Marcia Bjornerud on Timefulness

Timefulness coverFew 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.

What exactly do you mean by Timefulness?

It’s the habit of seeing things not merely as they are now, but also recognizing how they evolved—and will continue to evolve—over time. In a sense, it’s perceiving the world in four dimensions. I use the word as a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of Timelessness, which is an impossible, and ultimately sterile, aspiration.

Unless you’re jet-setting around the cosmos at relativistic speeds, nothing exists outside the framework of time; every person, idea, culture, organism, landscape, and continent exists in a particular time-stamped moment while also bearing vestiges of a much deeper historical and evolutionary past. We tend to view these entities only as they appear in the current temporal plane, but their paths through time shaped what they are now, and what they may become in the future. In other words, all things are full of Time— they’re Timeful.

The natural world in particular is bursting with backstories— tragedies, comedies, sprawling million-year sagas, chronicles of forgotten empires. Reconceiving everything, including ourselves, as entities sculpted by time is a perceptual shift that can be transformative on the personal and societal levels.

I don’t quite get the connection with geology.

This way of viewing the world is the very essence of geological thinking – being able to hold in the mind’s eye multiple past— and plausible future— iterations of the Earth and its ecosystems. I recognize that geology suffers from a public perception problem; people either associate it with musty museum displays or rapacious oil companies and mineral prospectors. But in fact it’s an intellectually vibrant science that requires exceptional powers of imagination: the capacity to zoom in and out of spatial and temporal scales, and to visualize long vanished landscapes and inaccessible parts of the Earth we can never see directly.

Geology is also a strange field in that it addresses both very pragmatic questions—where to find groundwater, how to protect people from natural hazards—and deep, even philosophical ones: Where do we come from? Why is the Earth the way it is? Both kinds of questions are important to humans, and both require a keen sense of temporal proportion—the relative and absolute durations of the great chapters in the planet’s past, the characteristic rates and timescales of natural phenomena. But as a society, we are largely time-illiterate: shockingly ignorant about how our activities intersect with the Earth’s long-established habits.  

Human and geological timescales are so vastly different – why does it matter if ordinary people have a feeling for ‘deep time’?

Actually, they’re not as disparate as one might think. Geologists have perhaps overemphasized the idea that the Earth is incredibly old and slow-moving and that humans are mere last-minute walk-ons. I think this misrepresents our place on Earth in a number of ways. First, we humans may have taken our current form only recently, but we have very deep roots in the evolutionary tree. Second, even though we may be relative newcomers, we are having an outsized effect on the planet. Finally, the Earth’s habits are really not that sluggish. Today, satellite observations allow us to see glaciers and tectonic plates moving in real time. Many geologic processes—erosion, river migration and climate change, for example—can play out well within a human lifetime. And some of the planet’s behaviors, like earthquakes and landslides, happen so fast that we are left dazed in their aftermath. Earth has many tempos and modes, many still being discovered and documented.

Throughout the book, you weave in the intellectual history of geology and explain how we have come to our current understanding. That must be intentional?

Yes! The story of how humans have gradually come to understand the character of our planet and managed to reconstruct its deep history is itself a fascinating evolutionary tale. Calibrating the geologic timescale is arguably one of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements. Yet it is underappreciated because it is not the work of a solitary genius but instead a collaborative effort of people making observations all around the globe over the past two centuries – and it’s still a work in progress. Along the way, there have been scientists, both amateur and professional, who had brilliant insights but were too far ahead of their time for their ideas to be verified by available data. There have also been experts much celebrated in their own day who proved to be completely wrong about the nature of the Earth and who held the science in check during their lifetimes.

So yes, the book is both about the idiosyncratic history of the Earth, and the equally idiosyncratic history of human understanding of the Earth.

Some people find the idea of geologic time terrifying because it makes them feel insignificant. How do you respond to that?

I can understand that reaction and again I think we geologists ourselves are partly to blame for flogging people over the head with the vastness of geologic time. I had a math professor who was fond of pointing out that, “there are many sizes and shapes of infinity.” The same can be said for different points in the geologic past. Some are a long time ago—some are a long, longtime ago. Developing some ‘depth of field’ in thinking about geologic time makes it seem less like a yawning abyss, and then filling it in with the narrative details of Earth’s development transforms it into an awe-inspiring origin story that embraces, rather than excludes, us. I personally find existential comfort in knowing that I am a resident of an ancient, resilient, marvelously complicated planet that has been teeming with life and continuously reinventing itself for 4 billion years.

OK, but can Timefulness really “help save the world?”

First let me emphasize that by “world” I don’t mean the planet; Earth will be fine with or without us and will survive the damage we are currently inflicting on it in the same way that it has endured previous calamities. It’s the stability of the world as we humans define it— the political, economic, social and cultural world— that is in grave peril. And yes, I would argue that Timeful, long-term thinking is essential to saving that. At a time when we urgently need mechanisms in our political and economic systems that encourage long-term planning, our attention spans keep shrinking. The few leaders who aspire to keep the long view in mind find themselves removed from boardrooms and public office by impatient shareholders, voters and corporate interests that benefit from the short-sightedness of the collective. The capacity to think on even decadal timescales—zooming out just enough to recognize our common past and shared destiny as human creatures on a changing planet— may be a way to spring ourselves out of the polarized, antagonistic, segregated mindsets and habits in which we have trapped ourselves.

The narratives of natural history are a heritage we all share as Earthlings, and expanded awareness of that legacy— a little Timefulness—may liberate us from our self-absorbed narcissism and other self-destructive tendencies.  


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.

An interview with Paul Wignall: How life on earth survived mass extinctions

Wignall jacketAs scientists ponder NASA’s recent announcement about the likelihood of water and the possibility of life, or extinct life on Mars, Paul Wignall, professor of palaeoenvironments at the University of Leeds, explores a calamitous period of environmental crisis in Earth’s own history. Wignall has been investigating mass extinctions for more than twenty-five years, a scientific quest that has taken him to dozens of countries around the world. Recently he took the time to answer some questions about his new book, The Worst of Times: How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions.

So why was this the worst of times and what died?

PW: For 80 million years, there was a whole series of mass extinctions; it was the most intense period of catastrophes the world has ever known. These extinctions included the end-Permian mass extinction, the worst disaster of all time. All life on earth was affected, from plankton in the oceans to forests on land. Coral reefs were repeatedly decimated, and land animals, dominated by primitive reptiles and amphibians, lost huge numbers of species.

What was responsible for all of these catastrophes?

PW: There is a giant smoking gun for every one of these mass extinctions: vast fields of lava called flood basalts. The problem is how to link their eruption to extinction. The key is understanding the role of volcanic gas emissions. Some of these gases, such as carbon dioxide, are very familiar to us today, and their climatic effects, especially global warming, seem to have been severe.

Why did these catastrophes stop happening?

PW: This is the $64,000 dollar question at the core of The Worst of Times. It seems to be because of a supercontinent. For 80 million years, all continents were united into a single entity called Pangea. This world was extremely bad at coping with rapid global warming because the usual feedbacks involved in removing gases from the atmosphere were not functioning very well. Since then, Pangea has broken up into the familiar multi-continent world of today, and flood basalt eruptions have not triggered any more mass extinctions.

What were the survivors like?

PW: Very tough and often very successful. It takes a lot to survive the world’s worst disasters, and many of the common plants and animals of today can trace their origin back to this time. For example, mollusks such as clams and snails were around before this worst of times, and their survival marks the start of their dominance in today’s oceans.

Are there any lessons we can apply to modern day environmental worries?

PW: Yes and no. Rapid global warming features in all of the mass extinctions of the past, which should obviously give us cause for concern. On the plus side, we no longer live in a supercontinent world. Flood basalt eruptions of the recent geological past have triggered short-lived phases of warming, but they have not tipped the world over the brink.

Paul Wignall at Otto Fiord at Cape St Andrew.

Paul Wignall conducting field research at Otto Fiord at Cape St Andrew.

Does this have anything to do with the dinosaurs?

PW: Sort of. Dinosaurs first appear towards the end of this series of calamities and to a great extent they owed their success to the elimination of their competitors, which allowed them to flourish and dominate the land for 140 million years. As we know, their reign was brought to an abrupt halt by a giant meteorite strike – a very different catastrophe to the earlier ones.

What would you say to those who want to know how you can claim knowledge of what happened so long ago?

PW: Geologists have a lot of ways to interpret past worlds. The clues lie in rocks, so mass extinction research first requires finding rocks of the right age. Then, once samples have been collected, analysis of fossils tells us the level where the extinctions happened. This level can then be analyzed to find out what the conditions were like. It’s like taking a sample of mud from the bottom of the ocean and then using it reconstruct environmental conditions. However, not everything gets “fossilized” in ocean sediments. For example, it is very hard to work out what past temperatures were like, and ocean acidity levels are even harder to determine. This leaves plenty of scope for debate, and The Worst of Times looks at some of these on-going scientific clashes.

Read chapter 1 here.


Bender_Paleoclimate “Michael Bender, a giant in the field, fits the excitement, rigor, and deep insights of paleoclimatology into a succinct text suitable for a semester-long course introducing this indispensable branch of environmental science.”–Richard B. Alley, Pennsylvania State University

Michael L. Bender

In this book, Michael Bender, an internationally recognized authority on paleoclimate, provides a concise, comprehensive, and sophisticated introduction to the subject. After briefly describing the major periods in Earth history to provide geologic context, he discusses controls on climate and how the record of past climate is determined. The heart of the book then proceeds chronologically, introducing the history of climate changes over millions of years–its patterns and major transitions, and why average global temperature has varied so much. The book ends with a discussion of the Holocene (the past 10,000 years) and by putting manmade climate change in the context of paleoclimate.

The most up-to-date overview on the subject, Paleoclimate provides an ideal introduction to undergraduates, nonspecialist scientists, and general readers with a scientific background.


Watch Michael Bender discuss Paleoclimate at the Fundamentals of Climate Science Symposium at Princeton University

Request an examination copy.