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Most of us are clueless about humanity’s place in the planet’s long history

Most of us are clueless about humanity’s place in the planet's long history. We need to learn 'timefulness'
The oldest rocks in the Grand Canyon are more than 1.7 billion years old. (Los Angeles Times)

For a few weeks each February, small towns pop up like Brigadoons on the ice covering Lake Winnebago, the largest inland water body in Wisconsin. Winnebago is a vestige of the much larger Glacial Lake Oshkosh, which formed from ponded meltwater late in the Ice Age and left behind heavy clay sediment that is the bane of gardeners. Lake Winnebago is often alarmingly green in the summer as a result of runoff from lawns and farms, but it still supports a healthy population of lake sturgeon. Each year, before they head into upstream tributaries to spawn, the sturgeon congregate in a few bays, and the temporary towns start to appear on the ice, mirroring the fish communities below.

Sturgeon are large fish; the record setter for the area was 240 pounds (bigger, as the local paper pointed out, than a popular Packers linebacker). They have lifespans longer than humans, and their lineage has been around since the early Cretaceous, about 140 million years ago. They are caught not with delicate hooks and lines dropped through narrow auger holes but with trident-like spears plunged into large rectangular openings sawed in the ice.

In the winter of 1953, when almost 3,000 fish were taken, the public awoke to the reality that the sturgeon could soon be harvested to extinction. Sturgeon fishers and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources began to work together to monitor the population and set catch limits. As soon as the quota for a given year is reached, the season ends, sometimes just hours after it opened. At weigh stations on shore, each fish is sexed and weighed, and its age is estimated from a slice of its dorsal fin, which has growth bands like tree rings. Just think — that one hatched the year the Titanic sank! The weigh station is itself an ephemeral village, where people of all ages gather to see the giant fish pulled from this parallel, primeval world.

A defining characteristic of modern society, French philosopher Bruno Latour argues, is “a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it were really abolishing the past behind it.” We think that our technologies exempt us from the constraints of natural history that for so long defined the human experience. But stranded on the island of Now, we are lonely.

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When I see people crowded together in the cold to watch big, old, ugly fish being weighed, I sense a very un-modern yearning to connect with the past. And I suspect that our self-imposed exile from it is the source of many ills: Environmental malefactions and existential malaise are both rooted in a distorted sense of humanity’s place in the history of the natural world. People would treat one another, and the planet, better if we recognized our shared past and common destiny as lucky inheritors and eventual bequeathers of the Earth estate. In short, we need a new relationship with time, a habit of mind that could be called timefulness.

As a geologist and professor, I speak and write rather cavalierly about eras and eons. One of the courses I routinely teach is “History of Earth and Life,” a survey of the 4 ½-billion-year saga of the entire planet – in a 10-week academic term. But as a daughter, mother and widow, I struggle like everyone else to look time honestly in the face.

Antipathy toward time rooted in the very human combination of vanity and existential dread is perhaps the most forgivable type of chronophobia. But more dangerous forms of time denial pervade our society. Fiscal years and congressional terms enforce a blinkered view of the future. Short-term thinkers are rewarded with bonuses and reelection, while those who dare to take seriously our responsibility to future generations find themselves out of office. Even two years of forethought seem beyond the capacity of legislators these days, when stop-gap spending measures have become the norm. Institutions that do aspire to the long view — state and national parks, public libraries and universities — are increasingly seen as taxpayer burdens.

We would be shocked if an educated adult were unable to identify the continents on a world map, yet are untroubled at widespread obliviousness about anything but the most superficial highlights from the planet’s long history (um, Bering Strait … dinosaurs … Pangaea?). We lack a sense of temporal proportion — the durations of the great chapters in Earth’s history, the rates of change during previous intervals of climate instability, the intrinsic time-scalesof “natural capital” like groundwater systems.

We are, in effect, time illiterate, and this ignorance of planetary time undermines any claims we may make to modernity. We are navigating recklessly toward our future using conceptions of time as primitive as the pre-Copernican view of the universe. We think we’re the center of it all, unable to see either the past or future in proper perspective.

Fathoming deep time is geology’s great, undervalued, contribution to humanity. Just as the microscope and telescope extended our vision into spatial realms once too tiny or too distant for us to see, geology provides a lens through which we can witness time in a way that transcends the limits of human experience. But geology is less about time itself than its capacity to transfigure, destroy, renew, erode, entwine, innovate, exterminate.

Although we may fervently wish to resist time, we diminish ourselves, and imperil those who will come after us, by denying our temporality. For many in North America, the 2017 solar eclipse was a transformative experience, a fleeting vision of our place in the cosmos. Similarly, geologic thinking provides a view of the strange and scintillating world of time we dwell in but cannot ordinarily see, swimming just beneath our feet, like the sturgeon under the ice. Even a glimpse can alter one’s experience of being alive on Earth.

Marcia Bjornerud is a professor of geosciences at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and author of “Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World,” from which this essay is adapted.

LA Times

5 Comments on "Most of us are clueless about humanity’s place in the planet’s long history"

  1. makati1 on Sun, 30th Dec 2018 6:31 pm 

    We are an eye blink on planetary history. Soon to be gone so the next ecology can evolve.

  2. Theedrich on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 1:10 am 

    It is politically incorrect to talk about time.  That might veer into evolution, with the evolutionary differences between human races.  The average Negro IQ 15 points below Whites?  Harvard handicapping genetically superior Chinese applicants in order to give their places to (sob) Afroids?  Jews having been inadvertently bred for higher IQ by the medieval Catholic Church?  The question of suggesting eugenics versus the current dysgenics?  How dare anyone bring up the subject!  He must be a Nazi, to be cast into the Outer Darkness, if not imprisoned or worse.

    To talk about time — megatime, that is — is to talk about the unmentionable.  At most, talk about non-human fauna, but never, never, never about the hominid evolutionary tree and its branches.  And anyway, “science” is going to make us all equal tomorrow.  You had better believe it, Whitey.

  3. Dredd on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 6:43 am 

    Nice post Professor Marcia Bjornerud.

    The Earth itself is an abiotic newbie, a late bloomer during the greater part of abiotic evolution (On the Origin of the Genes of Viruses – 13).

    Just sayin’ …

  4. Sissyfuss on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 10:05 am 

    Humanitys place in the planets history is but a nanosecond in comparison to the billions of years it took to create a world so full of a variety of flora and fauna that nothing could diminish its abundance. But when we big-brained naked apes appeared the biosphere began an alteration that continues to this present day, an alteration that has become a demolition unrestrained. The coming catastrophe is unassailable, the inertia of our trajectory irreversible. We are becoming a salvage species though the culture does everything possible to deny and distract us from our fate. The truth shall set us free but only after it has devastated all our fantasies.

  5. roccman on Wed, 2nd Jan 2019 3:17 pm 

    Well – Chaco Canyon, NM is the birthplace of humanity on earth. From there, humans migrated to meso america, south america…sailed to India (Indus Valley); from there we went to SE Asia (and were wiped out by Noah’s flood); Sumer and Egypt…enter silk Road, the Steppe to Moscow…Greece, Rome, western Europe…and now making full circle back to Chaco as the entrance to Hades is California. Good day.

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