By: Andrew Rutland
The driving forces behind the books I read are most often happenstance and opportunity, usually picking up new reads from the dusty shelves of a thrift store or the library. But the release of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud was trumpeted so positively in the online scientific community that when I found myself inside an Indigo recently, I sought it out specifically, wanting to read it for myself. I was not disappointed.
Timefulness is a patient storytelling exercise by an apparent master of the art. Bjornerud skillfully crafts a sometimes-anthropomorphized narrative of the Earth’s entire history, paralleled by a storyline about the scientific advances that have allowed for an ever-clearer view of our planetary saga until now. Bjornerud takes us through deep time, from the long and still mysterious Precambrian, to now – on the precipice of the Anthropocene. Along the way, she patiently explains complex scientific concepts in an approachable way so that any reader may keep up and be sufficiently convinced of the certainty (or sometimes lack) of our picture of the geologic past. For example, the author refers to a young Earth as “belching methane” from the ocean as a way of simply describing how the Earth developed one (of four) atmospheres. Bjornerud usually also ends each chapter with a teaser of how the lessons learned in the previous pages could be applied to the present, until she dives deep into the next concept or geologic era to explore.
Bjornerud uses these pages to challenge the assumptions of certain scientific paradigms – both past and present – like catastrophism and uniformitarianism. For the geologically uninitiated, the former refers to the theory that claims Earth’s features were formed by sudden “catastrophic” events like great floods, often associated with mythological events, where the latter refers to the theory that all Earth’s processes occur gradually and consistently throughout time. The author succinctly argues that the actual case is somewhere in-between: a somewhat malleable set of governing principles that allow for both extended periods of near-stability as well as relatively sudden lurches in geologic and evolutionary history.
To highlight this discrepancy, Bjornerud provides examples of bursts of change, like the tale of a rock structure in Wyoming known as Heart Mountain that is part of a “rock slab the size of Rhode Island that slid more than 50km… across a surprisingly gentle slope in 30 minutes”. She also explains the antinomy between conclusions drawn by geologists based on the fossil record that assert that “the pace of evolution in the Cambrian explosion…was a time of unprecedented, and never to be repeated, biological innovation” and conclusions drawn by geneticists based on constant “molecular clocks” that imply the Cambrian explosion may have been more like a “slow-burning fuse”.
While allowing our view of the Earth to include some periods of great change could be a comforting thought for those of us currently living through a climate crisis, the chapters of this book are constantly punctuated by warnings for our present society. Indeed, delivered in a gentle yet firm and scientifically-assured manner, Bjornerud reminds us that there is still no known precedent in the entire geological time frame for the rates of extinction of life and the accumulation of greenhouse gases observable at present.
After having surely convinced the reader of her own appreciation for time, Bjornerud pleads that timefulness be applied to future decision making. She end the book with examples of beliefs and governance structures that unlike ours, are not afraid of time’s importance; such as the Norse belief that the World Tree is maintained by three women representing Past, Present and Future, or the Iroquoian Gayanashagowa, (“Great Binding Law”) which decrees all actions should only be taken after considering their implications for “the unborn of the future Nation”, typically considered seven generations. In our current governance structure, she suggests this take the form of a “Department of the Future”, which seeks to represent the interests of unborn citizens.
A final call to action is to engage in more activities that appreciate and foster a sense of timefulness. Bjornerud points to projects like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which preserves biodiverse seeds in case they are needed for the future, and composer John Cage’s organ work called “ORGAN2/ASLSP” (As Slow aS Possible) which is a projected 639 year concert that which has been ongoing since September 2001 and the chord has changed only 12 times. Both projects require an intergenerational collaboration and optimism for the future, something Bjornerud insists we will need to survive the coming storm.
In fact, Bjornerud’s closing statements so perfectly galvanize the reader into taking action I can’t think of a better way to end this review than with those very words:
“Our Holocene snow day is ending now, and tomorrow’s the Anthropocene. We’ve all enjoyed the fantasy that we can keep playing our self-absorbed and careless games – that when we choose to come inside our supper will be waiting for us, and nothing will have changed. But no one is home to take care of us. Now we need to grow up and navigate on our own, doing our best with the Atlas of the Past to make up for so much lost time”