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How Thinking Like A Geologist Can Help Save The World

by Marcia Bjornerud

“This book is a masterpiece of superb writing and accurate, up-to-date science. It places modern climate change in a geological context and makes an eloquent plea for action. Timefulness is one of the best science books I have ever read.”

– James Lawrence Powell
author of Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences:
From Heresy to Truth

Scientific without being dry, the book manages to feel like a geology class in a 1960s college where the professor and students are all in 'it' together, and the prospects are infinitely possible going forward. Using lots and lots of surprising similes – the spreading of the Atlantic at the mid-Atlantic ridge is about the same as fingernail growth, while at the mid-Pacific ridge, it's ten times faster, more like the speed of hair growth [p68-69] – the book makes geologic processes relatable. Our commonest model for geologic time – the 24-hour clock wherein the whole of human history takes place in the last fraction of a second – is 'wrongheaded and even irresponsible' because it suggests 'insignificance and disempowerment' allowing us to ignore our effects on the planet, while completely ignoring the pressing question: What happens after midnight? [p16]

I could write on and on (and I will add more to this citation when I get a chance, the book is THAT GOOD); the comprehensive and humanistic roots of this book are so deep and delightful – one word: Ygdrassil – that it would be a great read even if it wasn't about the end of macrofauna as we know it. Thank you for this wonderful book, Marcia. 

extracts from the book:

But even geology cannot exempt itself from culpability for public misconceptions about time. Since the birth of the discipline in the early 1800s, geologists – congenitally wary of Young Earthers – have droned on about the unimaginable slowness of geologic processes, and the idea that geologic changes accrue only over immense periods of time. Moreover, geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5 billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight. But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second. And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m. Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight? [p16-17]

Since the start of the Cenozoic Era 65 million years ago (i.e. since the demise of the dinosaurs), seafloor spreading rates in the Atlanditc have averaged about 1 cm (ca ½ inch) per year, which is on the order of the rate at which one’s fingernails grow… [p68] ...in the Pacific, where spreading rates are almost an order of magnitude faster, at close to 10cm (4 in.) per year (a little slower that the “velocity” of hair growth). [p69]

It is fascinating to look back at the hypotheses for the end-Cretaceous extinction described in the textbook for the Earth History course I took in college in the early 1980s, just before the Alvarez e impact hypothesis began to gain traction in the geologic community. Old evolutionarily untenable ideas about the dinosaurs being sluggish and stupid – and by implication “deserving” of extinction – had by then given way to new depictions of creatures that were sprightly, warm-blooded, sociable (in some cases), and even smart…

Reading these ideas now feels like revisiting a kinder, gentler moment in history, because scientific ideas about mass extinction seem to parallel contemporary sources of existential angst in society; the geologic past often acts as a screen onto which we project our deepest fears… [p119]

[...a group of stratigraphers in the Geological Society of London…] pointed to five distinct systems in which human activities have at least doubled the rates of geologic processes. These include the following:

  • erosion and sedimentation, in which humans outpace all the world’s riviers by an order of magnitude (a factor of ten);

  • sea level rise, which has been close to nil for the past 7,000 years but is now about 0.3 m (1 ft) per century and expected to be twice that by 2100;

  • ocean chemistry, also stable for many millennia but now 0.1 pH unit more acidic that a century ago;

  • extinction rates, now a factor of 1,000 to 10,000 above background rates;

and of course

  • atmospheric carbon dioxide, which at more than 400 ppm is higher than at any time in the last 4 million years (before the Ice Age), while emissions by human activities surpass those of the world’s volcanoes by a factor of 100. [p129]


Like eye-witness reports of an earthquake, sea-sediment cores at dozens of sites around the globe provide vivid accounts of the PETM. [Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum] The cores all tell of a sharp shock: a sudden 5°-8° [C.] spike in temperature, as recorded by isotope ratios in microfossils; a simultaneous jump in ocean acidity, marked by a crash in the amount of calcitic shell material; and a hugh influx of carbon from some biogenic source, as indicated by its unusually high enrichment in 12C relative to 13C... Marine and land-based records of the PETM indicate that it took the oceans and biosphere 200,000 years to achieve a new equilibrium. [p146]

This brave new epoch [the Anthropocene] is not the time when we took charge of things; it is just the point at which our insouciant and ravenous ways starting [sic] changing the Earth’s Holocene habits. It is also not the “end of nature” but, instead, the end of the illusion that we are outside nature. Dazzled by our own creations, we have forgotten that we are wholly embedded in a much older, more powerful world whose constancy we take for granted. As a species, we are much less flexible than we would like to believe, vulnerable to economic loss and prone to social unrest when nature – in the guise of Katrina, Sandy, or Harvey, among others – diverges just a little from what we expect. Averse to even the smallest changes, we have now set the stage for environmental deviations that will be larger and less predictable than any we have faced before. The great irony of the Anthropocene is that our outsized effects on the planet have in face put Nature firmly back in charge, with a still-unpublished set of rules we will simply have to guess at. The fossil record of previous planetary upheavals makes it clear that there may be a long period of biogeochemical capriciousness before a new, stable regime emerges. [p158]


...In Norse mythology, Ygdrassil, the World Tree that holds up the cosmos, is maintained by three women, the mysterious Norns, called Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. Sometimes interpreted as Past, Present, and Future, their names literally mean “Fate, Becoming, and Necessity,” suggesting a strange, circular conception of time in which the future is embedded in the past. Each day, the Norns nourish the tree from the sacred Well, which holds ancient waters, and recite the Orlog, the eternal laws that have always governed the world. Both acts embody the Norse idea of wyrd, or the power of the past upon the present. [p162]

An irony of our technological advancement is that it has created a society that is in many ways scientifically more naive than the preindustrial world, in which no citizen who learned physics through backbreaking work and understood climate through subsistence agriculture would have assumed that he or she was exempt from the laws of nature. The “modern” kind of magical thinking is characterized by the belief that repeating falsehoods like incantations can transform them into scientific truth. It is also yoked to a quasi-mystical faith in the free market, which, according to the propehst, will somehow allow us to live beyond our means indefinitely.

… Critic and author Leon Wieseltier contends that “every technology is used before it is understood. There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences.” [p164]


Growing numbers of the super rich are investing in lavish “climate bunkers” … Many of these people are Silicon Valley billionaires whose high-tech companies would seem to be predicated on optimism for the future. Instead, their plan seems to be to sell that illusion to the masses while quietly preparing themselves for the apocalypse… [p170]


The next thousand years – the same amount of time that separates us from the Viking age – are even harder to bring into focus. If human carbon emissions have not been sharply curbed, and powerful positive feedback in the climate system are activated, the Earth could experience a replay of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Sea level would rise tens of feet, inundating many of the world’s most populous cities. Altered weather patterns – more ferocious storms, longer and deeper droughts – would stress world food production. Increasing proportions of government budgets would have to be channeled into crisis management. The balance of geopolitical power would shift depending on how well nations were faring in the new climate regime in the new climate regime.

But none of this is foreordained. We have the power to write a different saga…

...Kurt Vonnegut said: “I’ll tell you … one thing no cabinet has ever had is a Secretary of the Future, and there are no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.” Let us adopt Vonnegut’s suggestion as our first proposal: a representative for the yet-to-be-born to serve among the top advisors to the president… [p173]

We have few institutions in which people of all stages of life can gather and experience a unified sense of human community, what Sigmund Freud called an “oceanic feeling” and philosopher and religious theorist Emile Durkheim termed “collective effervescence.” We need spaces where, from an early age, children see that they are on an ancient, sacred path that stretches across time, the richness of life comes from the universal process of unfolding (e-volution), and that growing up and growing old are to be celebrated, not feared. [p176]


For me, geology points the middle way between the sins of narcissistic pride in our importance and existential despair at our insignificance. It affirms a teaching attributed to the eighteenth-century Polish Rabbi Simcha Bunim that we should all carry two slips of paper in our pockets: one that says “I am ashes and dust,” and one that reads “The world was made for me.” [ p177]

This geologic habit of mind – the practice of timefulness – is a fusion of wyrd and sankofa (sensing the presence of the past), sati (holding a memory of the present), and Seventh Generation thinking (a kind of nostalgia for the future). It is something like the way parents see their growing children, poignantly remembering them at earlier stages while holding aspirational visions for who they will become. [p178]

Understanding how things have come to be the way they are, what has perished, and what has persisted makes it easier to recognize the difference between the ephemeral and the eternal. Gowing old requires one to shed the illusion that there is only one version of the world.

As members of a technological society that can keep Nature at arm's length most of the time, we have an almost autistic relationship with the Earth. We are rigid in our ways, savants when it comes to certain narrow obsessions, but dysfunctional in other regards, because we wrongly view ourselves as separate from the rest of the natural world. Convinced that Nature is something outside us, a mute and immutable thing external to us, we are unable to empathize or communicate with it.

But the Earth is speaking to us all the time. In every stone, it offers an eternal truth or good rule of thumb; in every leaf, a prototype power station; in every ecosystem, an exemplar of a healthy economy. In Aldo Leopold's words, we need to 'start thinking like a mountain,' awake to all the habits and inhabitants of this ancient, complicated, endlessly evolving planet. [p179]