Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

by Marcia Bjornerud


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Why an awareness of Earth’s temporal rhythms is critical to our planetary survival

Few of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

Marcia Bjornerud shows how geologists chart the planet’s past, explaining how we can determine the pace of solid Earth processes such as mountain building and erosion and comparing them with the more unstable rhythms of the oceans and atmosphere. These overlapping rates of change in the Earth system—some fast, some slow—demand a poly-temporal worldview, one that Bjornerud calls “timefulness.” She explains why timefulness is vital in the Anthropocene, this human epoch of accelerating planetary change, and proposes sensible solutions for building a more time-literate society.

This compelling book presents a new way of thinking about our place in time, enabling us to make decisions on multigenerational timescales. The lifespan of Earth may seem unfathomable compared to the brevity of human existence, but this view of time denies our deep roots in Earth’s history—and the magnitude of our effects on the planet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691181202
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/11/2018
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 33,081
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Read an Excerpt



Omnia mutantur, nihil interit (Everything changes, nothing perishes).



As a geologist and professor I speak and write rather cavalierly about eras and eons. One of the courses I routinely teach is "History of Earth and Life," a survey of the 4.5-billion-year saga of the entire planet — in a 10-week trimester. But as a human, and more specifically as a daughter, mother, and widow, I struggle like everyone else to look Time honestly in the face. That is, I admit to some time hypocrisy.

Antipathy toward time clouds personal and collective thinking. The now risible "Y2K" crisis that threatened to cripple global computer systems and the world economy at the turn of the millennium was caused by programmers in the 1960s and '70s who apparently didn't really think the year 2000 would ever arrive. Over the past decade, Botox treatments and plastic surgery have come to be viewed as healthy boosts to self-esteem rather than what they really are: evidence that we fear and loathe our time-iness. Our natural aversion to death is amplified in a culture that casts Time as an enemy and does everything it can to deny its passage. As Woody Allen said: "Americans believe death is optional."

This type of time denial, rooted in a very human combination of vanity and existential dread, is perhaps the most common and forgivable form of what might be called chronophobia. But there are other, more toxic varieties that work together with the mostly benign kind to create a pervasive, stubborn, and dangerous temporal illiteracy in our society. We in the twenty-first century would be shocked if an educated adult were unable to identify the continents on a world map, yet we are quite comfortable with widespread obliviousness about anything but the most superficial highlights from the planet's long history (um, Bering Strait ... dinosaurs ... Pangaea?). Most humans, including those in affluent and technically advanced countries, have no sense of temporal proportion — the durations of the great chapters in Earth's history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of "natural capital" like groundwater systems. As a species, we have a childlike disinterest and partial disbelief in the time before our appearance on Earth. With no appetite for stories lacking human protagonists, many people simply can't be bothered with natural history. We are thus both intemperate and intemporate — time illiterate. Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws. This ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity. We are navigating recklessly toward our future using conceptions of time as primitive as a world map from the fourteenth century, when dragons lurked around the edges of a flat earth. The dragons of time denial still persist in a surprising range of habitats.

Among the various foes of time, Young Earth creationism breathes the most fire but is at least predictable in its opposition. In years of teaching geology at the university level, I have had students from evangelical Christian backgrounds who earnestly struggle to reconcile their faith with the scientific understanding of the Earth. I truly empathize with their distress and try to point out paths toward resolution of this internal discord. First, I emphasize that my job is not to challenge their personal beliefs but to teach the logic of geology (geo-logic?) — the methods and tools of the discipline that enable us not only to comprehend how the Earth works at present but also to document in detail its elaborate and awe-inspiring history. Some students seem satisfied with keeping science and religious beliefs separate through this methodological remove. But more often, as they learn to read rocks and landscapes on their own, the two worldviews seem increasingly incompatible. In this case, I use a variation on the argument made by Descartes in his Meditations about whether his experience of Being was real or an elaborate illusion created by a malevolent demon or god.

Early in an introductory geology course, one begins to under-stand that rocks are not nouns but verbs — visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great global tapestry — the geologic timescale. This "map" of Deep Time represents one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity, arduously constructed by stratigraphers, paleontologists, geochemists, and geochronologists from many cultures and faiths. It is still a work in progress to which details are constantly being added and finer and finer calibrations being made. So far, no one in more than 200 years has found an anachronistic rock or fossil — as biologist J.B.S. Haldane reputedly said, "a Precambrian rabbit" — that would represent a fatal internal inconsistency in the logic of the timescale.

If one acknowledges the credibility of the methodical work by countless geologists from around the world (many in the service of petroleum companies), and one believes in a God as creator, the choice is then whether to accept the idea of (1) an ancient and complex Earth with epic tales to tell, set in motion eons ago by a benevolent creator, or (2) a young Earth fabricated only a few thousand years ago by a devious and deceitful creator who planted specious evidence of an old planet in every nook and cranny, from fossil beds to zircon crystals, in anticipation of our explorations and laboratory analyses. Which is more heretical? A corollary of this argument, to be deployed with tact and care, is that compared with the deep, rich, grand geologic story of Earth, the Genesis version is an offensive dumbing-down, an oversimplification so extreme as to be disrespectful to the Creation.

While I have sympathy for individuals wrestling with theological questions, I have no tolerance for those who intentionally spread brain-fogging pseudoscience under the aegis of (-suspiciously well-funded) religious organizations. My colleagues and I despair at the existence of atrocities like Kentucky's Creation Museum, and the disheartening frequency with which Young Earth websites appear when students search for information about, say, isotopic dating. But I hadn't fully understood the tactics and far-reaching tentacles of the "Creation Science" industry until a former student alerted me that one of my own papers, published in a journal read only by nerdy geophysicists, had been cited on the website of the Institute for Creation Research. Citation frequency is one metric by which the scientific world ranks its practitioners, and most scientists adopt P. T. Barnum's view that there is "no such thing as bad publicity" — the more citations, the better, even if one's ideas are being rebutted or challenged. But this citation was akin to a social media endorsement from an especially despised troll.

The article was about some unusual metamorphic rocks in the Norwegian Caledonides whose high-density minerals attest to their having been at crustal depths of at least 50 km (30 mi) at the time the mountain belt was forming. Oddly, these rocks occur in lenses and pods, interleaved with rock masses that did not undergo the conversion to the more compact mineral forms. My coinvestigators and I showed that the nonuniform metamorphism was due to the extremely dry nature of the original rocks, which inhibited the recrystallization process. We argued that the rocks, with their low-density minerals, probably resided unstably for some period in the deep crust until one or more large earthquakes fractured the rocks and allowed fluids to enter and locally trigger long-suppressed meta-morphic reactions. We used some theoretical constraints to suggest that in this case, the spotty metamorphism might have happened in thousands or tens of thousands of years, rather than the hundreds of thousands to millions of years in more typical tectonic settings. This "evidence for rapid metamorphism" is what someone at the Institute for Creation Research grabbed onto and cited — completely ignoring the fact that the rocks are known to be about a billion years old and that the Caledonides were formed around 400 million years ago. I was stunned to realize that there are people with enough time, training, and motivation to be trawling the vast waters of the scientific literature for such finds, and that someone is probably paying them to do it. The stakes must be very high.

For those who deliberately confuse the public with falsified accounts of natural history, colluding with powerful religious syndicates to promote doctrine that serves their own coffers or political agendas, my Midwestern niceness reaches its limit. I would love to say: "No fossil fuels for you (or plastic, for that matter). All that oil was found thanks to a rigorous understanding of the sedimentary record of geologic time. And no modern medicine for you either, since the great majority of pharmaceutical, therapeutic, and surgical advances involve testing on mice, which makes sense only if you understand that they are our evolutionary kin. You can cleave to whatever myths you like about the history of the planet, but then you should live with only the technologies that follow from that worldview. And please stop dulling the minds of the next generation with retrograde thinking." (Wow! I feel better now.)

Some religious sects embrace a symmetrical form of time denial, believing not only in a truncated geologic past but also a foreshortened future in which the Apocalypse is nigh. Fixation with the end of the world may seem a harmless delusion — the lone robed man with a warning placard is a cartoon cliché, and we've all come through several "Rapture" dates unscathed. But if enough voters truly think this way, there are serious policy implications. Those who believe that the End of Days is just around the corner have no reason to be concerned about matters like climate change, groundwater depletion, or loss of biodiversity. If there is no future, conservation of any kind is, paradoxically, wasteful.

As exasperating as professional Young-Earthers, creationists, and apocalypticists can be, they are completely forthright about their chronophobia. More pervasive and corrosive are the nearly invisible forms of time denial that are built into the very infrastructure of our society. For example, in the logic of economics, in which labor productivity must always increase to justify higher wages, professions centered on tasks that simply take time — education, nursing, or art performance — constitute a problem because they cannot be made significantly more efficient. Playing a Haydn string quartet takes just as long in the twenty-first century as it did in the eighteenth; no progress has been made! This is sometimes called "Baumol's disease" for one of the economists that first described the dilemma. That it is considered a pathology reveals much about our attitude toward time and the low value we in the West place on process, development, and maturation.

Fiscal years and congressional terms enforce a blinkered view of the future. Short-term thinkers are rewarded with bonuses and reelection, while those who dare to take seriously our responsibility to future generations commonly find themselves outnumbered, outshouted, and out of office. Few modern public entities are able to make plans beyond biennial budget cycles. Even two years of forethought seems beyond the capacity of Congress and state legislatures these days, when last-minute, stop-gap spending measures have become the norm. Institutions that do aspire to the long view — state and national parks, public libraries, and universities — are increasingly seen as taxpayer burdens (or untapped opportunities for corporate sponsorship).

Conserving natural resources — soil, forests, water — for the nation's future was once considered a patriotic cause, evidence of love of country. But today, consumption and monetization have become strangely mixed up with the idea of good citizenship (a concept that now includes corporations). In fact, the word consumer has become more or less a synonym for citizen, and that doesn't really seem to bother anyone. "Citizen" implies engagement, contribution, give-and-take. "Consumer" suggests only taking, as if our sole role is to devour everything in sight, in the manner of locusts descending on a field of grain. We might scoff at apocalyptic thinking, but the even more pervasive idea — indeed, economic credo — that levels of consumption can and should increase continuously is just as deluded. And while the need for long-range vision grows more acute, our attention spans are shrinking, as we text and tweet in a hermetic, narcissistic Now.

Academe, too, must take some responsibility for promulgating a subtle strain of time denial in the way that it privileges certain types of inquiry. Physics and chemistry occupy the top echelons in the hierarchy of intellectual pursuits owing to their quantitative exactitude. But such precision in characterizing how nature works is possible only under highly controlled, wholly unnatural conditions, divorced from any particular history or moment. Their designation as the "pure" sciences is revealing; they are pure in being essentially atemporal — unsullied by time, concerned only with universal truths and eternal laws. Like Plato's "forms," these immortal laws are often considered more real than any specific manifestation of them (e.g., the Earth). In contrast, the fields of biology and geology occupy lower rungs of the scholarly ladder because they are very "impure," lacking the heady overtones of certainty because they are steeped through and through with time. The laws of physics and chemistry obviously apply to life-forms and rocks, and it is also possible to abstract some general principles about how biological and geologic systems function, but the heart of these fields lies in the idiosyncratic profusion of organisms, minerals, and landscapes that have emerged over the long history of this particular corner of the cosmos.

Biology as a discipline is elevated by its molecular wing, with its white-coat laboratory focus and its venerable contributions to medicine. But lowly geology has never achieved the glossy prestige of the other sciences. It has no Nobel Prize, no high school Advanced Placement courses, and a public persona that is musty and dull. This of course rankles geologists, but it also has serious consequences for society at a time when politicians, CEOs, and ordinary citizens urgently need to have some grasp of the planet's history, anatomy, and physiology.

For one thing, the perceived value of a science profoundly influences the funding it receives. Out of frustration with limited grant money for basic geologic investigations, some geochemists and paleontologists studying the early Earth and the most ancient traces of life in the rock record have cleverly recast themselves as "astrobiologists" to ride on the coattails of NASA initiatives that support research into the possibility of life elsewhere in the Solar System or beyond. While I admire this shrewd maneuver, it is disheartening that we geologists must wrap ourselves in the hype of the space program to make legislators or the public interested in their own planet.

Second, the ignorance of and disregard for geology by scientists in other fields has serious environmental consequences. The great advances in physics, chemistry, and engineering made in the Cold War years — development of nuclear technologies; synthesis of new plastics, pesticides, fertilizers, and refrigerants; mechanization of agriculture; expansion of highways — ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity but also left a dark legacy of groundwater contamination, ozone destruction, soil and biodiversity loss, and climate change for subsequent generations to pay for. To some extent, the scientists and engineers behind these achievements can't be blamed; if one is trained to think of natural systems in highly simplified ways, stripping away the particulars so that idealized laws apply, and one has no experience with how perturbations to these systems may play out over time, then the undesirable consequences of these interventions will come as a surprise. And to be fair, until the 1970s, the geosciences themselves did not have the analytical tools with which to conceptualize the behavior of complex natural systems on decade to century timescales.


Excerpted from "Timefulness"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Princeton University Press.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, vi,
Prologue: The Allure of Timelessness, 1,
1 A Call for Timefulness, 6,
2 An Atlas of Time, 21,
3 The Pace of the Earth, 62,
4 Changes in the Air, 93,
5 Great Accelerations, 126,
6 Timefulness, Utopian and Scientific, 159,
Epilogue, 180,
I Simplified Geologic Timescale, 184,
II Durations and Rates of Earth Phenomena, 186,
III Environmental Crises in Earth's History: Causes and Consequences, 190,
Notes, 193,
Index, 203,

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Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
jeantoo More than 1 year ago
"Timefulness" by Marcia Bjornerud is an example of scientific expertise presented in a poetic prose which will be enjoyed by scientists, laymen and college students at any level. It shows her great concern for the future of our earth and how we are treating it and thus contributing to global warming, ocean acidification etc. Her use of analogies to explain concepts for the non-scientist makes it so accessible. Readers will have an encompassing vision of how everything in the world is inter-related. A must read!