“Society as a whole is unable to think on anything like geologic time scales,” says Marcia Bjornerud. “Or even decadal time scales.” It’s clear that we need to think long-term about climate and the environment, but instead political leaders are constrained by the two-year Congressional cycle and those working in business are beholden to quarterly earnings.
Bjornerud is a geologist at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and the author of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. If people understood the history of the Earth, she argues, “we would perceive our world very differently.” The Verge spoke to Bjornerud about geology’s PR problem, the big questions in the field, and what it means to be “timeful.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Early on in your book, you mention that it’d be embarrassing for an adult not to be able to point out the continents, but most people don’t know the geologic time periods. Why is that?
Photo: Rachel Crowl
I think a lot of educated people don’t quite believe in the geologic past. It’s obscure, they haven’t had much background in it and it doesn’t seem real. As a geologist, of course that’s frustrating. The field of geology has such vast explanatory power. There’s really something heady about being able to look out at the landscape and see how things came to be. I sometimes tell students that geology is the etymology of the world and I think most people don’t realize it but would love to have a rational explanation for how the world around them got to be the way it is.
Right, but most people don’t think about geology like that.
Geology has this PR problem. People think it’s about dusty mineral collection or just oil and glass, but it actually has both the pragmatic and a deep philosophical side. It’s about big existential questions as much as finding resources. The analogy I like to use is that of a palimpsest, a which is a term used in medieval scholarship of a parchment that was written on and scraped on so it could be reused and reinked. But usually there’s some vestige of the earlier writing that persists underneath the most recent one.
That’s the metaphor for the way we see landscapes. They’re a work in progress partially erased many times over. As geologists, you start learning how to read those vestiges of earlier inking and reconstruct past cycles of past landscape development.
Everything in the natural world has a backstory and is the product of evolution over long periods of time.
Once you get in that habit, it’s like a window goes up. You realize how ephemeral any particular iteration of the Earth’s surface really is. We urgently need people to see that we are embedded in geologic time. There isn’t a geologic past and the future. We are on a continuum and processes that have been going on on Earth for millennia and longer are going to continue and our activities feed into those in ways that are sometimes surprising to us but shouldn’t be if we have a better understanding of the way the Earth has unfolded in the past. Some people might think, who cares, the geologic past doesn’t affect me. Yet it’s created a lot of the environmental problems we face today because people are taken by surprise when the slow, inexorable processes that have always been going on interact with humans have undesirable consequences.
What are some of the big questions in geology?
The climate system is complicated, certainly, though virtually all geoscientists recognize that what we’re doing to the climate system now is nearly unprecedented. Right now, we’re changing things on this decadal scale and we can’t tell from the geological record whether previous changes happened over decades or centuries or thousands of years.
There are fundamental questions about tectonics, especially earthquake recurrence. We can’t predict earthquakes in real time right now, and most geophysicists have reached the conclusion that we probably will never get to that point so the best thing we can do is make people better prepared by building infrastructure and resilient homes. So those are pretty fundamental humanitarian questions.
Concretely, what’s a natural process that is useful to talk about in terms of longer timespans?
Let’s talk about groundwater. Groundwater systems really are dependent on the geologic substrate. Here in Wisconsin we have two main types of aquifers [underground area saturated with water]. They’re glacier deposits or bedrock.
If your well is in those shallow deposits, the rate at which rain comes into the system and flows through the glacial sediments might be on the rate of decades. But if you’re extracting groundwater from bedrock, that might be on the order of a century. So you need to know how fast rates of withdrawal are compared with rates of replenishment.
And there can be real exceptions, too, which can cause problems with groundwater contamination. The take-home message is that you need to know the rock and sediment under your feet and transit times related to the properties of the geologic substrate in order to be able to maintain predictably productive water systems.
What’s the natural process that takes the longest?
If we really zoom out, it’s planetary formation. On Earth, it’s probably the tectonic cycle of supercontinents forming and breaking. That’s on a timescale of maybe 400 or 500 million years. People are probably familiar with Pangea, but that’s just the most recent. We can look back in the deeper past and construct at least two or three super-continents.
So what exactly is “timefulness”? What does someone need to know to be considered “timeful”?
It’s based on “mindfulness” and I hope it carries the connotation that people should pause and think about time in ways we don’t normally. But I also wanted it to be a deliberate counterpoint to the idea of timelessness, which is sterile. Everything in the natural world has a backstory and is the product of evolution over long periods of time.
It’d be good to know the big chapters in Earth’s development, some sense of rates of natural processes, and how they compare to the rates at which humans are changing the geologic realm. Without that understanding, we’d blithely wander into the natural systems and disrupt them quite badly, or cause species to go extinct much faster than they can evolve, some sense of rates. We’re all facing common challenges and doing some estate planning, so to speak, and it seems like there are no grown-ups in the room right now planning ahead. Just some sense of temporal proportion is what I’m calling for.