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Geologic time is contemporary. It’s an idea about time whose time has come. It’s a new cultural meme. According to the Daily Meme, a meme is: a unit of cultural information that represents a basic idea.
“Geologic time” is becoming just that–it’s morphing from a unit of geology jargon into “a unit of cultural information that represents a basic idea.”
Up until recently, the idea of geologic time has been confined to textbooks, locked inside the rigid blocks that make up the official “geologic time scale.” It’s been further obscured by tongue twisting names given to unimaginably long epochs and ages.
But the basic idea of geologic time is spreading beyond geologists. It’s now showing up across popular culture, blogs, art projects, op-ed pieces, public awareness campaigns, and political diatribes. It’s being taken up as used as a “unit of cultural information”–a carrier of urgent, breaking cultural news.
What’s making “geologic time” so new, relevant, and so suddenly basic at this very moment in time? What is making it contemporary?
All of a sudden, it seems impossible to escape the basic idea that we humans live in on a planet that we cannot control and that we will never understand fully. Geologic forces are not inert. And they’re not inaccessibly locked in the past. They co-exist with us every day. Even though geologic time often unfolds at a rate that makes it undetectable by humans, the earth is constantly in motion. It churns continuously and powerfully. Eventually and inevitably, geologic time spills into human time and into our human world: volcanic eruptions disrupt travel; landslides propel modern houses into the geologic layer of an inland sea that existed 10,000 years ago; earthquakes displace millions of people; an uncapped well gushes liquid geologic time into the Gulf of Mexico.
There seems to be a growing awareness that events such as these are actually moments of contact between humans and deep geologic time. And this awareness being propagated via internet and illustrated in intimate detail via digital imaging.
Another basic idea that seems to be suddenly dawning on “us” is that right now, we contemporary humans are unleashing forces and materials that are geologic in scale, impact–and duration. Humans now have unprecedented abilities to shape the deep geologic future of the earth. And we are accessing and exploiting materialities of every previous geologic epoch. Our bodies are made of the stuff that it took the earth eons to materialize. And we are now enculturating the products of geologic time–from iron to uranium–into objects that shape and support our daily lives.
The basic idea of “geologic time” is no longer a defined and regulated bit of jargon. Like all cultural memes, its meanings and uses are mutating, crossing over, and adapting to new audiences and venues. Now at the hands of artists, educators, politicians, scientists, journalists, and Friends of the Pleistocene, “geologic time” is an idea that’s being used to do everything from motivating citizens in Los Angeles to stop being in denial about “the big one,” to justifying a dismissive attitude toward global climate change and unabated burning of fossil fuels.
Here are places where geologic time is becoming contemporary:
- Geoff Manaugh’s geo-rich BLDG BLOG on “contemporary architectural conjecture, urban speculation and landscape futures” includes posts such as, “One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham Van Luik.”
- mammoth a contemporary “architectural research, design, and development cartel” writes in a recent post, “I’ve been tremendously entertained lately by Pathological Geomorphology, a blog run by “a loosely defined and unified group of geobloggers” which catalogs “images of extreme landscapes, landforms, and processes.”
- Contemporary art and design practices that draw on geologic forces for inspiration: Rachel Sussman’s Oldest Living Things in the World; Ilana Halperin’s Slow Geology; Rising Currents exhibit at MoMA; Hydroplutonic Kernow: Cornwall’s Best Kept Secrets, part of the 2010 Falmouth Convention; Matt Baker
- Popularization of the basic idea of geologic time: Tom Zoellner’s Uranium; Mariana Gosnell’s Ice; Micahel Welland’s Sand, Weisman’s The World Without Us; John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World; Joan Didion’s Stories We Tell Ourselves in Order to Live
- Geologists are arguing that the next geologic epoch is actually contemporary: the Anthropocene
As a cultural meme, “geologic time” is becoming less of an abstract concept and more of a character–an actor in a big story about global scale, human futures, human impact on the earth, the earth without humans, after humans, despite humans.
Some versions of this story confront the reality that deep geologic is contemporary–but they also seem incapable of responding to the fact that we ourselves are a product of it. We are embedded within the geologic. And that means that, unlike Laughlin’s recent assertions, our job isn’t simply to figure out how either to control it or get out of its way:
Robert B. Laughlin, a physicist and co-recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Physics, recently wrote: “What the Earth Knows,” and claims that understanding the concept of geologic time and some basic science can give a new perspective on climate change and the energy future. After a lengthy enumeration of the vastness and power of geologic time, he ends with the incredibly disappointing and uninspired conclusion: “The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.”
There are other versions of this story that, unlike Laughlin’s, leave us humans with the job of rethinking what it means to be human altogether. They challenge us to recalibrate our actions in relation to our contemporary confrontations with the reality and power of deep geologic time:
In response to the Haiti earthquake, for example:
“So what can be done? We live a world dominated by news cycles that get shorter and shorter, where if something is not on a society’s immediate radar, a society may not address it. How can we as scientists emphasize that the geological timescale does in fact intersect with human timescales? And how can we emphasize this before tragedies occur? –Mohi Kumar, AGU Science Writer in “The disconnect between geoscience and society: One of timescale?“
Deborah Blum in, “Civilization on a fault line:” At one meeting of seismologists I attended, the organizers strung a banner across the front of the conference room with a quotation attributed to the historian Will Durant: ‘Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.’ I’ve always liked that line — its rebuttal of our natural hubris, our assumption that we inevitably lord over this small sphere in one of our galaxy’s lesser solar systems.”
When it comes to living in relation to the speed and rhythms of geologic time, we contemporary humans are only beginning to figure out how to rebut our own hubris.
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