Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time

As the second of three workshops (workshops one and three focus on Enchantment and Haunting) in our Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time series, this workshop asked what the perspective of deep time might bring to environmental humanities approaches to cosmic, planetary, intra-human and inter-species violence.

There is a one in 59,000 chance – give or take shifting orbital trajectories – that asteroid 2015PU228 will collide with the Earth in the year 2081. Heavy and fast-moving, PU228 was likely shunted into its present orbit by a collision several million years ago. According to the European Space Agency, the asteroid poses ‘no unusual level of danger’ – after all, the chances are 99.9983% that it will not hit Earth. Even so, PU228 reminds us that the Earth is not a closed system, but is vulnerable to cosmic events, thus drawing us into a deep time perspective. Yet deep time is not singular, and intersects with vulnerability and violence in multiple ways. The scale and speed of environmental change, for instance, as forests are cleared, hormones disrupted and food webs collapse, overwhelms the adaptive capacities of many nonhumans; we can see the unravelling of ancient Earthly biographies all around us. More broadly, the geo-social formations that cause and suffer climate violence are not evenly distributed, but follow sedimented lines of imperial, racial and other inequalities. Closely related, petro-violence proliferates as different groups – from corporate behemoths to apocalyptic jihadists – profit from fossilised stores of energy laid down in deep time. Current world disorders also interact with the deep time of viruses: the high mutation and replication rate of Ebola allows it to evolve extremely rapidly, while avian flu strains also evolve at increased rates in the bio-techno-cultural incubators of the globalised poultry industry. These and many other kinds of violent encounters with deep time provoke different responses, from fear to mourning, from turning away to impassioned intervention.

Keynote Lecture:

Dr Thom van Dooren (University of New South Wales): ‘The Unwelcome Crows: Hospitality in the Anthropocene’