HomeTime of nature, time of society, time of sciences in the age of global change

Time of nature, time of society, time of sciences in the age of global change

Temps de la nature, temps de la société, temps scientifique à l’heure du changement global

For a multidisciplinary approach to the crisis of temporality

Pour une approche interdisciplinaire de la crise de la temporalité

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Published on Friday, June 26, 2020 by Céline Guilleux


La revue Natures Sciences Sociétés, consacrée depuis sa fondation en 1993 aux recherches et aux débats sur l’interdisciplinarité, a pris l’initiative d’un appel à textes ambitieux sur la crise des temporalités. À l’heure du changement global, les temps des processus biophysiques, des mondes de l’action et de la recherche apparaissent singulièrement désaccordés, appelant une réflexion épistémologique de fond, à la fois interdisciplinaire et ouverte aux enjeux de l’implication des sciences dans la « grande transition ». Proposé en français et en anglais, l’appel à textes de NSS s’adresse à tous les chercheurs qui font l’expérience de cette crise et qui sont désireux de participer à une réflexion transversale sur les voies de son dépassement.


Guest Editors

  • Jacques Theys, politologue, président de l'association Serge Antoine, Paris, France
  • Pierre Cornu, historien des sciences, Université Lyon 3, Lyon, France


Scientific communities working on the junction between natural and social facts, embedded in global change by its intrinsic strength as well as by their own ethos, have encountered, in the last few decades, a new kind of crisis: that of temporality, fundamental dimen-sion of their research as well as of their relationship with action. But whatever the depth of a matrix crisis that pushes all sciences to a major reappraisal of the way they consider temporalities at work in their fields of inquiry, there are still too few researchers that allow themselves to question it.

In the field of environmental sciences, be they on the biophysical or the social side, one can observe, dating from the 1960’s at least, an exceptional flourishing of words and concepts manufactured in order to discuss the metamor-phosis of time. Various epistemic communities have rivaled for semantic inventiveness: cycles, evolution, stages; homeostasis, inertia, cumulative effects; growth, stabilisa-tion, de-growth; crisis, transition, mutation, catastrophe, collapsus, extinction; acceleration, emergency, countdown, irreversibility; new era, anthropocene, capitalocene and other rudolocenes; prevention, sustainability, inter-genera-tional justice, resilience; patrimonialisation, preservation, conservation, protection, transmission; the list is far from complete, and each of these words needs its own bibliographical and philological inquiry. Still, one cannot be satisfied solely with this lexical abundance, which expresses the cross-disciplinary aspect of temporality, but fails to hide the fragility of its updating into scientific regimes. Natural, social and political temporalities, whether at local, global or any intermediary relevant scale, still need to be efficiently coordinated.

That natural and social times be disconnected is certainly not new. Neither is the difficulty for scientific communities to mediate between their diverging legiti-macies. Since the academic debates of the 19th century between biblical and geological timescales, all scientific disciplines have had to build, for their own sake, chronological frames that are robust and pertinent enough to meet the needs of their objects of inquiry, ranging from climate studies to entomology. In the same way, the rise of applied forms of public or private action has produced well-elaborated temporal reference frames, from the temporality of building materials to the one of information systems or of public policies. 

All timescales take place within a general framework defined by its iso-normativity and its linearity. Only one science has produced during the 20th century true epistemological revolutions concerning the exploration of the temporalities of nature: namely physics, with the development of thermodynamics and quantum mecha-nics. But its propositions remained confined to the study of subatomic matters, hardly challenging the sciences of the sensory world.

The main trouble with the classical conception of time lies in its unlimited openness and linearity from a human point of view, knowing no bounds in the future, when the distinctive hallmark of our present crisis is precisely to make possible a “closed temporality”, with the thought that humans are running out of time. In otherwords, our human time could have an ending, characterised by strong discontinuities, either ecological, socio-economic, or geopolitical. 

The context of global change brings to light, in an earnest and anxiety inducing way, dire adjustment difficulties between ecological and other sub-systems relevant for humans. Temporalities in these sub-systems should be complementary, but prove to be more and more seriously detuned. The subsystem of what used to be called “nature”, now better defined as the “part of nature”, both biotic and abiotic, of our hybrid environments, is now out of kilter with contemporary socio-eco-systems driven by intentional actors, comprising individuals, organisations and institutions. The latter may pretend to pilot the natural systems, or at least to maintain their functional integrity. But degraded ecosystems, disrupted social dynamics, stochastic economic behaviours, falsely regulated mecha-nisms of machines and technical systems, and the darkening atmosphere of our post-Enlightenment age, all contribute to an increasingly instable context in which the figures of time are both broken and discordant. This temporal discordance engineers a crisis that could end up being existential.

The acceleration of global heating and climate change and its staggering effects highlight compellingly that the major environmental issue is not only to act with the best possible means, it is also – and maybe mostly – to act within time. History teaches us that past societies have often reacted belatedly to the challenge of a degrading environment, especially on issues linked to resources such as wood, water or soil fertility. Whatever the progress of sciences, technologies and governance skills, especially in the last half-century, our capacity to master and match temporalities is as defective, if not more, than societies from before the Prometheian age of industry. Hence, crisis management, after-the-fact thinking, “end-of-pipe” solutions, if not pure inanity, remain the central ways and means of our environmental policies. But this time, it does not happen solely in one given closed insular environment, but at the scale of the whole biosphere, falling in one piece into a closed temporality, in which panic and exhilaration, alternatively encouraged by self-intoxicated media and political organisations and leaders, seize and drive public opinions to their nothingness and nowhereness.

The question of temporality arises in a completely new kind of historical phase, metamorphic in the geological sense of the word, in which no single element of stability, be it material or immaterial, offers a landmark for evaluating what moves, changes or can end with chaos. Temporality is the most strongly and spectacularly impacted dimension of this unprecedented context. Under this new paradigm, the symptoms of loss of linearity leads to evidence-based causality being called into question, requestioning of determinism, and affirmation of plural, elastic, and relative conceptions of time among social actors and policy makers of the planetary macropolis. Indeed, one has to ponder the human ambition of mastering destiny: historical time, considered as the pathway to achieving the reign of Reason since the Age of Enlightenment, has become, since the middle of the 20th century, the stumbling block of every ideal of mastering over Nature, whose responses are getting more and more violent, unforeseeable, and disruptive. Physical systems – soils, water, climate – now give only brutal and erratic feedbacks to their would-be masters, be they individuals, organisations or institu-tions. Historians are used to claim that processes always find their actors. But the processes we are experiencing now do not find the actors’ ears, or find them all too well, leading to a deadly derealisation and trivialization of public debate and policy making generated by the economic and political elite, receding from the front of the “real world” into dogma and irrationality.

We must then reckon that the completion of the interconnection of all systems in the process of globalisa-tion, and the effects and feedbacks of human action on them, has produced a situation in which the tasks of thinking, of researching, and of taking action, can no longer seize a common object that we could call “temporality”. On the contrary, those tasks appear now to be strongly spurred to enter into synergy, in order to rethink, in the state of emergency that is the new normality, what is actually happening to temporality. In a context of eco-emergency, widespread anxiety, and loss of evidence of the indefinite continuity of historical time, be it called “global change” or “great transition”, new or renewed combinations of time representations, action regimes, and socio-eco-techno-systems, seem a call for a cross reappraisal. One cannot expect to find any more autonomous times for public policies, bioresources management and climate mitigation; but only one global “creased” or abrupt temporality which, for the first time, raises the question of the possibility of a brutal end to some “histories”, impacting whole parts of nature, human populations, and productive systems developed on the basis of the Neolithicisation of the world.

Through a critical assessment or the confrontation of the different conceptions of time and temporality among scientific disciplines and communities, as well as in governance systems, private or public, every dimension of our institutions – political, praxeological, ecological – appears to be under a serious and dire challenge. The same can be said for our ways of knowing and deciding, reckoning that we face a cognitive disruption that menaces our very understanding of the short-term evolving dynamics, the severances, the cumulative effects, emer-ging or entropic, of global change. Our statement may seem alarmist and cruel, but it is irrevocable: the scientific disciplines that struggled in the last third of the 20th century against the authority of the science of the classical age towin their epistemological autonomy and their right to define their own conception of temporality, have no other solution today than rethinking a convergence path, based not on political injunction, but on an overriding biophysical necessity. In an apparent paradox, it is the incommensurability of our present time that summons us to go beyond the incommensurabilities of the temporalities of life, techniques and society, both in their past and in their problematic present, still with the hope to give them a future.

In the light of those observations, taking the time to reconsider the temporalities in crisis of our present time seems the more relevant way to reform our global understanding of the forms of natural, techno-scientific and social objects in the global system, and to exert our responsibilities as researchers in spite of the so-called “post-truth era”, that has become one of the most painful symptoms of our psychotic temporality. It is an ethical imperative, across any epistemological relevance, commanded by the climatic crisis, the collapse in biodiversity, and the accelerating unravelling of the national and international institutions born in the industrial age, that prove painfully unable to ensure both efficiency and legitimacy in their governance of the necessary transitions to a sane world. For the Editorial Committee of Natures Sciences Sociétés, it is an even stronger imperative if possible, out of loyalty to the founding principles of the journal, set in the pioneering experiences that took place more than three decades ago in the field of environmental studies. Since then via the heuristic study of complex systems, it is for the Committee the most direct and crucial matter of epistemological consistency.

This call for papers stands in no comfortable position; but at the very crossroad between scientific, ecological and political issues, with the aim to support the creation there of a space-time open to methodical and responsible thinking, aiming at sharing hypotheses on the crisis of temporality and the ways of its possible solving. To that end, we shall explore three main paths.

1) Approaches of time in academic fields: the issue of their integration into multidisciplinary researches. From an archeology of scientific temporalities to their possible aggiornamento

Our first proposal aims at studying the way scientific disciplines and fields are called into question, and how temporality issues, be they epistemological or action-oriented, are seized by scientific communities, with a focus on the specific difficulties that arise from the practice of multi- or trans-disciplinarity. Moreover, we propose to observe, in a genetic perspective, the contexts in which different scientific disciplines were led to create new concepts linked to the temporalities of environmental issues and to retrace their genealogy, to follow the controversies linked to their unfolding, and to measure their performance, including that of their, mastered or not, translation processes from one field to another. Comparative or historical studies, encompassing several disciplines, would be particularly welcome, as well as case studies illustrating the difficulties met by researchers in multidisciplinary programmes aiming at articulating different conceptions of temporality, and the epistemological and methodological means in trying to overcome them. 

2) Temporality-shaping devices and collective action: tools, apparati, and assessment procedures for the integration of temporality in action regimes and environmental management, as between forecasting, prevention, sustainability, and transition planning 

The second path of exploration that we propose leads to the assessment of the way temporality is or is not efficiently integrated into action regimes and systems of actors associated to the management of environmental issues. Obviously, it deals with an immense field, with on the one hand analyses of life cycles of public policies, and on the other the different conceptions of “transition”, with “strategic” uses of temporality in decision-making as well as in policies implementation, the use of forecasting models and prospective analysis, and the assessment of the impact of, or the shortcomings of, the different tools, theoretical or experimental devices mobilised to try to take account of time-effects, such as discount rate, sustainable development, rights of future generations, etc.

Without trying to limit the scope, four categories of question deserve particular attention:

  • The critical assessment of the use of forecasting models and prospective analysis and their connection to scientific approaches in decision making.
  • The choice between possible temporal horizons in prospective models, and the question of the determi-nation of critical thresholds for action. How do scientists and other actors take into account the “time remaining for action”?
  • The implications of speaking of “adaptation” or of “transition”, considering the diversity of their defini-tions, the ways of their mobilisation in mainstream or dissenting politics, changes according to the region or country, and their relationship with other means of “framing” collective action in time (sustainability goals, ecological planification, etc.).
  • The assessment and the historical analysis of the failures and successes met in past attempts to frame collective action in temporality. Proposals could question, for instance, the causes of the failure of the concept of “sustainable development” to fulfil its initial ambition to assert inter-generational justice or, more specifically, focus on the limits of decision-making tool-kits, like discount rate or the prioritising of major irreversibilities.

3) Sciences, societies, and the crisis of temporality: what new avenues of research? Which role for the scientific disciplines that have the question of time as a central object, namely history, philosophy and prospective analysis?

Our third and last proposition starts from the idea that scientific and collective action-oriented tools are not the only objects at stake, but that we face a deep crisis of the representation of time, which calls for a serious effort of re-conceptualising temporality, as well as for new concep-tions of its relationship to society, nature, and politics.

In a situation which, quoting Francis Chateauraynaud, puts us “on the brink of the irreversible”, what is at stake is to report methodically on all the avenues of research that could allow for a better understanding of the transition process from an open and linear temporality to a closed and discontinued one, ennunciating potentially major disrup-tions of ecological as well as of social systems.

It is necessary to question the role played in this effort of re-conceptualising the framework of temporalities by the disciplines having time for the main or secondary dimension of their epistemology, and to assess the possibility of their common dialogue. Among the scientific disciplines concerned with the global ecolo-gical crisis, three show relevant singularities regarding our call for papers, for having as object of research or of questioning time itself, its modes and its “qualities”– namely history, philosophy and prospective analysis (although this latter cannot properly be considered as a scientific discipline on its own) –, and providing evidence to bring them to the fore. How to inscribe in a comprehensive learning system, guided by the principles of critical reflexivity and projective responsibility, the conceptions of time up to now disjointed of those three epistemologies? That is one challenge that the world of the “great transition” must face. For the philosopher as well as for the epistemologist, time is a fundamental question, but they now have to grasp its unseen topicality. For the historian, time is what is being built as a narrative with the help of archival material, inscribing it in an achieved temporality. Should not this practice be reconsidered in the light of our newly undecidable present time? And as for the prospectivists, for whom temporality is the creative and thinking space where they elaborate their projections, they must now reckon the relevance of the hypothesis of a partial or total “no future”, with the prospect of a near or more distant collapse. For the three of them, nevertheless, this is no mere speculation, but a strong injunction to enter an arena of debate already packed with more or less aggressive stances on the opportunities and menaces, real or fantasised, of the new temporality of the Anthropocene.

Against this background, proposals will be welcome primarily in the fields of history, history of the sciences of nature, environmental history, the philosophy of history and the recent evolutions of environmental prospective analysis or socio-ecological systems studies – their epistemological foundations, their methodologies, their relationship with forecasting and action. In that spirit, we shall mainly select papers aiming at describing and evaluating the performativity of those epistemologies. This examines their intrinsic congruences, the means by which they seize past, present and future temporalities, and the ways by which scenarios and visions of the future are elaborated, especially in the field of international surveys on climate and biodiversity issues and induced societal and political transitions. Proposals may also focus on the consequences of the temporality crisis as defined above on the evolution of the different disciplines or epistemic communities involved.

More generally, all sciences and learned and skilled forms of collective action are or will be touched by this temporality crisis. Therefore, our journal will take into account any proposal focusing on new concepts, new social or institutional organisations aiming at answering the present ecological crisis and facing the situation of the stark in- and mal-adaptation of the classical approaches of temporality that besets us, in order to solve it.

If the practitioners of the sciences and action fields most involved in the crisis of environmental temporality don’t want to lose their legitimacy, their integrity and the mastering of their own skills, and if, above the crisis of general rationality, they are still convinced of the relevance of acting on the basis of the most rigorous, methodical and responsible knowledge, then they should unite their strengths to devise a new paradigm of time that fits the complexity of the global system. We are convinced that to reset the conditions of possibility of any future, apart from the one of the theories of collapsology, requires a brand-new and deep-thought global learning system. It is the ambition we want to share, inside and outside the epistemic community of Natures Sciences Sociétés, in a resolute opening to innovating and cross-cutting ways of questioning, encouraging everyone to try to merge fruitfully with us the methodologies and skills of reflexivity, observation, conception, and action.

Selection process 

The selection of contribution proposals is done in two stages:

1) a long abstract (5,000 characters, including spaces) will present the objectives, the argumentation and the originality of the proposal as well as some bibliographical references;

2) the selected abstracts will give rise to a full article (45,000 to 50,000 characters, spaces, footnotes and bibliography included), which in turn will be blindly evaluated by the editorial committee in charge of the thematic issue and by external referees. 

Instructions to authors are available on the journal’s website.

Long abstracts and final papers may be submitted in English or French.

Abstracts and papers in Word (.docx) or OpenDocument (.odt) format should be sent to the following two contacts: sylvie.zasser@inrae.fr and pierre.cornu@inrae.fr. 


  • September 30, 2020: Deadline for submission of long abstracts

  • October 30, 2020: notification to authors of the acceptance or rejection of their proposal following selection by the editorial committee
  • January 25, 2021: Submission of articles (v1) for editorial committee and peer review
  • Publication: current 2022


  • Wednesday, September 30, 2020


  • sciences, épistémologie, interdisciplinarité, temporalités, changement global, transition


  • Sylvie Zasser
    courriel : sylvie [dot] zasser [at] inrae [dot] fr
  • Pierre Cornu
    courriel : pierre [dot] cornu [at] inrae [dot] fr

Information source

  • Sylvie Zasser
    courriel : sylvie [dot] zasser [at] inrae [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Time of nature, time of society, time of sciences in the age of global change », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, June 26, 2020, https://calenda.org/786773

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