonathon

I think everybody is. I mean we’re all running late all the time. And I think that when I consider all of the different ways in which we’ve gotten to where we are, that is to say, in an industrialized society that has appropriately been referred to as the Anthropocene whether that’s an epoch or not remains to be seen based on our actions, and I very much hope that it is just a geological episode, that we are in a…an untenable and clearly unsustainable situation. And I don’t need to tell you that, but I can maybe say something about how I think we got there and what I think we might be able to do in terms of a cognitive shift that might help us to move beyond it because we can’t give into this. I think that the ecological grief that is really present in our society right now? Absolutely understandable and justified, but it is not an excuse for inaction, nor do I think that we should be encouraging that mindset, if we can possibly provide some sort of alternative mindset that might get us past the cause of that grief.

(00:16:57) – Forrest

Yeah, totally.

(00:16:58) – Jonathon

So basically, from my perspective, which is really quite untutored, and I would say that you’d be highly irresponsible if you believe me on any of this, but I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ll share with you what I thought.

(00:17:14) – Forrest


(00:17:16) – Jonathon

I think that time is largely responsible for this turn, and that seems strange to say. I mean, you would think it’s a steam engine, you would think that it is the railroad, and it is all of those. But all of those are very much contingent on the industrialization of time, time becoming technical. Basically, when we get the ability to measure time and to coordinate action in the world on the basis of some sort of calibration that is abstract and that is accessible to all without any sort of reference to the planet. It means you can first of all, you can make the railroads run on time, perhaps, but you can make them run in the first place because you have the ability then to coordinate action at a distance. But you also ultimately end up with the possibility of controlling labor, and you have the possibility through transportation, of creating global industry and multinational corporations. So it is a gross oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful oversimplification, to say that time is what is driving us forward toward oblivion. And so what might we do in terms of how we think about time as a way in which to think differently without turning into an Apple billboard: “Let’s think different.” So I guess that I am not quite going to be accused of trademark infringement there, but, “Think differently.” And I think that this is really about recognizing that time is all around us reckoned by every living being and also by all living systems, ranging from the small to the planetary, and that we need to tap into these alternative ways of reckoning time and the alternative time that is reckoned, or, in other words, as an extension of the idea of biodiversity, we need to think about chronodiversity. And that chronodiversity manifests when we start to, for instance, look at the time that is lived by a Bristlecone pine tree that lives for 5,000 years, or alternatively, by a mayfly, which doesn’t live for 5,000 years. So I think that it isn’t just a matter of lifespan, but it’s also a matter of how these, how each and every organism and also a living system, and a river is a living system, and river also, there’s a way in which time is measured by the river, for instance, by watching its meander and watching how it’s meander changes as a way in which to understand time through that particular perspective. So what I’m saying is so blatantly obvious as to be almost criminal. And also, what I’m saying is something that was present in all preindustrial societies and is present in Indigenous societies, and that needs to be recognized and acknowledged for the fact that this has been around for a long time and remains actively present. For instance, I’ve spent some time in Alaska and in Inuit communities and had some exposure to Inuit ways of thinking about time through some conversations that I’ve had. And this is just one example of many. But really, what I’m trying to figure out are ways in which we can recalibrate modern society using the apparatus that we’re familiar with in a way that we are brought back into sync with nature. And we are not apart from nature we’re mainly a part of nature and we need to recognize that as much as we have done all that we can to ignore it. So partly I think that is really, through time, we can reconfigure our society and come to the recognition of how we really are—have always been and remain—a part of nature. But it also becomes many other things. So what I’m looking at, for instance, is in Alaska, I took rivers as a basis for reckoning time, and so I took a cliché. And time flows and rivers…rivers flow as well. So what would happen if we were to calibrate our clocks and calendars based on the flow of our rivers and to localize. So, the local river, as it flows more quickly in one season, more slowly in another, that that actually changes the rate at which time is passing according to the municipal clock. So you can imagine a water wheel that you place in the river. The water wheel is scaled to spend at one RPM given the current average annual flow. Well it’s going to flow more quickly in some seasons, more slowly in others. It also, in the case of Alaska, for instance, we’re talking about glacially dead rivers, it’s going to change over time. There’s a phenomenon in glaciology, which is peak flow, where basically there’s going to be an acceleration in terms of flow and then there’s gonna be a deceleration. And ultimately there may be nothing. Therefore, if you take the water wheel—literally not a good idea in Alaska, so we’re working with the US Geological Survey and using their metering. You do the equivalent, and you then calibrate a clock based on that flow, and then you make that manifest in a way that people in the city are seeing time in that way. It leads to a certain, at least two different ways in which to think in terms of time and to think through time in terms of our actions in the world. One of these is contingent. And that is to say that the seasonal flow, it fluctuates, but it also fluctuates between day and night, and it also has a certain stochastic quality. It is, there is a randomness in the system. Therefore, you never know quite when 2:30 tomorrow will be, and you need to be constantly aware of your surroundings and that situates you in the world, in the environment, with an attentiveness that we have largely lost. At the same time, we need to be thinking in the long term, in terms of the consequences of our actions and to be calibrating what we’re doing today in ways that will allow for a world in the future to be a world that is desirable, or at least that we do as little harm as possible. So in order to do that, I think that being able to see the impact of human activity in a vernacular that we all know, the vernacular of time, and being able to calibrate our actions, which clocks do, based on the speed at which this clock is running, it leads to where the clock can be thought of sort of an environmental observatory. It leads to a way to which to observe these changes and to react, to respond. So responsibility comes out of responsiveness, and that responsiveness is only possible through an attentiveness that needs to have the combination of foresight and humility. The foresight comes through an understanding of how actions are impacting change in aggregate. Humility comes from the not knowing and the awareness of not knowing and the contingency in the moment. And so, while they seem to be contradictory, they both can be built into this sort of clock. So what I’m really trying to do is try to figure out: how do we access in ways that that fit into our world today, what we have always known and what we still know and what is more essential to us now than it has ever been, because our actions today can have such extraordinarily profound impact on the environment at any moment.

(00:27:32) – Forrest

Yeah. Now, I really love this concept of using rivers as a timekeeping device, because that is such a huge problem. Like you were saying, the industrialization of time or maybe like, the commodification of time is that we today, especially when I feel like we are guilty of such short-term thinking. We really have lost a lot of our ability to think in long term. But, I mean, I was reading this book last year, The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I’m not sure if you’ve read or not. He talks, like the whole point of that book is just the need for humans to think in long term and think at the speed of trees, I think, is the way that he put it, which is something that I’ve kind of been wrestling with since I read that. Like, how do you, you know, get people to shift their thinking in that way without really being able to see it? And I think something like your River Time Project can help with that, because it is giving people more of a visual, I guess. It’s giving them something a little bit more tangible.

(00:28:54) – Jonathon

And I think that it can operate in all sorts of ways. So just to bring up trees for a moment, I’ve been working for a while now with the Long Now Foundation and the Nevada Museum of Art on Bristlecone pine trees, where what the idea there is is to start with a calendar as the concept. So as we all know, a tree grows a ring every year. What’s most interesting about that is that the thickness varies based on environmental conditions.

(00:29:32) – Forrest


(00:29:33) – Jonathon

So you have a whole field of research, dendrochronology, that is dedicated to understanding that, and archaeology actually uses it in order to be able to date an old house, for instance. So the proposition that I’ve been working with is that we can look to a Bristlecone pine tree, a tree that will live potentially for 5,000 years, maybe even longer, as a very long term calendar that can, again, as with the Rivers, can calibrate us in terms of our actions. So the basic idea is: imagine a sapling and take the average annual growth for Bristlecone pine trees right now, it’s about 1 millimeter per year, and extrapolate out 5,000 years. Place stone markers, for instance, in the landscape in a spiral around the tree. For each marker, engrave precisely a date where you are calculating using the Gregorian calendar standard dates. You’re going forward 5,000 years, and you have them regularly spaced based on that 1 millimeter per year rule. That is, in fact, not a rule, because it will vary. And so, envisioning that we continue to put more carbon into the atmosphere, the result is an acceleration in growth for the trees. So in other words, based on an estimation we could maybe make at this stage in history, the tree is going to end up well ahead of the Gregorian calendar and something that is, of course, inaccessible to most because Bristlecone pine trees grow in places that are highly inaccessible. So what we’re working on right now is on Mount Washington in Eastern Nevada, where the Long Now Foundation has a property with Bristlecone pine trees. So we’re looking to do this there to build these calendars around some trees there. But the idea is equally to make this something that is present in the city. So that has been my work with the Nevada Museum of Art, where, for instance, one way in which to approach this would be to take the measure of the tree using a dendrometer, which is a device that you can wrap around a tree, and it will tell you in microns what the tree is doing, how quickly the tree is growing. So you might imagine that that is used as a basis for a new time protocol in the same way that I was doing with rivers, to have a protocol that is calibrated by the tree where the tree has authority. So basically, in the case of the spiral of stones, the tree might end up well ahead. But what I’m challenging people to do is to say that this tree has authority in this place. And in fact, this is the year right here, right now. And we need to accept that that chronodiversity, which also manifests in terms of place and diversity of different times in different places. So a sort of spatiotemporal diversity that manifests from it, but also to transport that into people’s lives by, for instance, I’m working with Earth Law Center on legislation that would mandate as a legal time standard the time that is kept by the trees. Or in the case of Atlanta, where I’ve been working most recently on the River Time Initiative for the Chattahoochee River, where the Chattahoochee would provide an alternative time standard for Atlanta. But then it also is a matter of how you make this accessible in people’s lives. And I think that part of this is a matter of building a clock, municipal clock. And so in the case of Alaska, we did this as a projection on the museum, the Anchorage Museum, which was a museum that sponsored the project. In the case of Atlanta, we’re looking actually to build, in downtown Atlanta, a physical clock that would be calibrated by the Chattahoochee. But then you can also bring it into people’s lives in other ways. You can do so through, for instance, a smart watch app, or scheduling software. So you can also have experiential means. For instance, in Alaska, we set a metronome that was operating at the rate of—and in the case of Alaska, we have five different rivers, and each one, there’s an Alaska mean river time, and each one of these rivers kept time on its own. So what we did was we had a a string quartet, a chamber orchestra.

(00:34:40) – Forrest

I was actually going to ask about that, yeah.

(00:34:42) – Jonathon

They performed to the metronome for different rivers at at the time that they performed. And, of course, something like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which is very familiar and also appropriate, in a way, that was really interesting. But it also is interesting to think about, okay, so what what gets composed for this? And that really is, I think, where in the case of Georgia, one thing that we’re looking at is to work with composers. So basically what happens is that you, you bring this into people’s lives in a way that they can experience these alternatives. And this is where I think what I was talking about earlier with alternative realities and the thought experiment. In a sense, all of this is one way you can think about this is that I’m building observatories, and these are observatories that are public observatories that are open to anybody and everyone. And I’m trying to bring science back into natural philosophy, where natural philosophy was something that was for amateurs where anybody could do it. But I’m also, I’m thinking about in terms of experimental philosophy, thinking about in terms of bringing it into the realm of the thought experiment and saying, “What if we were to live on this local time kept by this river? It’s a river that runs through our town or our city?” I don’t know! There are a lot of reasons why that could be a really bad idea. And there are a lot of things that could fall apart as a result of it. There are a lot of lives that might be made more miserable. There’s a lot of suffering that could happen. So I’m not saying that we should do that, giving it absolute authority right here, right now. But I’m saying that we need to be thinking about alternative ways in which to time our lives in order to be able to figure out how to live our lives collectively toward a…an environmental justice that is in sync with social justice. All of this can work in tandem because you can’t have one without the other, you can’t have a world in which we’re—any of us are going to want to live, let alone all of the other species that are being killed off by the 6th Mass Extinction. We can’t have that unless we put it all together. So part of what I’m doing also is I’m saying that time is something that affects everyone and everything. And while it is only one part of the totality of our world, it is a connective part of our world, it is something that connects all parts of our world and connects all parts of our world to all other parts.

(00:37:24) – Forrest

I think that’s great. It makes me think of, I believe it’s in Times Square now, if I’m not mistaken, but I think that there’s, like, a carbon counter in Times Square. Are you familiar with this? Or the climate clock? Yeah. That’s what it is.

(00:37:39) – Jonathon

Okay. So I’m going to try to be…I would never really want to try to be nice, but I’m going to try to look at this in terms of what I think is beneficial about it, but I’m also not going to give it a free pass. What is beneficial about it is what was beneficial and remains beneficial about the Doomsday Clock that has been maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since the 1940s. There is real value in some sort of a public measure of imminent existential risk. There’s real value in that being very direct and very easily understandable, the same way that the warming stripes that were featured on the cover of The Economist, this way in which to visualize warming trends, just as far as simplification goes, a climate scientist isn’t going to be able to do anything with it, but it can motivate the public. And that is really important. We’re in a state of triage right now, and we need to be thinking in terms of triage. But we also need to be thinking beyond triage because if we continue to think just in terms of triage, we’re never going to get past it. So where I object to the climate clock in terms of that being, all that there is for that being, what we’re really focusing on is that I think that it doesn’t, it doesn’t open conversation, but rather directs decision. We definitely need to be directed. Activism is really important right now, and it is a mechanism for activism. But as important as activism is thoughtfulness, is the ability to understand, and especially a capacity for what is sometimes referred to as intellectual humility. I think that we need equally to develop that capacity first, for a number of reasons. One reason is, I think that a mechanism such as the climate clock or the warming stripes, that these bring too great a sense of certainty, and in their oversimplification, they short circuit the uncertainties that we need to be aware of in order to really understand the complexity of the problem. But more important than that, it doesn’t work, ultimately, within the context of a democracy of collective self-determination. We need the capacity to think, and we need to be prompted in ways activated in ways to think collectively, to think in a way that only philosophy. And I’m not talking about Western philosophy or Eastern philosophy. I’m not talking about philosophy in academia versus outside of academia, but philosophy, just in terms of love of knowledge, that sort of that impulse. I think that that is where we need to be going and that can be present at the same time that we can have our climate clock and we can have our doomsday clock and we can have our warming stripes and all the rest.

(00:41:39) – Forrest

I see the value, like you’re saying in the climate clock, but it does seem to kind of be ignoring the underlying problem, which I feel like is what the River Time Project gets at, which, as we were saying earlier, again, like the commodification or the industrialization of time. So I mean, like we always think in terms of ticking clock, of running out of time, and like, especially in the United States, like we’re very driven by schedules and we like to be very punctual. But I feel like just putting, like, a concrete number on it, like that like we have exactly ten years to save the planet or whatever the messaging is. That is an oversimplification in many ways. And I think what the River Time Project does is that it gets people just to think differently about time. And part of that is being more in tune with the so-called natural world, even though we’re part of the natural world. But in a huge way, I think we’ve lost that sense, and that seems to kind of be emblematic in things like the climate clock. So it’s interesting.

(00:42:45) – Jonathon

Well, I think that it’s also very interesting. As I’m sure you’ve seen, there is just in the past few days a report that has come out from the United Nations that finally the people studying climate and the people studying biodiversity realize that oh, actually, we’re talking about the same problem! I think I was flabbergasted by that, even though I knew that that was the case, because conversations I’ve been hearing this and one of the conversations I’ve been having with Earth Law Center, where I’m really trying to develop a lot of these at a conceptual level, and also a lot of these ideas I’m trying to develop at the level of how we can bring about real, real world action in terms of rethinking jurisprudence, rethinking ecosystems and legislation. But one of the conversations that we’ve been having has been around funding. Inevitably, that’s what happens when you’re an NGO and trying to figure out how do you get—in their case, their focus comes from rights of nature, but is more broadly Earth Law—which is to say that it is very much about living systems. And there’s a lot of funding for climate change, a lot of funding for climate change, as far as funding to try to change the climate, which is funding going to Chevron, but maybe not Exxon so much anymore, we’ll see about that. But there’s also the, there’s a way in which climate change seems to have captured the public imagination and in particular been relatively, I don’t know whether’s been safe territory, but for some reason, it seems like a lot of the philanthropy has been going to addressing climate change, but in a way that has been ignoring all of the inter connectivity.

(00:45:14) – Forrest

Like geoengineering.

(00:45:17) – Jonathon

Yeah. Well, like geo engineering, like just saying that we are, we’re trying to address the environment and environmental problems with alternative energy. I’m happy to get into the question of geoengineering with you, but I think we can be even much more banal here and say, “Okay, the the Biden administration is generally well-meaning in terms of recognizing there’s environmental devastation and something we’ve done about it.” But for the most part, the response is, “Let’s make more wind farms!” And that is not going to do it. That is going to help to some extent with also some hindrance. And I think that one of the great things about this UN report is that at least it starts a conversation in a very public way that has been happening in back rooms for a long time to do with “What are the relative gains and losses when you start to look at loss to biodiversity in an effort to, for instance, make more pellets for pellet stoves?” And all of these really complex trade offs, we need to be talking about those. But I think that just the fact that for the most part, when you look at a relatively well meaning US government, or at least saintly by comparison to the one that came previously, you’re still talking about something that is really short-sighted, I think, and really narrow-minded.

(00:47:08) – Forrest

Yeah. I mean, it kind of just is getting at the whole problem of the system is broken, not the way that we run the system is broken, necessarily. I will have people like my mom, for instance, ask me, “So what do we need to do? Should more people drive electric cars?” And I’m like “More people should just not have cars.” That’s really more of the problem are things like that. It’s not—building more wind farms is not going to save the world. Doing one thing, period, can’t save the world, so to speak, which is kind of a weird expression in itself. But I think it’s just—like looking at all these things really just lays bare kind of how entirely unsustainable modern life is.

(00:47:58) – Jonathon

So a lot of the work I’m doing with Earth Law Center really is about how do we go past climate change? And if we are able to address that, then all problems are solved. We go past rights of nature and past the implicit appeal to biodiversity that you find within a rights of nature philosophy to the implications. And those implications are, like everything, systemic. So right now I’m starting to work on a project with a number of partners, but in particular, right now, working with the University of Southern California on a first stage of this, where the proposition is that we need to enfranchise other species in democratic decision making.

(00:49:11) – Forrest

Yeah, totally.

(00:49:12) – Jonathon

Because all life ultimately is implicated in the decisions that get made, and also because other life has access to other stimuli or, in other words, the perceptual range, when we start to look at all life on Earth, as well as the—I’ll use the word cognitive as shorthand here, or the word intelligence as shorthand, but—the ability to process what is knowable through different modes of perception, the perception itself, and the processing of what is perceived. This is really essential in terms of how we can solve or address, even, the biggest problems of our time, which are these incredibly complex, systemic question. So basically, enfranchising other species is right as a matter of recognizing that we’re not special, that we’re not separate from nature, and not only is it right, but it just also happens to be what we need in order to be able to make decisions that are good decisions for us. And so in order to enfranchise other species, well, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious how to do that. In the United States, we have this Constitution that is a couple hundred years old, and there are certain aspects that really would make that difficult, though there are other places, and we’re already starting a conversation, for instance, in Chile, which is they’re re-writing their Constitution. So there’s a lot of opportunity there. But there are ways in which, in the shorter term, to take these ideas and bring about real world action. So in the longer term, the basic idea that I’ve been working with is that we can understand what we’re doing when we go to the polls in a way that wouldn’t require that we anthropomorphize other species and say that, you could take your cat to the polls. Wouldn’t that be adorable? But we can actually have something meaningful happen. So one really—again, an oversimplification as a starting point. But this oversimplication that I have been working with as a starting point is that basically what we are doing is, we are responding to conditions, to the environment, in a way that we can change that environment through the policy that gets made through this mechanism that is our government, and that we are changing the state of the government from stasis toward change, or vice versa, in terms of the very general activity of the government and of governance, and that that could be potentially a matter of whether our stress level is increasing or decreasing as a result of the policy as it currently stands. So, in other words, basically, democracy approximated evolution in certain ways even before Evolutionary Theory had been articulated. And we can actually, then, back into that again by seeing democracy as evolutionary, where we can use stress measurement as a way in which to be able not only for humans but for any other species, also to enfranchise other species in that process of democratic decision making. So starting with—since we’re less than one percent—starting with the majority. In terms of biomass, that would be plants, more than 80 percent by some measures, starting with plants, how would you do this? Well, plants have hormones, stress hormones, that they emit in response to environmental conditions.

(00:53:36) – Forrest

Okay, I see what you’re saying.

(00:53:39) – Jonathon

So, for instance, when attacked by aphids, they’ll result in a plant making toxins that are expensive to make in the sense that that requires resources. So the plant does not want to be making those toxins all the time.

(00:53:59) – Forrest


(00:54:00) – Jonathon

So in reaction, and in order to be able to do so elsewhere within the plant, because a plant not have a centralized nervous system, it seems that the most efficient way in which to do so is where the plant is being attacked by the aphids. There is a reaction, the production of these toxins that happens in tandem with the production of ethylene, a gas that operates hormonally for the plant where that is detectable by the plant. So the plant is basically talking to itself in some way, and in so doing, is able to coordinate a defense. This gets into a whole area biology that I think we should probably avoid for the sake of this conversation, but as shorthand that there is the possibility of, “Okay, what if we start to look at, at scale a measurement of phytohormones?” And so I’ve been starting to develop with scientists, to just a very first approximation, how that might work as a matter of measurement of volatiles, for instance in a forest canopy. But in tandem with that, to say, “Okay, what can we do right now?” Well, and this is the work that I’ve been starting to develop with USC, what we can do right now, because we can’t change the Constitution, just you and me, as nice as that might be. We can, however, start our own Gallup, our own polling service, and it can be a polling service where we are polling the political position of other species.

(00:55:46) – Forrest

Okay, cool.

(00:55:48) – Jonathon

We can do so with sophisticated equipment. Measuring ethylene is non-trivial. I’ve been working on that with a number of people trying to figure out a way in which to make it trivial, one of the more outlandish ideas being that ethylene also is involved in the ripening of fruit, probably for reasons to do with how stress and ripening are related processes. But what if we were to take bananas and use bananas as cheap ethylene sensors? Basically, is a banana ripening more rapidly now in proximity to that plant than it was a couple of months ago? Well, if it’s ripening more rapidly now, then the ethylene being produced by the plant is increasing, therefore, there’s clearly a vote for change. So, up with bananas, Dole is really happy, probably some environmental devastation that goes into all of that, but really where our thinking right now is, what I’ve been developing with USC and where I’m starting to now—so I’m a research associate at the University of Arizona at the desert laboratory, and they are particularly strong in terms of phenology, in terms of studying phenology, plant phenology. So I’ve been looking at plant phonology as a way in which to address this. So, for instance, when a plant flowers earlier in the season versus later, that is a proxy measure, at least, for increase in stress. Plants, whether it’s causal or not, and the nature of causality is a separate conversation, but you can, as a correlation, you can say that there’s a correlation between increase in stress and earlier blooming. Well, having that sort of observation at scale becomes quite feasible. And it becomes really interesting when you start to think about people as citizen pollsters. What happens when you have a Gallup for plants is, first of all, you can suddenly start to publicize that, and plants can, for instance, issue political endorsements. But in order to really compound the effect, what I think is required is not only for the sort of visualizations, a sort of presence of the state of the stress level of plants in our lives, and the interpretation of that, mapping that on to policy and policy changes in ways that can inform what policies we support, that also, we need to, to reinforce this sense of awareness of the environment. And the citizen pollster can do this, meaning making everybody a citizen pollster, making it easy, making it interesting for people. We have this phenomenon that’s referred to as plant blindness. How do we overcome plant blindness? That seems like it goes a long way toward starting to bring about something that’s equivalent in some ways to what I’m trying to achieve through time. How do we build awareness of the environment through a vernacular that we all are familiar with? Time—how can that tell us we are aware of the changing flow of a river and therefore, peak flow as a phenomenon for glaciers, for instance. Likewise, how can we bring about a general awareness of the stress state and therefore effectively, how do we create an intercom system for Gaia? How do we get past—because hormonal levels are really largely responsible for our own internal state as individual humans, how do we, how do we extend that out into the environment? And how do we make that manifest in a way that people are affected by it? There’s a phenomenon known as xenohormesis that’s really interesting, which is, when some species are able to detect changes in stress hormones of others and are able to respond on that basis. How do we, as humans, discover or maybe rediscover our capacity for xenohormesis? How do we build a system—ultimately, rebuild the whole thing? But as a starting point for what we can do right now, how do we build the awareness that leads to policy that actually is enlisting the full intelligence of the environment? And also, that is building the respect for other species and living systems that can lead to the political will to make those bigger commitments to change.

(01:00:44) – Forrest

Yeah. All very important things to think about. And it makes me think of the US Poet Laureate, actually, Joy Harjo. She’s got—I think her latest poetry collection is An American Sunrise. But there’s a poem that I really like called “Tobacco Origin Story,” and she talks a lot in it about how we’ve forgotten how to hear the songs of plants. And that’s like a really common refrain in that poem. And it sounds a lot like what you’re talking about with learning how to, I guess, kind of measure stress hormones in plants. It’s almost like how to talk to plants or how to listen to plants. And you said, how do we learn or perhaps relearn how to do that? I feel like, especially among, like, what I’ve read about a lot of Indigenous cultures, it seems like a lot of Indigenous cultures do kind of have a sense for that to some degree, in some way, maybe not in, like, as exact of scientific terms, as what we’re talking about here, but there does seem to be a lot more intuition there.

(01:01:48) – Jonathon

I would say that it actually is, in terms of if we’re going to talk about science in terms of a method that goes back to Roger Bacon, and we can find differences. But if we’re going to talk about science in terms of predictive capacity in terms of what science does, it is really remarkable. And so you have right now, for instance, the Karuk tribe here in Northern California, has been doing extraordinary work on what is deep knowledge within the tribe, putting it down on paper as a way in which to be able to—certainly fire management is one of the more obvious ways in which this is happening—but in all ways that you can imagine. And so this idea that ecology has an indicator species is something that the Karuk have as a matter of practice, going back unbroken over millennia. And so there’s now a really interesting collaboration taking place, for instance, where they are working within and with universities to try to expand this and also to make it more accessible to more people. But I think that what Joy Harjo is doing—and her poetry is truly extraordinary—it’s equally important what she is doing, because she is doing this work in a way that is making it intuitive. So within ecology you have, for instance, the principle of kincentric ecology, which comes from Indigenous systems and has gained some traction, though not nearly enough, very little within mainstream ecology. In other words, within the University system. But basically, it’s a lot of what you at least hear echoes of in Joy Harjo’s poetry is a sense of, these other beings are our kin, and we are in a familial relationship, which has to do with how you tend the land, but also has a lot to do with how you understand the landscape and how you understand yourself within it. And I don’t want to try to talk over her because her poetry does this far better than I’m able to do in terms of my attempt at putting together a bunch of different thoughts in rather extemporaneous and a somewhat sloppy way. But I do think that reading the report that has recently been issued by the Karuk, reading Joy Harjo’s poetry—these are ways into a lot of the sort of thinking. And Enrique Salmon is the name of the author of the first academic paper that I’m aware of to extensively and comprehensively address kincentric ecology. And he is an Indigenous scholar who has really—this was maybe about 20 years ago—but he really did some important work in terms of making that knowledge and that worldview accessible to a scientific mindset. I think that that conversation is a conversation that really needs to be taking place.

(01:06:11) – Forrest

Yeah, I agree. I’m reading another book right now, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and that’s a lot of what the book is, I think. She is a scientist. I don’t know the technical term for it, but she studies moss, essentially. But a lot of the book is just about Indigenous wisdom, Indigenous ways of doing things, and the ways that science kind of weave into that, or I guess Western science is what I’m talking about. But, yeah, it’s funny how you said, like, maybe there’s, like, two different ways of thinking about science in terms of, like, if we’re going back to a strict textbook definition, perhaps, or maybe if we’re thinking about science as a capacity for being able to predict things. There was—one of the chapters I just read is all about a study that one of her students did studying different ways of harvesting sweetgrass. And when she presented this to the thesis committee, they kind of scoffed. And they were like, “Well, of course, like, harvesting any kind of plant matter from nature is going to harm an ecosystem. This seems like a stupid study to do.” Basically, like, this isn’t really going to contribute anything to the body of scientific knowledge. But what she found after she did the study, after she convinced them to give her permission, is that actually harvesting the sweetgrass in the ways that these Indigenous communities in upstate New York were doing actually contributes to the ecosystems’ flourishing. And when you don’t harvest it, it actually withers and it goes away.

(01:07:53) – Jonathon

I just can’t understand how this is difficult for people to understand.

(01:08:00) – Forrest

I know.

(01:08:01) – Jonathon

And the reason is, going right back to where we were earlier in the conversation. The reason most fundamental reason—well, okay. So we can talk about colonialism, we can talk about politically speaking, and the de-legitimizing of other ways of knowing, tradition as a product of knowledge, all of that. Okay. So that’s definitely one conversation that’s important to have. But also it is this idea of humans being separate from nature. So if you understand that the sweetgrass didn’t evolve on its own, separate of the humans who had been in a symbiotic relationship with it over that long span of time.

(01:08:58) – Forrest

Like thousands of years.

(01:08:59) – Jonathon

Rather that it was a co-evolutionary process, then it becomes absolutely obvious that there needs to be a—that that connection needs to be sustained.

(01:09:13) – Forrest

Right. And that was a big point of what she was trying to get at is that, she was just saying, it was so telling, like, seeing the committee’s reaction to her proposal for the study. Because they said, “Of course, if you harvest it, it’s going to harm it.” She was like, it’s just such a prime example of humans thinking that we’re somehow separate from nature or above it in some way, when really, like—we talk about things like, like environmental restoration, people will talk about, like buffalo, for instance, out on the plains, and how actually reintroducing buffalo and restoring that population actually is good for the grasslands, and it actually contributes to a thriving ecosystem. She’s like, but we don’t ever think of that with humans. Like a lot of people, especially, simply speaking, like a Western, industrialized kind of society, we can only imagine us having a destructive relationship with nature. And the study that the student did kind of turns that all on its head, which I thought was just so interesting.

(01:10:21) – Jonathon

And we weren’t thinking about that with buffalo long ago, either. I mean, that’s a relatively new way of, again, a very old way of thinking.

(01:10:35) – Forrest


(01:10:36) – Jonathon

This process of resurfacing, or really just of listening. It’s kind of, science vaunts observation. And yet the kinds of observation that are methodologically, habitual, or even permissible, within the sciences often leave out a lot of what might be observed and who might be observed and whose observations count in terms of what makes knowledge. And I’ve been particularly interested recently in how we can expand ecology to include other species. I think that there is a tendency for us to think that we are studying the environment, that we’re studying these other species, and that’s what ecologists do. But I think that it is absolutely valid and actually really important to recognize that these other species also are ecologists and that they are studying the environment in which they live as well, and that their ability to do so, and to do so well, is actually, has been essential to their survival. And that their way of, their ways of sensing and their ways of processing what they sent. And this is at a sort of micro scale, perhaps what I’m getting at when I talk about democracy involving all species. I think that level of doing science, that thinking about the plant that you would typically say, “I’m studying that plant.” Well, no, that plant is actually, should be a co-PI, a co-investigator. And we should think about how we can, in terms of our publication, co-publish with other species and with living systems. And that also then means, how do we—how do we create an open system in terms of our publication? There’s been some begrudging movement on the part of the scientific journals toward opening publication such that you don’t have to spend $10,000 in order to have the privilege to read the paper that was published based on funds that came, I hate to say it, from taxpayer dollars. But it did! But how do we, how do we think about opening up the process such that other species also can access the results of the research that they participated in? In other words, what sorts of language actually would not preclude, and what sorts of manifestation of these results from research would not preclude other species from benefiting from them? Because if you think about it, we’re benefiting greatly from what that plant is sensing. Taking, for instance, as a really easy example here, an indicator species. So an ecologist studies an indicator species that is indicative in terms of what you can observe about it, indicative of larger changes in the environment. But in fact, that plant, that indicator species, is not just observed—it also is an observer. And it is an observer in the sense that it is also a scientist. It is also an ecologist. And therefore is contributing intellectually to the research as well. So if we recognize that, then, first of all, it’s the beginning of getting away from our hubris and the beginning of getting out of this sort of us-versus-them way of thinking of the world. But also that indicator species would perhaps benefit from the knowledge that, that it is helping to generate in a way that is in relation to what we’re doing as scientists. So if we’re co-investigators, we should be sharing our results. And this results, potentially, in a new way of doing science that actually turns into a new level of symbiosis. And that new level of symbiosis can potentially be symbiosis at a rate that can accommodate climate change in a changing environment. Because the thing is that evolutionary processes, if you’re a bacterium, you’re in relatively good shape. The horizontal gene transfer, which is, I think, actually a really good model for writing a property law. But that’s another matter. I think that when we’re looking at most species, their rate of evolution is far slower than the rate of change in the world right now and in times because industrialization occupies such a short span of time relative to the time that their evolutionary processes in their own right, that those processes evolve. So we therefore need to think about what are some of the other ways in which adaptation takes place? And one of those is you go to Monsanto. Another one is that you think about symbiosis. Symbiosis, in fact, kind of a rapid prototyping in nature, of adaptation. So therefore, if we start thinking about symbiosis with humans in the symbiotic equation, and if we think about one of the symbiotic activities being the activity of symbiotic science—science as a form of symbiosis—that can be potentially profound.

(01:17:12) – Forrest

Yeah. That would be huge, I think, if we were able to do that

(01:17:16) – Jonathon

Well I don’t think it’s that hard! So I’m working right now with Antenna with a journal that is a, an art and ecology journal, starting to prototype, what would a scientific journal look like that was a journal that was accessible to other life forms and other living systems? And so I think that one way to think about that is in terms of how life and living systems are already not only doing science in terms of the observational aspect, but also doing science in terms of the publication. And here, if you look at the way in which, for instance, a river inscribes its history in the land, in terms of meander, it is in effect, is a sort of publication, and the publication is, in effect, a way in which the river is able to learn from its own path. So what if we start to think about publication in the land instead of on paper? What if we have a scientific journal where we have an atlas, and the atlas has the abstracts for bringing you out to these landscapes where, in fact, the science is taking place, and where the science is being published, co-published, by us with other species. So this is a new way in which to think about scientific publication that can be a leading into a new way of doing science that can then get us past certain…so, the human mind obviously evolved in very specific conditions, and there are heuristics that were very good for those conditions that don’t necessarily work in conditions where we currently live, and certainly in the conditions that we have created. So essentially, only if we have this sort of broadening of epistemology,, or a sort of epistemic diversity that goes along with biodiversity, only then do we have any chance of being able to get past these sort of evolved blind spots and to be able to generate knowledge at the rate of, because of the symbiosis, but also at the intelligence of the environment itself, the whole ecosystem can evolve in ways that is generating its own knowledge, and that is acting on it in which we are fully integrated into it. And that gets us into a rather different system than we’re living in today.

(01:20:08) – Forrest

Yeah. Do you think that going back to the River Time Project a little bit, do you see that, I guess, creating a clock based on the flow and meander of a river, is that a form of publication, you would say? It seems like kind of a form of communicating back and forth.

(01:20:24) – Jonathon

Absolutely. By all means, the river is engaged in some sort of publication. However, that publication is a publication or broadcast, perhaps, that for which we are the recipients.

(01:20:46) – Forrest


(01:20:46) – Jonathon

Clearly, it needs to go beyond that. Clearly, there needs to be cross-communication and there needs to be a genuine sharing, and that sharing potentially becomes between rivers and trees. They already are doing so within a small radius, because a riparian system, basically, is doing something along those lines. However, we’re looking at, through globalization, we’re looking at an environment where a decision made here has an effect on another continent. So how does publication, where every species is constantly publishing within an ecosystem, where the ecosystem is at a scale of change that these species evolved in, how do we, then, go from that to this expanded ecosystem that humans have created that all other species are ultimately implicated in?

(01:21:48) – Forrest

Yeah. That’s another huge thing. I read somewhere recently that, this was talking about plastic, but the author said that every day people make thousand-year decisions. We don’t even really think about it that much. But, I mean, if you go to Starbucks, for instance, and you get, like, your iced coffee or whatever, it comes in a plastic cup and, you know, since 90 percent plastic is never recycled, and on top of that, like, what good does recycling plastic really do anyway? I mean, that’s not really going to decompose for thousands of years, if it ever does, since plastic tends to just break down into smaller particles. But that’s just such a huge disconnect that we have—and a huge part of that is just that we have these systems in place that don’t give us a lot of choices and what we can do with that. But that’s a massive issue is that we have such huge impacts on the environment through seemingly harmless actions. And thinking, too, there is—I saw, I think, on Instagram of all places, actually—there’s this organization in Nashville—I used to live in Nashville, Tennessee—called Tennessee River Keeper. And they shared a visualization, it was, I guess, a website you could go to where you could see how long it takes water from Tennessee, what impact that has on the I guess, overall watershed. If you put pollutants into a river in Tennessee, where does that end up in a couple of weeks or whatever? And it was showing how dumping huge amounts of fertilizer into, like, water systems, which we’re doing at an alarming rate, is creating this huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Which, I think, is another kind of thing that might be up your alley in terms of what you’re doing with the River Time Project. But, yeah, I don’t know, just made me think of that.

(01:23:48) – Jonathon

Yeah. I think that it’s really important to recognize the implications of our actions that may be beyond our evolved capacity to understand in our own heads. However, I would say that when we start to think about extended cognition, that is to say when we think about cognition as being something that is not only in our heads but also is out in the world, and that it also is distributed, and it also involves others, that we can start to really enact that as a basis for being able to understand what we’re doing. And that requires a very different sort of, a different set of hierarchical foundations, I guess, in terms of the hierarchy of our head and what happens inside our head and ultimately what happens literally and figuratively downriver. How do we start to think about what’s happening downriver as being part of our distributed cognition? And how do we think about the collective cognition that is manifested, for instance, in schools of fish, in terms of their behavior, how do we enter into it? How do we, how do we create a trans-species collective cognition that is intentional and that is constantly manifested in terms of the decisions that we make? I think that when we take this idea of embodied cognition, we take this extended cognition, we take this global view of it, and we start to then feed it back into our decision making, that we might be able to make decisions at the scale of the consequences of our actions.

(01:25:59) – Forrest

Yeah, that makes me curious. I feel like we’ve been talking about how we can learn from the publication, so to speak, of nature. That kind of makes me wonder how we might, then, I guess, enter into communication with nature, as it were, in response to that. Do you get what I’m asking?

(01:26:26) – Jonathon

We certainly are already. I think we are sending a lot of, we’re sending a lot of signals inadvertently, unintentionally that natural systems are very attentive to. Often the signal is sufficient to kill them, which is a problem. But also, I think that there’s a lot that we may not think that we’re disclosing that we are, but there is, I think, more generally, if you start to understand or start to think about cognition in this distributed way, then the cognitive system of planet Earth itself involves all of those pathways and all of the transportation of different chemicals and the effects that has and the effects of those effects. And to be able to, in any way grapple with that, of course, within one’s own head, is difficult, to say the least, and quite possibly impossible. And the impossibility of it leads us back, I think, to intellectual humility as being really an essential attribute that we need to cultivate. But we can certainly also just take any given instance of it. Recognizing that we’re being reductionist. I think that there is great value in, I think there’s great value in committing various sins of the sort that reductionism is, as long as we’re doing so intentionally, in the same way that apophenia, for instance, the recognition of a pattern of a signal in noise or the mistaken detection of a signal in noise. So astrology is a classic example of this, where you’re taking what you’re seeing in the stars and you are extrapolating from that some sort of predictive value. And it is possible, and I am agnostic on all things, including astrology. It is possible that this is valid and this is valid for reasons to do with one or more gods that are somehow involved in it. I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. But apophenia is rightly denigrated for the fact that it can lead to some very poor decisions and it can lead to some certainties that are unwarranted. But applied apophenia actually can be very valuable. That is to say that when we recognize that that’s what we’re doing, we do it intentionally, when we do it in order to be able to open up the possibility space, and here I’m getting back to experimental philosophy as a practice, I’m getting back to how do we generate hypotheses that we then can experiment on? Generating hypotheses is, it isn’t easy to think of counterfactuals that are really deep counterfactuals. And one way in which to do so is serendipitously, or to do so through a detection. Well, it’s, we’re seeing it in the stars, we’re seeing it in the tea leaves. The randomness can actually lead to a false recognition that can be used as a basis, then, for a real experiment.

(01:30:01) – Forrest


(01:30:02) – Jonathon

I’m advocating also reductionism in an equivalent way that it can be helpful to us as long as we recognize that we’re being reductionist. But to bring this back around to time. I’m particularly interested in a lot of these questions to do with fertilizers, which is where you came from as far as this was concerned, because of the fact that there is a way, once again, to think about that in terms of time, and again, to be reductionist intentionally, and to acknowledge that reductionism here, but to say then, okay, “So what’s going on?” Amongst other things, one that I think is really pertinent is that fertilizer is partly comprehensible in terms of time, effectively a fertile… artificial fertilizers are accelerating certain processes, growth processes in plants. They’re in various ways accelerating aspects of ecosystem, and often accelerating them to the point that they exhaust themselves, because that is something that is not really involved in a way that can sustain itself. I think that we, therefore, need to look at that problem in terms of time itself. In terms of how we understand time in relation to natural systems and the abuse of various other life forms and living systems that happens through various materials, various activities. But they can be construed through time, and that thinking about, in terms of rights of nature, putting that framework on it. What would it mean to say that there’s a right of nature to live at its own pace? That life has a right to live at its own pace.

(01:32:32) – Forrest


(01:32:33) – Jonathon

And to to enshrine that in law? Well, it’s just folksy enough that I could picture, I can almost hear Joe Biden saying it. Because it’s an important thing that I think people can get behind, but that has really big implications, because it then reaches into all these territories, literally and figuratively, because suddenly when you start thinking about chronodiversity as being essential to biodiversity and vice versa, and having real value in terms of the sustainability of an ecosystem and also just in terms of its own legitimacy, its own rights. And then you start to build on that, that those rights need to be recognized, then that has these policy implications that lead to a change that is potentially systemic when it is applied globally. And is applied with the rigor that I’m calling for, that suddenly there are a lot of downriver again, to use an appropriate metaphor here, perhaps, downriver effects. And those are effects that don’t necessarily seem present when you start with the proposition that I have. For me, coming all the way back around, trying to bring you to a natural ending here. For me, one of the ways in which the projects in relation to time have been so interesting. Yeah, they are thought experiments, but they’re thought experiments that also, in addition to the specific conditions that I am experimenting with, that at that broader level, lead to other thought experiments that are well outside of what you think about when you think about clocks and time and that ultimately activate thought-experimentation as a mode of being in the world that perhaps has the potential, the capacity, to bring us to a systemic change that is at the scale that you’ve been alluding to earlier. It goes well beyond simply deciding whether to have an iced coffee or not, or whether to vote for the Republicans or the Democrats this cycle. So, I think that we need to, we need that to bring about that sort of thought experimentation, we all need to become experimental philosophers. And where we end up, as a result of making that move is in no way something that I think we can predict or even imagine right now. Because when I started working with time, it was with the Redwood trees and it was an invitation to go and to give a talk at the College of the Redwoods, in thinking about Redwood trees and their growth and thinking about what if we put a spiral of stones around it? It was just a really simple gesture. And here we are. And this was 15 years ago or so. And here I am still trying to bring this about in the world. But here we are having a conversation about chronodiversity and all these ideas that came about just as a result of following these conversations in new directions. So that maybe is where I’ll leave it, is to say that we should all become experimental philosophers and we should all have a reunion here on your podcast in order to be able to discuss our findings.

(01:36:09) – Forrest

Yeah, let’s do it whenever that happens.

(01:36:11) – Jonathon

And other species.

(01:36:13) – Forrest

Yeah, we’ll invite the cats and some of the trees too. Yeah. Alright. Cool. Well, really quick, before we end, I was going to ask, for anyone listening who wants to keep up with your work, where might be a good place for them to do that?

(01:36:27) – Jonathon

Well, that’s always challenging. Google. It is perhaps the best.

(01:36:33) – Forrest

Just Google you?

(01:36:34) – Jonathon

The Atlanta River Time Project is being run through Flux Projects, so that would be a good way to keep up with that. Other projects are happening through other venues all around the world.

(01:36:48) – Forrest

Okay, just Google “Jonathon Keats.”

(01:36:53) – Jonathon

And you tell me what I’m doing because I never know where I’ll be tomorrow, let alone next week.

(01:36:58) – Forrest

Okay, cool. Got it. Well, we’ll leave it there. Jonathon, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really, really enjoyed getting to talk to you. This was great.

(01:37:07) – Jonathon

Thank you. Really enjoyed it as well.

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