Marcia Bjornerud's Critical Reads

November 21st, 2018

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. Marcia Bjornerud will discuss Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World on November 27 at 6pm.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, by Amitav Ghosh - Novelist Ghosh argues that western literature has not yet found a way to address compellingly the framing issue of our time: climate change. He challenges fellow writers to expand the scope of serious fiction beyond conventional stories of individuals to larger narratives about the collective, with Nature as an active protagonist.

Story of My Boyhood and Youth, by John Muir - Muir’s account of his early childhood in Scotland and adolescent years in frontier Wisconsin sheds light on the foundations of his environmental understanding – and is often laugh-out-loud hilarious.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold - Another classic work of environmental thinking with roots in Wisconsin, A Sand County Almanac is a study in how every place, even an abandoned depression-era farm, is a window into the cosmos.

A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock, by Evelyn Fox Keller - Fox Keller’s biography of maverick botanist and geneticist Barbara McClintock is a revelatory narrative of the joy that comes with deep scientific understanding of the natural world.

About TimefulnessFew 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, enabling 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.