What is Time to the River? Environmental Justice & Time

SEI PhD Candidate Christine Winter discusses the idea of intergenerational environmental justice and argues that IEJ theory explore Māori understandings of time as a way to move past linear understandings of the past, present, and future.

‘Cleddau River, New Zealand’ by Maxime Fafin via Shutterstock. Stock photo ID: 686352112

The notion of time is fundamental to the idea of intergenerational environmental justice (IEJ)—generations by definition live in different time(s). Paradoxically perhaps, scholars of intergenerational justice don’t examine time itself.  The assumption is time moves forward. Measured by sun and moon, by light years, by parts of seconds, we think of time has having velocity and linear direction—time is fleeting, time passes, time marches on.

My proposition is IEJ theory becomes less beholden to temporality, if we alter our view of time, freeing it from velocity and direction. Here I present a Māori understanding of time. Engaging with the geo-regions of Te Awa Tupua (the Wanganui River and catchment) and Te Urewera (a forested range system) in Aotearoa, I then look at time from within these identities’ ontologies and how that can influence our entangled intergenerational environmental relationships.

It is said Māori are people who walk into the future backwards (Love & Tilley, 2013; Stewart-Harawira, 2005). This means past-present-future is the ontological lens through which we make decisions. The community includes our ancestors and our heirs.  Decisions about the use of the natural environment include them too. Projects are generated from respect for ancestors, and love for heirs.

In Aotearoa Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera are legal identities or persons in law, ‘with the full capacity of a legal person’ and ‘all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’  As ‘mute’ persons, these identities have guardians (kaitiaki) who act in their best interests. To do this, a guardian must ‘think as’ that other to know what the identity/person wants. The guardian must think not as a government representative, nor as a representative of Māori, but rather, they must think within the environments’ ontologies.

If kaitiaki are making future looking decisions, how do they imagine Te Urewera or Te Awa Tupua’s conception of time?  That is to step into a perpetual deep time, into an econtological spiralling past-in-present-in-future-in-past. Unlike the time of geologists or deep historians, this is a time with no stops no starts.

The Te Urewera Act 2014 challenges the Western framing of time (‘ancient and enduring’—there is no end, and the beginning is pre-history) and the animate-inanimate divide (‘has an identity in and of itself’ and ‘with its own mana and mauri’ (standing and potentiality to be)).  The Act articulates an ontology which includes the econtology of Te Urewera. Within the econtology ancient and renewed have as much interest in being as the individual components of the present.

Spiral time and thinking as other, both integral to Māori being and thinking, are necessary to benefit the resource.

Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua are regenerative entities—they do not die. Parts of the living organisms might die, decay and disintegrate to be recycled within the living, re-gifting the essence to new entities.  The tree, moth, or kiwi may die, but the whole, Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera remain living.

What are rivers’ time? Their beds as old as the ranges, drops of merging rain instantly young.  They are older than trees, older than kiwi, yet their waters renew daily. How is time imagined for a river? How is time to be considered for that not-river?

Can our representation of time reflect constant creation and recreation in a non-linear way? Mountains, ranges, lakes and waterways, and all living matter, human included, have a repetitive pattern, a pattern of birth, change and rebirth of continuity, circularity and synchronicity.

Maori have already a construct that is referential, my present connected to my past to inform my future. If we face backwards, time is not moving future-ward alone. For guardians for Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua duties and obligations include recognition of the contribution ancestors continue to make to present-future. As the voice for the voiceless geo-regions, the expression of the econtology includes expanding obligations and duties into deep backwards and forwards time. Coincident to this econtological turn, obligations to human kin might expand into the same realms of time. The care of one propelling care for the other.

Within this ontology past-present-future occur in each instant of time simultaneously. Thinking time as encompassing a basket of ancestry and future potential—genetic, intellectual, mythological, biological, mineralogical, ontological, physical and experiential—is a means of explaining the Māori conception of time. Time here is not linear but a constantly referential spiral which entangles at once the past, the present, and the future human and nonhuman. The moment ‘now’, is at once past, present, future: was, is, and always will be.

Boundaries explode omni-dimensionally into the infinity of past present future. Released from competitive historical progress Te Awa Tupua and Te Urewera have the potential to represent all time in political fora. Their being draws our attention to ‘the present’ as a multiplicity of coincident events. ‘The present’ seen as a rhetorical device constraining human attention to singular aspects of this multiplicity. Time and space become multiple things at a single moment.

Practically, are guardians of Te Urewera and Te Awa Tupua obliged to make submissions in national and international climate change debates? Should kaitiaki stand, on the regions’ behalf, as candidates for parliament and become the voice for all life 100, 1000, 2000 years hence? Attend COPs? Pursue polluting corporations through the courts?

What does this mean for IEJ? When time is understood in this manner, IEJ does not feel like a sacrifice (Meyer, 2015). To be kaitiaki is to entangle ancestors, living, future generations and to become an ancestor. There is no intergenerational, no environmental competition when all exist in entangled coincidence. Within this entanglement, also, animal, vegetable and mineral become the subjects of justice for they are inseparable from creation, human, and the future. Environmental justice envelops all always and in all ways.


Love, T., & Tilley, E. (2013). Temporal Discourse and the News Media Representation of Indigenous-Non-Indigenous Relations. Media International Australia, (149), 174–188.

Meyer, J. M. (2015). Engaging the Everyday. MIT Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt17kk88gp.8

Stewart-Harawira, M. (2005). The New Imperial Order. Wellington: Huia Publishers.

Christine Winter is a SEI PhD Candidate from the Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney. Christines PhD research is Christine is looking at how intergenerational obligations and duties are manifest in some Aboriginal, Māori and Amerindian communities and how they can inform a capabilities approach to intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of those peoples, and examines the entanglements of Indigenous Peoples, their compatriots, future generations, nonhuman and the physical environment through the lens of Intergenerational Environmental Justice (IEJ).