This essay will appear in Connectedness – an Incomplete Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, edited by Sidsel Kjaerulff Rasmussen and Marianne Krogh and published later in 2020 by Strandberg Publishing, Denmark.
“We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.” So said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in October 2006 in an open joint letter with his Dutch counterpart, Jan Peter Balkenende, to fellow EU leaders. We are now nearly 15 years on from 2006 and many commentators might say Blair was prescient. The steps have not been taken, they would say, and the planet is indeed about to cross catastrophic tipping points.
On the other hand, whilst Blair’s window has now virtually closed, other windows seem to have opened up. As reported in National Geographic in March 2019, “A new scientific analysis of millions of possible climate futures found only a narrow window to keeping global warming to levels the international community has deemed safe.” This ‘narrow window’ is in fact the forthcoming decade of the 2020s. Some public voices have used the IPCC’s 2018 special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C to create a new ‘window of opportunity’ to limit global warming, one that will close in 2030 if global emissions of greenhouse gases are not halved by then.
And this seems to be the problem with the metaphor of windows of opportunity as applied to climate change. They open and they close. And new ones are invented with different vistas, timeframes and opportunities. I wonder what Blair would do today now that his 10-15 year ‘window of opportunity’ has closed? Look for a different window or give up on opportunities altogether? This too is the problem with the linked metaphor of ticking clocks. There are several climate clocks that are now ticking, second by second, to some presumed end date after which it will be ‘too late’.
A window is something one usually looks through, whether looking out or looking in. Windows create a separation between a here and a there, but at the same time a transparency between these two created worlds. A window therefore offers up the imaginative possibility of being in a different place to where one currently is. The root meaning of the Old Norse word ‘window’ is, literally, a ‘wind-eye’ or an ‘eye-hole’. One’s eye, and hence one’s mind and being, can be transported, tantalisingly, through the window into a different world.
So what then is a window of opportunity? Is it an open, shuttered or triple-glazed window? An opportunity to change one’s actions or one’s position in the world, or indeed to ‘step-through’ the window and change that world? Can we think of the Anthropocene as a window of opportunity? I want to explore briefly two ways in which we might frame this metaphor of a window of opportunity: acting within a definitive timeframe versus acting in an appropriate way. I will suggest that whilst the idea of climate crisis might suggest the former, the idea of the Anthropocene points us much more toward the latter.
Acting in a definitive timeframe
People often use the phrase window of opportunity, or critical window, to describe a period or unit of time during which an opportunity must be seized to achieve some desired outcome, or else lost (perhaps forever). The association here is that of a window that opens for a while and then closes. It highlights the fleeting nature of opportunity, where timing is everything. Acting too early might be as bad as acting too late. Once this period is over, once the window has closed, the specified outcome is no longer possible. Thus there was a launch window for the Apollo space rockets, and the unsettled weather in the English Channel in early June 1944 gave General Eisenhower a fleeting window of opportunity to launch the Allies’ invasion of Normandy.
Central to this reading is the urgency of some action. The ‘time window’ is limited; it will close, after which it will be too late. Carpe diem – seize the day. Act now. The American political scientist John W Kingdon introduced in the 1990s the term policy window. In his thinking, three streams had to converge on a specific time in order for policymaking to happen: problems, proposals and politics. When these streams were propitiously aligned, and only when, then a policy window opened up, an opportune time to enact a specific policy. When a policy window is recognized and is open, there is a potential for policymaking to happen. The associated idea of the policy entrepreneur captures the notion of an action leader who then takes advantage of these open windows.
This framing of windows is all about timing – urgency, action, now is the time, before it is too late. One might say we are in such a discursive moment right now with respect to climate change.
Seeing a different world of actions
But there is another way of thinking about windows of opportunity. Rather than thinking temporally we need to think imaginatively, windows not delineated by time but by an imagination. The window in this reading opens up a different world into which we can step. I suggest that we should think about the Anthropocene not as a temporally circumscribed opportunity—act now before it is too late. Rather, it is an invitation to see the world, and our actions in the world, differently. The window is much more about framing a view than it is about defining a time. It is about changing our ‘minds-eye’.
In political theory, the Overton Window refers to the range of policies that the public will accept at any one time. Its originator in the 1990s was Joseph P Overton, a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Policies falling outside the Overton Window are deemed to be out of step with public opinion and the current political climate. They are unimaginable. This is subtly different from Kingdon’s policy windows. For Kingdon, the window is the limited time within which one can act, not the scope of those actions; for Overton, the window defines the range of imaginable actions, not their timing.
This second framing of windows is all about the appropriateness of the action – what is imagineable, virtuous, appropriate and feasible. One might say then that the idea of the Anthropocene is changing the Overton Window, changing the range and nature of how humans think imaginatively about their actions in the world. The Anthropocene invites us not to end a crisis within a limited window of time, but to think differently about what virtuous human actions actually are.
Chronos and Kairos
The ancient Greeks had two words to designate time: chronos and kairos. The former refers to chronological or sequential time, a unit of time which had a beginning and an end. The latter signifies a proper or an opportune action that takes place in an ‘eternal now’. Early Christian theology developed a particular view of time as kairos. Discerning kairos for the Christian is a call for action–a conversion and transformation, a specific change of lifestyle and an orientation toward God. So acting, releases God’s moment of grace, his window of opportunity to bestow forgiveness.
Kairos implies a proper time to act or, rather, that there is always a proper action that we are called upon to make. It is always possible to act improperly within the chronos, but with kairos it is never too late to act properly. The difference is between a quantity of time within which one acts and the opportuneness of the present time to act in particular ways in the world. With kairos, time is not rationed. The right actions are always opportune.
Aaron Hess, professor of rhetoric at Arizona State University, thinks of kairos as capturing both timeliness and appropriateness: what is said or done must be appropriate to the moment. Combining these two aspects of kairos offer a more extensive understanding of a window of opportunity. It turns our focus as much, if not more, toward the propriety of the action than on being preoccupied by the limited ration of time available to us in which to act. There is in fact no limit to the time within which we should act appropriately. As for the Christian, the call to repentance–the kairos–is always now.
Inspired by kairos I contend that the Anthropocene encourages us to think carefully, ethically and creatively about the propriety of our actions in the world, about their virtue. It does not invite us to calculate the end point after which such actions are ineffective. The Anthropocene is not a crisis to be resolved through decisive action within a limited unit of time. The Anthropocene is offered to us as a description of a new condition of being human, an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the material world in which we are embedded, and about the conjoined future of the Anthropos and materiality.
The window of opportunity that is opened by the Anthropocene is captured much better by kairos than by chronos. The Anthropocene requires a commitment from us–a particular form of commitment–of being knowledgeable of and involved in the environment where the transformation is taking place. It is about seizing the opportune moment, appropriately. And, if one can do this, that moment is always now.
Mike Hulme, 21 November 2019