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Sustainable Missoula: Understanding ‘Deep Time’ can inform today’s climate response

Dan Spencer places his hand on the K-T boundary in Gubbio, Italy. The boundary marks the end of the Cretaceous period, the extinction of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammalian life. (Courtesy photo)

As a former geologist-turned-earth ethicist, I have spent the better part of 50 years learning everything I can about the Earth and its story – and the exhilarating insight that Earth has a story that increasingly we can tell in all its richness.

I have my own “geological bucket-list” of places on the Earth’s surface where clues to that story are expressed with particular poignancy: walking across new lava in Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano that is younger than I am; contemplating the Ice Age floods of Glacial Lake Missoula that scoured the scablands of Eastern Washington with a flow of water 10 times the volume of all the Earth’s current rivers; standing on the Mid-Atlantic rift zone in Iceland where the North American plate diverges from the Eurasian plate.

Two years ago, I checked off another point on my geological bucket-list. In the Bottaccione Gorge outside the walled medieval Italian city of Gubbio, I put my hand on the K-T boundary, the point marking the end of the Cretaceous period (and its most famous members, the dinosaurs) and the beginning of the Cenozoic era and the subsequent explosion of mammalian life on the planet.

Here the rock record marks the cataclysmic collision between a large meteor and Earth, providing tangible evidence of how Earth experienced one mass extinction event where nearly 80% of all species vanished forever, only to recover over time to give birth to myriad new kinds of animals including eventually our own human ancestors.

My deep love for Earth and its story is accompanied by an equally deep distress at seeing how human actions today are altering and destroying much of Earth’s beauty and richness that has taken millions of years to produce. Yet I believe that [re]learning the planet’s story – and experiencing it deeply again – could be one piece of a joint effort that could bind us back together to heal Earth.

Modern science has revealed to us the reality of Deep Time: the Earth and the Universe are incomprehensively old, and they are evolving: they have histories of which we humans are a part. An important part of Earth’s history is a constantly evolving climate that has made possible the conditions for an ever-complexifying diversity of life, yet a climate history punctuated with global mass extinction events.

What can we learn from Earth’s history about the relationship between climate evolution, catastrophic climate change, and the diversity of life? Can we use this emerging story of our evolving Earth and universe to help understand what is distinctive about our current climate crisis, and what is needed by way of human response?

These questions are the premise of a discussion next Tuesday, February 25th, from 6 to 8pm at St. Paul Lutheran Church, as part of the Faith & Climate Action spring conversation series.

A key common element of many faith traditions is the power of love. When we love someone or something deeply, we often want to know it more deeply. So, too, we can get to know and love the Earth more richly through immersing ourselves in Earth’s story.

Central to this is trying to grasp the enormity of “deep time” – that while humans as a species have lived on and with the Earth for perhaps 200,000 years, the Earth itself is over 4.5 billion years old, and life itself has been part of the Earth’s journey for at least 3.8 billion years. By gaining intimacy with the variegated contours of the Earth’s rich and complex story (which is also our story!), that intimacy can deepen our love for the Earth as our home and shape how we live on and with the Earth.

In the process we learn about the creativity and resilience of life over time that has led to the spectacular biodiversity of the planet. But we also must engage the darker dimensions of this story: the trillions of deaths and suffering of individual life forms, periodically culminating in mass extinction events when 50-95% of all species disappeared from Earth’s story forever.

This is the thrilling paradox I experienced when I placed my hand on the K-T Boundary outside Gubbio: this rock boundary records both the terrifying extinction of much of life on Earth, probably in the matter of several years, and the possibility of Earth’s renewal in the Cenozoic era to come.

Why should this part of Earth’s story inform our sense of purpose in these times? It is increasingly clear that the common features of all earlier mass extinction events also characterize the effects on Earth of our modern ways of life. Yet if our actions can cause another potential mass extinction event, so too can our love for the Earth in all its complex diversity bring us together to prevent it.

Join me this coming Tuesday, February 25, 6-8 pm at St. Paul Lutheran Church to explore how this perspective can deepen our engagement and commitment to climate action and healing our planet in this historical moment.

Dan Spencer is the Director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events

Every Friday. Missoula Friday Climate Strike. Noon – 1pm. February strikes are at NorthWestern Energy’s Headquarters. Stand in solidarity with climate strikers around the world. Coordinated by Families for a Livable Climate and Sunrise Missoula. More here.

Now through mid-March. Dear Tomorrow Missoula letter writing project, sponsored by Climate Smart Missoula and Families for a Livable Climate. Dear Tomorrow is a global storytelling project focused on sharing personal messages about climate change to inspire action. Details here.

Through Feb 23 –– Big Sky Documentary Film FestivalMany films address environmental, conservation, peace & justice themes.  The film festival is moving Towards Zero Waste and seeks volunteers to help with this effort. To help, contact volunteer@bigskyfilmfest.org.

February 22Running Up for Air endurance event sponsored by the Runner’s Edge and in support of Climate Smart Missoula. 3, 6, or 12 hour up and down event on Mt Sentinel. Join us by signing up to participate or pledging to support runners!

Feb 22-23 — Sunrise Missoula Training. Join the fight for a just and sustainable future. TIMES: Saturday 9am-8pm; Sunday 9am-6pm. More info and sign up HERE.

February 25. Climate Conversations: Deep Time: the Journey of the Universe and Human Response, presented by Dan Spencer. 6-8pm, dinner provided. St Paul Lutheran Church (202 Brooks St). All are welcome – part of spring Faith and Climate Action series.

Feb 27. UM’s Seeking Sustainability Lecture Series continues. Meets Thursdays 7 – 8:30 pm through April 16 in Gallagher Business Building room 122. Free and open to all. Learn how UM, local government, nonprofits and businesses are working together to create a sustainable community and how you can help. The weekly schedule is here. This Thursday: Sustainable energy initiatives.