Steinhardt grasped the geology

Timeliness. How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World
GEOLOGY / Everyone can and should learn more about geology, says Marcia Bjornerud. However, her well-intentioned attempts to bring the subject's insights to life are on the rise.


Inspired by the history of "deep history", which extends the perspective and also applies to the time before there are written sources, we have in recent years received a number of books from especially naturalists: With the prefix deep they happily retell the history of the world from The Big Bang until today. With such a perspective, there is plenty of room for hand picking and for introducing their own ideological fad horses. Marcia Bjornerud (eg. Bjørnerud) is a professor of both environmental studies and geology at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, and she wants to promote awareness of what she calls "deep time."

The title Timeliness plays on "mindfullness" – a somewhat strange choice since much of the book provides a demanding introduction to ordinary geology. This one is clear, but so concise that readers with no facility for chemistry will not get much out of these pages – which make up nearly a quarter of the book. This is a strange choice, since the complicated layouts of isotopes, half-lives, potential sources of error etc. have no guidance on what is the book's project. It is also a weakness that it is full of what, but empty how. Here there are no meta-reflections on method or terminology.


Bjornerud regrets that the subject of geology has a low status in relation to physics, chemistry and biology. The subject should enter the school strongly, and she is calling for a Nobel Prize. Without drawing the obvious conclusion, she herself writes elsewhere about what is probably the reason for the geology subject's status: In the latter half of the 1800th century, the subject was seriously situated. During this period, many mistakes were made that the subject would struggle with for a long time; among other things, they came completely on a collision course with the subject of physics. In fact, it was not until after World War II that geologists were able to determine the age of the earth at 4,5 billion years using meteorites (which have changed minimally since the earth was formed). A big plus of the book is that Bjornerud, in contrast to other natural scientists who retell the history of his subject, does not hide the subject's support for erroneous theories and their impact history. A hero like Lord Kelvin gets to taste the whip several times, and it is not undeserved, since his reaction to Darwin's theory was as follows: “I have always felt that the hypothesis of natural selection does not contain the true story of evolution, if evolution there has been in biology (…). Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us (…), and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting Creator and Ruler. »


Bjornerud deliberately avoids the word «Timelessness», which many will surely associate with the subject of geology. On the contrary, she believes that the geologists' perspective on time is the key to today's climate problems. She claims that we modern humans are unable to keep up with the development of technology that we uncritically embrace, that we are constantly living in a forward-looking access where we forget that we are part of a much bigger time. I do not think she has given much thought to this statement: What about nostalgia cultivation? What about the many cultural history museums? What about all the photo albums and movies people take care of? What about your great-grandmother and great-grandfather or daughter? We swim continuously in a pond of the past, and this one we do not escape. As Gadamer points out in Truth and method: «We can only work to get the best possible overview of the tradition. We will never get out of it. "

After Bjornerud's caricatured claim about the lack of time consciousness of our time, she contrasts this with examples from pre-modern and esoteric knowledge. Out of the hat come examples of myths from Iroquois, Buddhism, Hinduism, Norse mythology and so on. Her seemingly uncritical picking of these is in stark contrast to the sober interpretation she has of her own subject. Inspired by these exotic flowers, she even comes up with several hypostases: "The Proterozoic Earth somehow 'understood' the fundamental principles of sustainability"; «The Earth is speaking to us all the time»; «We need to start thinking like a mountain».


Bjornerud uses colorful metaphors and references to literature and music (Bob Dylan is drawn in malapropos four times) to bring his rock-hard matter to life: «the history of the atmosphere is a Bildungsroman about a planet reinventing itself as it matured »; Mediterranean ridges are like "French soufflés"; sediments accumulate as "snippets of hair on a barbershop floor". It seems very dandered and contributes more than anyone else to show that Bjornerud is not a fiction writer. On page 2, where she tells of a day she went to eighth grade, she adds: "that liminal stage when one has access to the realms of both childhood and adulthood" – as if not everyone knows this.

Geologists' perspective on time is the key to today's climate problems.

The problems all natural scientists face when they demand the public's interest in new and important discoveries in their field, is that these no longer have any significance for human life world other than indirectly via technology and products we all make use of. Charles Lyells Principles of Geology (1830) the most vigilant showed that the church's claim that the earth was created 6000 years back in time must be wrong, and Charles Darwin was one of these. Such earthquakes are history.

Discoveries of planets and galaxies are still being made, but neither are these abilities to shift the horizon of the audience's view of life. It has been a long time since sensational news came from that edge. Similarly, it does not matter to us whether the world is 2, 4 or 8 billion years old. Marcia Bjornerud tries herself both as a writer and a philosopher, but it becomes dilettantism and unsuitable to show the value of her indisputable grip on geology. "Maybe, just maybe, the earth itself can provide a politically neutral narrative from which all nations may agree to take counsel." Maybe indeed. In ethics, this is called the naturalistic fallacy.

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