Deep time: “a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity”

On the Svalbard archipelago, 600 miles north of Norway. Photo by Greg White

Contemporary culture seems accustomed to hopping from one apocalypse to the next. This isn’t entirely bad in and of itself; the apocalyptic language surrounding the ozone layer hastened action on the CFC ban, just as Rachel Carson’s doomsday prophecies in Silent Spring (1962) accelerated the banning of the anti-malaria insecticide DDT. Apocalyptic language works, particularly in an easily distracted culture. It is perhaps the only thing that does work. “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction,” Carson said in a speech in 1963. But perhaps Carson had it backwards: perhaps it is our attraction to disaster stories and 11th-hour crises that allows us to focus our attention on nature and to marshal energy towards its preservation in the first place.

Along with the language of catastrophe comes a very specific articulation of time. We think of our relationship to the environment in the immediate. Global warming, we’re told, will decimate all life within our lifetimes, or in our children’s lifetimes. In this way, environmental discourse resembles the ranting of religious millenarians, who stubbornly maintain that the apocalypse will happen on their watch. As of 2010, 41 per cent of Americans say that they expect Jesus to return to Earth by 2050. This obsession with impending disaster suggests that we see nature on a particularly human, individual scale. When we think of environmental damage and the human impact on the ecosystem, we think almost exclusively in the short term. The millennium, be it religious or environmental, is always coming the day after tomorrow.

Standing opposed to this narrow band of apocalyptic time is “deep time”, a sense of scale rooted in geology rather than humanity. The concept of deep time originated with the 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton, and was popularised by the American writer John McPhee in his book Basin and Range (1981). For McPhee, the chief attraction of deep time is its ability to move us out of short-term thinking: “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time,” he wrote. “And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”

Colin Dickey, “The Global Seed Vault can anchor us in deep time

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