A guide to long-term thinking: how to envision the far future of Earth.
We live on a planet careening toward environmental collapse that will be largely brought about by our own actions. And yet we struggle to grasp the scale of the crisis, barely able to imagine the effects of climate change just ten years from now, let alone the multi-millennial timescales of Earth's past and future life span. In Deep Time Reckoning, Vincent Ialenti offers a guide for envisioning the planet's far future – to become, as he terms it, more skilled deep time reckoners. The challenge, he says, is to learn to inhabit a longer now.
Ialenti takes on two overlapping crises: the Anthropocene, our current moment of human-caused environmental transformation; and the deflation of expertise – today's popular mockery and institutional erosion of expert authority. The second crisis, he argues, is worsening the effects of the first. Hearing out scientific experts who study a wider time span than a Facebook timeline is key to tackling our planet's emergency. Astrophysicists, geologists, historians, evolutionary biologists, climatologists, archaeologists, and others can teach us the art of long-termism.
For a case study in long-term thinking, Ialenti turns to Finland's nuclear waste repository "Safety Case" experts. These scientists forecast far future glaciations, climate changes, earthquakes, and more, over the coming tens of thousands – or even hundreds of thousands or millions – of years. They are not pop culture "futurists" but data-driven, disciplined technical experts, using the power of patterns to construct detailed scenarios and quantitative models of the far future. This is the kind of time literacy we need if we are to survive the Anthropocene.
Vincent Ialenti is MacArthur Assistant Research Professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
"Imagine yourself as an ancestor of people living ten thousand or a hundred thousand years in the future. Ialenti focuses on these unfathomable timescales through the lens of radioactive waste and illuminates how readjusting our time horizon underlies our survival."
– Ruth DeFries, Denning Family University Professor of Sustainable Development, Columbia University; author of What Would Nature Do?
"Finland's nuclear waste safety case project is one of the most extraordinarily large-minded human endeavors. Reading Deep Time Reckoning is, likewise, a mind-expanding experience. Both sober and open to wonder, Vincent Ialenti makes deep time tangible."
– David Farrier, author of Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils
"Ialenti captures a world of possibilities, a future that is not as gloomy as it looks to many. In a secularized world of short-term profit-making, Ialenti points to deep time, inviting the reader to explore alternative futures and timescales in order to plot a way out of our current ecological predicaments."
– Kate Brown, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, MIT; author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future