01.03.2011

Deep Time

If we sense our impermanence in deep time, it leads us to value Earth
If we could sense our own impermanence in the eons of Earth time, we would value our planet so much more, suggests Adrian Glamorgan

By ancient practice, March featured as the first month of the year. Since then, the way we account for the turning of time has gone through many changes, but none as profound as the way we now scientifically dissect hours and minutes into nanoseconds.
In practical terms, we have come to live busy lives full of activities yet we don't have enough time. We have played another strange trick on ourselves: this clock-bending means we frequently consume impatiently, but leave our waste products around forever. Mercury from compact fluorescents in landfill leaks into the groundwater; varieties of composite plastics cannot be recycled; through vainglorious high-tech wars so-called "depleted uranium" is released to spread all over the planet for hundreds of millions of years.

In a sustainable society, which values the environment as well as our appetites and works better with channeling our desires, we would turn this cavalier approach towards time into something more aware. In a just world, we might consume conscious, not just of the consequences of our minor actions elsewhere, but also over the vast sweep of time. We might value the impermanence of an object, not as a matter of instant, merely aware that any object we make will ultimately need to be recycled, and turned into another. Likewise, our own impermanence reminds us not to stay stuck, but gives us time to learn and grow.

Once we perceived and honoured the depth of time as part of the mystery of what had come and been left before. In Ancient Greek times, Herodotus sailed down the Nile, and saw that river floods must have taken millennia to form the delta deposits. Astronomers from his age noted that every 72 years the sun preceded (slipped its orientation) by a degree behind the horizon, and from that the mathematicians calculated a "platonic wobble" around the Earth's axis of 26,000 years. This Great Year (as it was called by the Greeks) or Yuga cycles, (as they were called in India), would ultimately realign the heavens to its original place.

Taking this surprisingly coincidental view of time, both the Ancient Greeks and Indians divided half a Great Year into four ages - in the Greek case, Golden Age, Silver, Bronze and Iron - with the philosophers noting that civilisations rose and fell in great historical arcs.

The ancients understood hubris; they knew that time passes, and so does ruler, hunter and gatherer.

According to the Indian cycles, humanity becomes tinted by vice and degradation over these cycles, ending in quarrel and hypocrisy, where lifespans and intelligence diminish. Then the wheel of civilisation starts all over again. To the people studying such a calendar, the breadth of time, and our fragile impermanence, brought twin messages on which to reflect.

By the Middle Ages, the dawning of science applied expansive notions of "deep time" to further understand the eras of life and changes in landform. Chinese polymath Shen Kuo (1031-1095) noticed fossilised bamboo well north of where he knew bamboo could grow, and he rightly surmised that climate must have changed over time. In the same century, Persian geologist Avicenna (980-1037) described the slow creation of mountains over epochs. The science was limited, but there was a grasp of spans before our own.

By the Age of Reason, scientists such as Georges Cuvier identified the extinct mammoth and mastodon - further evidence that life on earth could be sorted into its own previous ages. Cuvier went on to identify the pterodactyl, leading him to guess that an age of extraordinary reptiles had come before mammals. Out of the study of dinosaur bones and rock layers, scientists developed a notion of "geological time," slowly realising the enormity of the Earth's lifespan, each estimate pushing back further into prehistory by millions more years, and then billions.

Scientists using radiometric dating now suppose the Earth to have been around for about 4,500 million years. Even this is a minority of the life of the Universe. Of Earth's superepoch, scientists calculate it is only in the last fraction of time, even less than 10% of this period, that the first vertebrate animals walked on land. The dinosaurs didn't start happening until relatively "recently" in that much longer timescale, dating from 230 million years ago, until they were wiped out 65 million years ago.

Put in context, for most of Earth time, there have been only single celled creatures, the wash of waves, the supercontinents slowly breaking up into circulating tectonic plates and, well, more single celled creatures multiplying! Just at the last "moment" - 380 million years ago - suddenly there are dinosaurs, and then just as suddenly there are not, and finally, momentarily almost, humanity comes on the scene.

Such breadth of time seems possible yet unfathomable to our consciousness. If we stand somewhere like the Grand Canyon, a mile deep of rock layers, then we can see before us time passing on a scale. Or closer to home, consider that Uluru, 348 metres high above the plains, is all that is left of a mountain range accreted with time beyond conception - at least, that is how Western scientists see it. The Anungu custodians perceive ancestoral creator beings, still shaping current realities.

Which connects us to humanity, and our brief appearance in the last minutes of the 24 hour clock called Life on Earth. In the last 200 years of industrialisation, we have been throwing a carbon party like no other, eating all the food, cluttering up the rooms with planned obsolescence and misdirected appetites, and not worried about the damage we are doing to ourselves, worrying still less about our neighbours.

We are in the midst of what appears to be a mass extinction. There have been relatively few critical losses over Earth time. Species are disappearing across the planet well above the background rate of extinction. Instead of a deep time view, we have a cheap time view.

Humans are probably inherently no more dangerous now then we were in Paleolithic times. The difference is that we can do much more damage, over a much wider scale, not just geographically, but through into time as well.

Sustainability will come not just from a sense of holding on to things longer, the conservative edge to the word, but sustainability also arises from recognising our grip on existence is as wondrously impermanent as a butterfly wing.

If we could be humble about the rise and fall of civilisations, and acknowledge the role of mystery and wonder in the moment and the eon, we would be wise indeed.

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