A Very Brief History of Timefulness

by Caspar Henderson

In yesterday’s news, the veteran broadcaster David Attenborough warned delegates at COP24,  the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Katowice, Poland that, without swift action we face the collapse of civilisation.  But that was so 24 hours ago.

The rapid turnover in the news cycle is nothing new, of course.  That said, our times do feel especially febrile. So what to do? “Maybe it is not more intelligence that we need right now,” writes the sociologist Will Davies, “but less speed and more care, both in our thinking and our feeling.” And in this regard, a practice of mindfulness may be especially helpful in what Perspectiva’s Dan Nixon suggests is a defining battle of our time: the battle for our attention.

Another practice to consider may be what the geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls ‘timefulness’ — that is, a focus on the vast timescales within which our present ‘great acceleration‘  is situated.  This vision, writes Bjornerud, requires deliberate attention to Earth’s deep history, and it may help us to deal better with what she calls ‘chronophobia’ (fear of time) in a culture that — as Woody Allen put it — wants to believe that death is optional.  Timefulness, she writes, can gives us a “clear-eyed view of our place in time, both the past that came long before us and the future that will elapse without us…If more people [understood] our shared history and destiny as Earth dwellers, we might treat each other, and the planet a little better.”

In the Western scientific tradition, a sense of deep, or geological time  dates back to the mid-eighteenth century.   A vivid metaphor that has helped form popular representations of it in recent decades is credited to the science writer John McPhee:

Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.

But a sense that the time of the universe and life on Earth is much larger than humans can readily comprehend predates Europe’s scientific revolution, not least in Muslim, Chinese and Hindu thought.  And its spiritual implications have been explored by, among others, the theologian Thomas Berry, who argued that a profound understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe is a vital for us as individuals and as a species.

Thinking deeply about the past is not, of course, enough.  Human beings are always oriented towards a future that we cannot control or foresee.  Expanding our ability to imagine that future generously — and differently is one of our main tasks.   But it is our capacity to remember that makes it possible for us to imagine a future. As the filmmaker Patricio Guzmán puts it:

Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none don’t live anywhere.

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud is published by Princeton University Press

Image: Bristlecone Pine Bristlecone Pine Forest of the White Mountains in California by Rick Goldwaser. Creative Commons