There was no future in the past: Time and the environment in rural Namibia

Michael Schnegg


To explain how Namibian pastoralists envision the future of the climate and the environment, I develop a phenomenological framework that uses objects and events (e.g., their livestock, people, drought) as entry points. When pastoralism structured most of people’s lives, things approached as rhythmic reiterations of the past. Therefore, some pastoralists say, there was no future in the past. By contrast, in the increasingly important capitalist domain, the subject experiences itself as moving in time towards objects, albeit different objects, such as money and success. With climatic change and increasing involvement in the market economy, pastoralism and the environment become more unclear. This changes the perception of time in the environmental domain. I describe the emerging temporality as an ascending spiral in which rhythms lose importance while a linearity towards a more open future gains saliency. Whereas the new future-making awakens potentialities, it also implies insecurities and stress.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/724733