Thinking MYA

In a piece called What the Earth Knows in the summer 2010 issue of The American Scholar, Robert Laughlin, a Nobel laureate and Stanford physicist argues for an understanding of the difference between energy use and climate change in terms of temporal sweep, the significance of humankind in its development (anthropogenics), and scale.

He demonstrates that the two issues, inextricably linked in the popular imagination, are separated by a vast gulf in the metrics of their scientific analysis. Energy use - ultimately the conversion or burning - of all the earth's fossil fuels and their subsequent conversion into carbon dioxide (etc.) will be resolved by the dissolving of the gas in the ocean and, more slowly into the rocks beneath the seas. In Geologic time this will be accomplished in the twinkling of an eye. The impact on the climate of this one-time event, while significant from a human perspective, is trivial when set against the longer term (100,000 year) cycle of glacial episodes.

I was alerted to his perspective, to be enshrined in a book on the future of fossil fuels to be published next year, in an op-ed column by Neil Reynolds in Toronto's Globe and Mail.

On our annual binge of fossil fuels, blown out the twin engines of an airbus A320, we were in Pittsburgh for a family re-union, then Toronto to visit friends and finally, a few days on a group of three islands (called The Ideals) in the Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Carooming through airports and rubbing shoulders (and shoulder strapped computer cases) with vacationers and business warriors was to be reminded that the world revolves around an ethos startlingly different than that which some of us, as bourgeois dilettantes perhaps, are embracing in the rareified enclaves of Ojai.

At the same time, on the same trip, I was exposed to the more attenuated geologic time scale: visiting Andrew Carnegie's museum of natural history in Pittsburgh that houses his great stash of dinosaur bones and then the scarified rocks of the pre-cambrian shield in the Georgian Bay, wiped clean of their erstwhile sedimentary mantle by glacial activity and now exposed as the oldest stone in North America and perhaps the world.

The Great Lakes are glacial - their vast reserves of fresh water coming from the last glacial melting, around 15,000 years ago. The underlying rock, including the group of three islands owned by our friend Gar Smith, is much older and may have been created between half a billion and four billion years ago. The age of Dinosaurs, by such standards, is comparatively recent, spanning between 65 and 245 MYA (million years ago).

There are 30,000 areas of rock that rise out of the Georgian Bay varying in size from a few hundred square feet to the largest fresh water island on the planet, Manitoulin, which totals several hundred square miles. Gar's lithic trinity totals barely an acre and the Township of the Archipelago, the local governing body, has denied him the right to build on it. He had camped on one of the rocks for many years and had assumed it to be Crown land until the summer of 1989 when he saw a 'For Sale' sign wedged between boulders; he subsequently purchased the land and thus acquired his own piece of the Canadian Dream.

Despite lying more than 150 mile north of Toronto the islands of the bay function as a vacation-land annex to the big city; the area is known as Cottage Country and for the two or perhaps three months of the year when the weather is clement these islands of ease host the harried (but wealthy) workers of the metropolis. In this respect they serve a similar function to the ocean islands of Penobscot Bay in Maine where we have vacationed on North Haven in three of the past five years and which have traditionally catered to the Boston brahmins during the months of July and August. We Californians are outliers in either location.

Port au Baril, the entrepot from which vacationers make their final leap into the serene (but barely navigable) waters of the bay is a raw, bare bones kind of place more at ease perhaps, under several feet of snow and echoing with the sound of snowmobiles. But for brief halcyon days of summer it hosts a couple of marinas from which power boats zip back and forth to said summer cottages. I must have skirted this burgh when I hitch-hiked, one cold November night 43 years ago, from Windsor (on the Canadian side of Detroit) to Sault Ste. Marie on what was then two-lane black top.

King's Highway 400 is now a velvety macadamed six-lane super-highway that rolls over farm country before cutting through, in the interests of maintaining its relentless northern bearing and minimizing elevational disturbances, the primordial rocks of the pre-cambrian shield. This is the first leg of the armature that has transformed the bay islands from sparsely vegetated wind battered scraps of the Northern Ontario hinterland into (for two months) out-islands of Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville; the second is a jouncing power boat ride through the treacherous channels of the shallow bay.

While most of the islands of any size sport summer cottages, screened porches, pump houses and docks, Gar's islands have the raffish air of being inhabited by cast-aways sheltering under brightly colored scraps of nylon tenting. The Canadian flag flutters over many of the islands while The Ideals float in the channel under one of Garfield's 'Seven Colored Flags'. The Grey, Blue and Pink standards were variously flown when we were in residence.

Gar's islands are, of course, less a vacation-land than an art-work in the making. Although he has relinquished his former profession of Canadian Artist, he remains an agent of manifestation - to which his three islands will eventually succumb.

The country house, certainly from the time of Palladio, has traditionally served as a sink hole for the excess resources of the mercantile class. But for a brief moment in the second half of the twentieth century wealth had been re-distributed in the west to the extent that a rising middle class could also afford a cabin by the lake, a caravan at the seaside - or, in America, an RV or Airstream trailer to roam, for a couple of weeks a year, the nation's great natural wonderlands. Nickel miners from Sudbury, Ontario bought starter-cottages in the Georgian Bay and prosperous Los Angelenos, ensconced in their Case-Study modern houses could start to dream of a weekend retreat in Ojai or at Lake Arrowhead with some hope of its reaching fruition.

That moment was perhaps a high point in Western civilization - at least in those nations enjoying some semblance of social democracy - from which we are now in full retreat. We now experience the vertiginous kinetic energies thrown off by the regression of an emerging egalitarianism into an era that echoes the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where the then wealthiest man in the world, Andrew Carnegie, raised in the slums of Pittsburgh achieved his prodigious wealth on the backs of his steel workers who remained trapped in the urban hovels of his own youth.

The coal that contributed to Pittsburgh's wealth through the conversion of iron ore into steel was laid down in the Carboniferous geologic era, from 354-290 MYA an age further separated, in America, into the Mississippian (Lower Carboniferous) and the Pennsylvanian (Upper Carboniferous). The latter, mostly covered now by a grassy mantle, awaits the end-times of coal mining when its value exceeds the economic, environmental, social and political costs of its extraction.

Similarly, the shale reserves of Texas and Alberta and the natural gas of - like, everywhere - await their call to arms.The slick connections between urban concentration and far-flung holiday hideaways continue to hasten the day. Even on vacation there is a limit to the intellectual comfort I can gain from thinking in the broad vistas of geologic time.