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The theory behind the spectacle

Dr David Farrier from the University of Edinburgh is part of a group of experts working with 59 Productions to help tell the story of the earth and the ideas behind James Hutton’s theory of deep time.

Here he outlines his involvement in the International Festival’s opening event, and explains how the concept has revolutionised our view of the world. If you prefer your geological theories explained in comic strip form, you can read about the theory and history of deep time in James Hutton and the History of Deep Time

Dr David Farrier:

I’ve been involved in helping the International Festival and 59 Productions explore some of the unexpected aspects of deep time—not just James Hutton’s astonishing insight, but also the surprising, even uncanny ways in which deep timescales emerge in everyday contexts—and how these might be told in a story. 

‘Deep time’ refers to a way of thinking about time that engages with both very ancient pasts and far-reaching futures, and the planetary processes encompassed by these timescales. 

It’s difficult to overstate just how influential Hutton’s insights were. They changed the way people thought about the world around them through religion, science, and art. Hutton massively extended the age of the planet, upsetting religious narratives of creation; Darwin’s theory of evolution would not have been possible without Hutton and those that followed him, such as Charles Lyell (another Edinburgh author); and it was reading Lyell’s summary of Hutton that led Tennyson to write his remarkable vision of geologic time in In Memoriam: “The hills are shadows, and they flow / From form to form.” 

salisbury crags overlooking Edinburgh

Hutton’s insights led to a vision of the world that was much more dynamic, much less securely fixed than was previously thought. 

My research looks at how literary writing, especially poetry, enables us to think about ‘deep future’ problems that are also very immediate, such as biodiversity loss or climate change. These ecological crises can be as difficult to visualise as geologic time.

As Seamus Heaney said, poetry can provide us with “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” Lyric poetry allows us to think about the multifaceted nature of any given moment; elegy helps us to think about loss; through new kinds of pastoral we can rethink what we mean by ‘Nature’ and our relationship with it. Examining the challenge of representing ‘deep temporalities’ – making deep time ‘appear’ in everyday life – can, therefore, help us appreciate and address the most pressing problems of today.

It’s been suggested that today we are in a new geologic era: the Anthropocene, or ‘era of the human’. There’s currently an international committee of geologists (the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy) to report on this. But regardless of changes to geologic terminology, the Anthropocene has become embedded in popular imagination as an encapsulation of the staggering scale of changes wrought by human activity. 

Since the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by 40% to over 400ppm, reaching levels last present 250 million years ago; human activity annually shifts 57,000 million tonnes of sediment, vastly exceeding the standard rate of geological change; and the 48,000 large dams built in the past 100 years have not only reduced the proportion of rivers that flow unimpeded to the sea to a mere 12%, but also fractionally slowed the rotation of the globe.

The Anthropocene tells us that we are at a tipping point in deep time: the environmental impact of human activities are such that the future is no longer what it was.

Working with organisations like the International Festival is a fantastic opportunity to present important ideas to the public in exciting and accessible ways. The Anthropocene can be quite a frightening prospect, but I don’t believe the way to reach people is to scare them. What is so great about deep time is the way it captures the imagination, and hopefully from there it is possible to imagine a new and better future.

Images obtained and licensed by Creative Commons

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