Below I’ve copied my thinking about each book or you can read the original reviews here on Goodreads.
Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Part geology lesson, part teleology and part plea to take seriously our responsibilities to our children and the planet.
By taking the long view of history (that’s billions of years), Bjornerud reminds us that the human species is part of something very much bigger than ourselves. We are the product of evolutionary systems that have been - literally - millennia in the making and which wax and wane and twist and turn with startling complexity. Chemicals form and combine and are stirred by the revolutions of the planet, pounded by forces from within and without and heated and cooled into microscopic crystals and massive continents. It is a dance which is stunning to observe but built on a choreography we only dimly understand.
It’s too easy as a non-geologist to look at at the world and see stability. Rocks, after all, are rocks and the point of them is that they are stable. The seasons come and go according to an immutable rhythm and, whilst human history changes at an often dizzying rate, the physical world around us is the stability we need to “ground” our human experience.
This, however, is a profoundly dangerous delusion. Just as biological systems change and evolve, so too does the geological world; all that is different is the timescale. Bjornerud reminds us that ‘rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt.’ (p. 8) As we enter the Anthropocene (the first geological time period in which ‘rates of environmental change caused by humans outstripped those by many natural geologic and biological processes’ p.128) shortsighted human timescales are compressing natural systems to create pressures that are potentially catastrophic.
The evidence is there in the geological record for what can happen when systems are this far out of joint. But if there is one message that is clear in Bjornerud’s description of geology, it is that things are complex. What exact outcomes human behaviour will have on natural systems through the Anthropocene isn’t clear: that we are having an effect and that that effect is already causing significant change is unambiguous.
How we respond to complexity seems to be one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity at the moment. Shortsighted political responses that put time into soundbites and reduce complexity to polarised binaries are not the answer. In contrast, the concept of “timefulness” is a useful tool because it opens a space for engaging with all the systems that act on our complex reality - both those within the timespan of a human life and those systems that function within the timespan of a planet. Bjornerud tells us that:
In Greek, there is a useful distinction between time as something that simply marches on—chronos, and time that is defined within a narrative—kairos . Hutton [one of the founders of the discipline of Geology] gave us the first glimmers of planetary chronos , but the task of calibrating it, and adding kairos, has consumed geologists for the past two centuries. (p.26)
It is in this distinction between chronos and kairos that I find the real heart of this book. Mechanical chronos measures reality, human kairos gives it meaning. “Timefulness” gives us a tool to help measure and understand our world and to write more just stories not just for our own time, but also for the time of generations yet to come.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are so many things to love about this book. Let me begin with a quote:
"The world cannot be understood without numbers, nor through numbers alone. A country cannot function without a government, but the government cannot solve every problem. Neither the public sector nor the private sector is always the answer. No single measure of a good society can drive every other aspect of its development. It's not either/or. It's both and it's case-by-case." (p. 201)
Rosling is a master statistician but statistics is not his master. Part psychologist, part storyteller and part researcher, Rosling's pragmatism describes a world full of hope and possibility without hiding the challenges and the dangers. He points out that humanity is achieving great things even if our instincts cause us to miss much that is happening. This is a book about bias as much as it is about statistics and a book about the importance of context and navigating through the realities of a complex world with an open mind and a generous spirit.
The world lost a great man when Rosling died in early 2017. This book is an important part of a powerful legacy.
Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A remarkable book. It strikes me that it reframes history to focus less on the social interaction of humans and more on the way humans fit within systems. It's not so much a history about the political interactions of humans, but a history of the way, throughout time, systems have evolved, thrived and sometimes died. Although humans are central to the story, we are not the most powerful players and, in our dance with entropy, we have a lot of steps still to learn.
One of the key ideas I found myself reflecting on was that the binary “human/nature” is simplistic and unhelpful. It sets too narrow an historical vision and sees humans only in the political context of a few thousand odd years of history. A better historical vision sees humans as a part of nature, recently evolved and acting within a complex system which may or may not be sustainable. Whether we are responsible for climate change is not the most important question; far more important is "can we use our skills and understandings to act within the natural systems of our biosphere to make it sustainable?" And just to be clear, a non-sustainable system is one that dies. Christian reminds me that, whilst my lifespan may be too short for the timescale of systems sustainability to have too detrimental an impact on me, the next half dozen generations to follow will be severely impacted. This impact can be positive or negative and decisions we make now will be decisive.
One last observation: for my colleagues at United World Colleges, this is an important book also because it reads almost as a manifesto for the teaching of history with a UWC agenda. No accident perhaps given that the author is a graduate of UWC Atlantic College. The Big History Project is well worth a look. And Christian's dedication says it all:
"I dedicate this book to my family, to my grandchildren, Daniel Richard and Evie Rose Molly, and to all students everywhere as they embark on the momentous challenge of building a better world."
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And lastly, a different, glorious, take on timefulness:
The Clock of the Long Now from Public Record on Vimeo.