Featured Reviews, VOLUME 11

Marcia Bjornerud – Timefulness [Feature Review]

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A Feature Review of 

Timefulness:
How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World
Marcia Bjornerud

Hardback: Princeton UP, 2018
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
 
 

With the release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report this past October, the disastrous effects of anthropogenic climate change feel even more imminent (as if we aren’t seeing them already). Even so, neither public conversation nor policy properly addresses the problem. Marcia Bjornerud, a professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University, writes that at least some of the problem with our understanding of the situation lies in our “time denial.” In Timefulness, she proposes that developing a geologist’s thinking about time will help us more properly address our current global situation.

That sort of “timeful” thinking doesn’t look like you might expect. Bjornerud’s idea isn’t simply that we should develop a sense of long-term thinking; geologists, after all, deal with rocks billions of years old. Instead, she suggests ways of keeping time in mind differently, recognizing both a broad perspective and a sense of the quick. She writes, “Understanding the lingering effects of sudden topographic change is important because we ourselves are now agents of geomorphic catastrophe” (89). We need to be able to consider life a few generations after us, but at the same time we need to understand how the coastline of Louisiana is changing measurably by the hour. The earth changes over millennia, and it changes fast enough for us to observe it. “Studying the habits of solid Earth,” she writes, “teaches us to respect the power of both incremental change and episodic catastrophe to transform the face of the globe” (92). Thinking like a geologist, it appears, will give us a more developed sensibility than we might have guessed.

Getting to that point might not be easy, though. The book, along with curious trips to Scandinavia and the pursuit of ancient sturgeon, requires covering a certain amount of hard science. Bjornerud herself explains that chapter two is relatively technical and can be skipped. She’s not wrong, but the chapter reveals but the challenge and the promise of the book. Here she works through a history of our attempts to date the earth and its rocks, from rudimentary Victorian efforts through contemporary isotopic techniques. Readers without a reasonable understanding of chemistry may get lost in this section, owing more to the concision of Bjornerud’s work than to her clarity. That none of this detail is necessary for her larger argument makes its inclusion complicated, especially as the chapter accounts for over 1/5 of the book. Readers who stick with it will have a much better understanding of the field, but they won’t necessarily have a stronger grasp of Bjornerud’s ultimate argument.






And there’s the crux of the matter. Bjornerud, despite the book’s subtitle, frequently tells us what geologists think rather than how they do. A fair portion of the book is given to explaining various geological concepts or detailing knowledge we have of our planet without the sort of meta-critical thinking that might be useful. In that sense, the book can frustrate. Readers looking for quick fixes will have to learn to move more glacially (and maybe gain a surprising sense of what that term actually means). At the same time, though, Bjornerud’s lucid writing gives geology an energy it rarely has in popular imagination, with just enough warm autobiographical moments to make a personal connection. In both content and prose, she skillfully makes the case that this sort of knowledge (even using the what more than the how) offers us great opportunity to think about our contemporary situation, particularly regarding climate change.

Those political and cultural concerns appear throughout the book, but Bjornerud focuses on them in the book’s final third. She’s not optimistic. Partly, our rapid technological advances have left us less competent for the sort of thinking we need. We’ve become “a society that is in many ways scientifically more naïve than the preindustrial world” (164). We’re detached from the physical workings of the world. Furthermore, “rates of technological progress far outstrip the rate at which human wisdom matures (in the same way that environmental changes outpace evolutionary adaptation in mass extinction events)” (164). We don’t focus on the earth itself, the long-term effects of our action, or the way that our expanding technology could impact the world. Timefulness is, in part, an effort to correct that flawed thinking.

Even with a changed mindset, we’re running out of time to do something about our looming climate disaster. Bjornerud works through a number of possible options, some of which rely specifically on the science she presents in the early part of the book. Her work gives new insights for lay readers into a problem we’ve been facing for decades. Unfortunately, many of these solutions are either temporary fixes or unpractical, sometimes due to the great energy needed to implement them. Even so, Bjornerud’s willing to meditate on a chronotopia, still believing that recontextualizing time can offer last-minute hope, and she’s convincing enough that it’s a path worth pursuing.

If the book doesn’t quite save the world – though it might help – it should at least achieving something smaller: inspiring new geologists. Geology has never been the darling of the physical sciences, but Bjornerud’s pen reveals an unexpectedly exciting and demanding field, whether involved in biogeochemistry, isotopic dating, or carbon storage. The science some of us remember as playing with rocks in eighth grade becomes the field that necessitates a potent ability to integrate biology, physics, chemistry, and more. If Bjornerud isn’t the superhero of a not-so-infinite crisis, she’s at least preparing those who will be.

———
Justin Cober-Lake holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. He’s also the co-founder of OneFocus Press.



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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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