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On Timefulness

I enjoyed and was moved by the book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud. This post is a review & reflection I’m finishing many months after reading it.

“Rates of technological progress far outstrip the rate at which human wisdom matures (in the same way that environmental changes outpace evolutionary adaptation in mass extinction events).” – Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness

The book has a few threads going at once but the bulk of it is a geological history of the world, in a more layperson-friendly format than a textbook. It’s heavy on the science and I learned a great deal of earth science. For instance:

  • How competing theories about the history of the earth were debated and refined based on emerging evidence;
  • How the atmosphere came to have oxygen;
  • That pre-oxygen, there was a period where the oceans were rich in iron and how that iron came to be deposited underground;
  • How the planet entered the “Snowball Earth” phase and how it got out;
  • That due to axial precession, the Northern Hemisphere will experience summer in December in 13,000 years (or, it would if we didn’t leave room in the definition of the calendar to adjust for this).

I found the geology interesting, if slow going. But while the book takes a long journey through the planet’s physical history, it’s in service of the destination: a study of time. As the title implies, the biggest single takeaway is the scale of time over which our planet has changed. And is changing still: while we can’t see it with our eyes, the earth itself is always in motion. We think of mountains as having fixed heights, but they are rising and fading. Great mountains of millions of years ago have been worn away by air and water (geology reveals their outlines) and eventually the mountains we see now will be washed out to sea, replaced by new ones erupting elsewhere.

You might call the speed of planetary change “rock time” – changes that happen over the course of many thousands and millions of years. Against this backdrop, other scales of time are much faster. Human time has always been fast and our technology is accelerating it ever faster. In what to the earth is the blink of an eye, humans have upended the earth and set in motion the next mass extinction. (The excellent novel The Overstory similarly contrasts tree time with human time – the two books have much in common).

After telling the story of the earth from the Big Bang until our “now”, Bjornerud examines the changes man has recently wrought on the earth. For instance, atmospheric CO2 levels have risen in decades an amount that ordinarily would have taken millennia. But life’s adaptation by evolution to new circumstances occurs at the same slow “rock time” at which the earth changes. When a meteor, or volcanic eruption, or industrial civilization abruptly changes the planet, life can’t keep up.

Bjornerud compares the magnitude and speed of human-caused climate change to those of previous mass extinction events, showing how our “now” has a place alongside the handful of other mass death events in the planet’s history. And, she claims, our rates of economic growth, the profusion of new technology, and consumption of the planet’s limited resources have sped up so fast they’ve gotten away from us.

Most of the book is about the earth’s past. But after catching us up to now, Bjornerud muses on time and looks at what the science implies for the world, and what we can do. She describes the Clock of the Long Now project as an example of people thinking farther ahead – thinking with timefulness.

The book is not brimming with hope, though any pessimism is more a result of the grim facts than her editorializing. Bjornerud begins and ends the book with the metaphor of a snow day, a gift of play time without any burden of responsibility. In her conclusion, we’re told that the snow day is over. It’s time to be adults, reckon with the course we’re on, and change if we can.

She does have action steps, some of which you won’t have seen before even if you’ve read deeply about fighting climate change. For instance, Bjornerud argues that we must widely teach and study geology. While she clearly has a stake in that, it’s hard to argue at the end of the book that it isn’t essential knowledge. She’s demonstrated that geology isn’t about memorizing kinds of minerals and their properties. Geology is how we decipher the history of our home – and by that study it enables helps us anticipate the future.

A core tenant among those fighting climate change, prominent in The Overstory, is that humans have lost their way and wrongly come to see themselves as outside of nature. Nature is a foe, or a resource, something to be subjugated. When in fact, humans are inextricably part of nature and can only thrive when the rest of the planet thrives. (Motherload laments that humans have become the first indoor species).

Timefulness makes a similar diagnosis of disconnection: modern humans are divorced from time. We may seem as if we’ve broken free and transcended time. But in fact our separation from planetary time puts us at risk of moving too fast for the earth, and the rest of life, to keep up. The bond is stretching – can we fix the time disconnect before it snaps?

P.S. I started this review after reading the book, then completed it much later. As a result it doesn’t do the book justice. This piece by C. Christopher Smith is a more traditional book review. I’m disappointed that Timefulness hasn’t been more widely read or discussed, especially in climate change circles. On the plus side, that means that there’s probably not a long line for it at your library. Check it out!

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