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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Geosphere  Earth & Planetary Sciences: General

Timefulness How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

By: Marcia Bjornerud(Author), Haley Hagerman(Illustrator)
208 pages, 15 b/w illustrations, tables
Though many Earth biographies have been written, Bjornerud's convincing plea for a society more aware of deep time is a unique take on this type of book.
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  • Timefulness ISBN: 9780691202631 Paperback Jan 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Timefulness ISBN: 9780691181202 Hardback Sep 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book

Few of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet's long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth's atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years – the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere – approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth's deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

Marcia Bjornerud shows how geologists chart the planet's past, explaining how we can determine the pace of solid Earth processes such as mountain building and erosion and comparing them with the more unstable rhythms of the oceans and atmosphere. These overlapping rates of change in the Earth system – some fast, some slow – demand a poly-temporal worldview, one that Bjornerud calls "timefulness". She explains why timefulness is vital in the Anthropocene, this human epoch of accelerating planetary change, and proposes sensible solutions for building a more time-literate society.

This compelling book presents a new way of thinking about our place in time that can enable us to make decisions on multigenerational timescales. The lifespan of Earth may seem unfathomable compared to the brevity of human existence. But this view of time denies our deep roots in Earth's history – and the magnitude of our effects on the planet.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A unique biography of our planet
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Nov 2019 Written for Paperback

    At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instil a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:

    “Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.

    And with that, she had me hooked.

    Bjornerud assumes little geological background knowledge on behalf of her readers and uses the first two-thirds of the book to give a canned history of relevant discoveries, including: past estimates of Earth’s age and the conceptualisation of deep time (cf. Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences), the use of isotopes to date rocks (cf. Nature’s Clocks), past climates as reconstructed from ice cores (cf. The Two-Mile Time Machine), the basics of geomagnetic reversals, spreading mid-ocean ridges, and plate tectonics (cf. The Spinning Magnet and The Tectonic Plates are Moving!), the deep history of earth’s atmosphere and the increase in oxygen (cf. Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History and Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World), and a short section on mass extinctions (cf. The Ends of the World). From the above, you can see that many of these topics have been discussed at length in other books, quite a few of which I have reviewed.

    The last two chapters are where Bjornerud tries to tie this all together. She introduces the concept of the Anthropocene, and how geologists define this by pointing out that humans are now a geologic force unto themselves. Processes like erosion and sedimentation, sea-level rise, and extinction are happening – and ocean acidity and atmospheric carbon dioxide are changing – at rates many times the background rates of recent millennia (cf. The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit).

    If there is one observation that never fails to impress upon me the immensity of deep time, it is the following: ice core studies have revealed how all of our recorded history, all roughly ten-thousand years of it, has occurred in a climatically relatively stable interglacial period (a period between ice ages). These same studies have also shown that during the last 2.6 million years, known as the Pleistocene, there have been 30 (!) such changes between ice ages and interglacial periods.

    To see a world where carbon dioxide levels are comparable to what is expected in the near future if emissions are not curbed, we have to go back 55 million years, to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM for short). This section allows Bjornerud to introduce positive feedback loops and the lurking danger of methane currently frozen in permafrost and underwater deposits known as clathrates (cf. The Oceans and Brave New Arctic). She also shortly dwells on technological solutions such as carbon capture and storage (CCS for short) and geo-engineering (cf. The Planet Remade), finding fault with both.

    The final chapter is where she tries to convince the reader that thinking like a geologist can save the world. I admit that I came away with mixed feelings. Some of her suggestions border on the spiritual – a brief excursion into how e.g. Buddhism or Norse mythology treat the concept of time and connect to it. Some seem gimmicky – conceptual art that plays with time such as Daniel Hillis’s 10,000 year clock or the ongoing 639-year performance of a John Cage composition. Others are great – pointing out the short-sightedness ingrained in democratic election cycles and the need for long-view leadership. Examples of the last are the native American idea of basing decision making on its likely effects on unborn generations (the Seventh Generation principle) or Kurt Vonnegut’s call for a governmental Department of the Future that represents future generations. Bjornerud envisions geology becoming a far more important part of school curricula, instilling a better conception of deep time in pupils.

    To my surprise, I finished this book feeling ever so mildly unsatisfied. I do not think this book deserves a negative judgement though, so let me try and be more specific. First, I am probably not the prime target audience for it – given the canned history she provides, my impression is that Bjornerud is aiming at an audience with little to no knowledge of geology. I have been reading up on many of these topics lately, so a lot of it was not new to me. Second, based on the announcements, I had perhaps unreasonably high expectations, and I felt she could have made more of some of the material on mixing times, rates of Earth phenomena, and length of certain geological cycles that she now relegates to an appendix. Third and final, what about overpopulation? (cf. Should We Control World Population? – sorry if I sound like a stuck record). If you point out the incredible acceleration in increasing carbon dioxide levels in recent decades, why not ask why this happened? (My answer: a burgeoning population that is increasingly affluent. I am sure we could all have our cake and eat it if there were not so many diners). Although unregulated population expansion is also a form of short-sightedness, this has little to do with geology. So, although I like to think Bjornerud has thought about overpopulation, leaving it out of this book is perfectly understandable.

    I would urge potential readers not to let above personal considerations discourage too much. The take-home message is that Bjornerud writes extremely well and I found the book a thoroughly captivating and enjoyable read. If you lack geologic background knowledge, many of the concepts presented here will no doubt astound you and help you conceptualise deep time better. I admit that even I picked up new bits of information. The book also has some very handsome, hand-drawn illustrations by Haley Hagerman that help out. Bjornerud is on form when she castigates humanity for its short-sightedness, and her plea for a more time-literate society is convincing. Many geologic biographies of our planet have been written, but Bjornerud here presents a unique take on this genre.
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Marcia Bjornerud is professor of geology and environmental studies at Lawrence University. She is the author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and a contributing writer for Elements, the New Yorker's science and technology blog. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin.

By: Marcia Bjornerud(Author), Haley Hagerman(Illustrator)
208 pages, 15 b/w illustrations, tables
Though many Earth biographies have been written, Bjornerud's convincing plea for a society more aware of deep time is a unique take on this type of book.
Media reviews

"[Timefulness is] a profound meditation on the richness, depth and entanglements of geologic time [...] elegantly condensing the landmark tomes of geology, from James Hutton's Theory of the Earth [...] to John McPhee's Annals of the Former World."
– Robert M. Thorson, Wall Street Journal

"In this trenchant study, Bjornerud calls for a new geological literacy to instil deeper knowledge of planetary rhythms and processes."
– Barbara Kiser, Nature

"Timefulness is a delightful and interesting read. The author's cadence and the illustrator's aforementioned figures made me feel as though I was having a glass of wine with a friend who was explaining geologic history while sketching on a napkin."
– David R. Wunsch, Science

"With Timefulness [...] [Bjornerud] delivers a brisk biography of Earth. Aside from charting the rise of mountains and the transformation of the atmosphere, she shows us why – given an uncertain future – taking the long view is more critical than ever before."
– Matt Huston, Psychology Today

"Timefulness is a charmer and makes a strong case for thinking like Bjornerud."
– Heather Smith, Sierra

"It is always a challenge to make geology accessible to a popular audience, but Timefulness is never impenetrable and is sparing in its use of jargon. New Scientist readers will have little difficulty following the heartfelt narrative. Bjornerud's book is a manifesto for humanity – but on a very long timescale."
– Mick O'Hare, New Scientist

"Bored? Anxious? Busy? Try considering time as a geologist would – in segments of years, or hundreds of years. Understanding the rhythm and pace of the planet we live on is what Bjornerud calls 'timefulness.' It all seems unfathomable, until we begin to fathom it – and realize that thinking on this scale might be the only way we can truly understand (and save) the world."
– Emily Temple, Literary Hub

"[Timefulness] is an antidote to the new climate report (not to mention raging fires and floods around the world) that seems bereft of hope for humanity's future [...] Bjornerud argues that if we all can change the way we view our world and our place in it, adopting an approach grounded in 'timefulness,' we'll be able to create a more sustainable future not just for ourselves and the next generation but for many generations to come."
– Sarah Rothbard, Zócalo Public Square

"One of the most important books of recent times."
– Marcus Smith, host, BYU Radio's Constant Wonder

"We need to understand the Earth more intimately than ever now, Bjornerud argues, as we change it in unprecedented ways (a fact that only becomes more terrifying the more you know about Earth's long history). A more grounded view of time – zooming out and looking at the Earth's entire life thus far from a remove – practically begs for saner, longer-term decision-making for the future. And this perspective is something we can only get from acquainting ourselves with geology, Bjornerud posits, because 'fathoming deep time is arguably geology's single greatest contribution to humanity.'"
– Chelsea Leu, Bay Nature

"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."
– Justin Cober-Lake, Englewood Review of Books

"Clear, well-paced, [and] witty."
– John Wilson, First Things

"Marcia Bjornerud's book tells the story of the deep history of Earth, a history that's been punctuated by cataclysmic and unfathomable violence. Oddly, I found comfort in learning about the processes by which this little ball of rock has evolved into a habitable planet and, despite our best efforts, will continue to be so for billions of years to come."
– Stephen Sparks, co-owner of Point Reyes Books, Literary Hub

"Bjornerud's vision of Earth science is poetic and lovely [...] [Timefulness] feels essential and timely. It encapsulates the mismatch between the long-term sense of who we are and where we came from with the short-term-thinking that dominates our election cycles and our stock markets. Recommended to all."
– Callan Bentley, Mountain Beltway

"Being timeful, in [Bjornerud's] formulation, means allowing ourselves to be daunted by events and landscapes whose scale strains the imagination; it means seeing Earth, and not our own short-lived species, as the main character in the story."
– Geoff Manaugh, WIRED

"Timefulness transforms geological phenomena, from atmospheric carbon molecules to ancient mountains, into a meditation on life itself."
– Alistair Scrutton, Anthropocene

"In reading Timefulness, one encounters a clear, engaging text grounded in years of teaching, thinking, and conversations about the struggles of humans to relate themselves to geologic time."
– J. S. Lackey, Pomona College

"Bjornerud has made sure that her message reaches audiences without being crippled by jargon."
– Ishan Kukret, Down to Earth

"[Timefulness] offers the reader the underlying science in sufficient detail to develop an understanding and perhaps an opinion on the challenges before us."
– Ben van der Pluijm, Holocene

"[Bjornerud] positions geology as a field of study ready to tackle the larger philosophical questions being posed by climate change experts."
– Jennifer Ferng, Leonardo Reviews

"One of the most interesting and informative books I have read for a long time."
– Jane A. Michael, Proceedings of the Open University Geological Society

"[Timefulness] must cause us to pause and reflect on the sudden speed at which we are undoing processes that have taken millennia to evolve."
– Paul Sorensen, International Journal of Environment Studies

"A profound meditation on the richness, depth and entanglements of geologic time."
Wall Street Journal

"Bjornerud gives lyrical voice to the rocks that tell the story of our wondrous planet. Engaging and eloquent, Timefulness reminds us that the present is only a link between past and future, a reality too often forgotten in the modern world's obsession with the here and now."
– Ruth DeFries, author of The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis

"A passionate and timely plea for the urgency of geo-literacy."
– David R. Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life

"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

"This succinct and engaging book covers the history of Earth from its birth some 4.5 billion years ago to the problem of human-induced climate change. Bjornerud's message is that we need to understand geological time to appreciate – and deal with – the impact we are having on our planet."
– Simon Lamb, author of Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes

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