english | nederlands
Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno.
If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world"s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man"s share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno.
Mark Twain - Was the World Made for Man?
Salomon Bernard Kroonenberg, March 13, 1947, Leiden
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Selected official functions
Lecture given at the 7th International Non-Fiction Conference
© Claudia Kamergorodski
Ladies and gentlemen. Maybe it’s useful for you to know how I, as a scientist, came to write a book for a non-specialist. I’d sent a collection of columns I had written in various local media to the publishing house Meulenhoff in Amsterdam. I got back a letter dated May 6 1996 which read: ‘I have enjoyed your columns very much. They are varied, amusing, provocative, and they bear their erudition lightly. But they are not a book. Why don’t you first write a whole book, attract readers in such a way and publish your columns in the wake of that?’ The letter was signed by Maarten Asscher, publisher. Now I’m happy that Maarten is here again and I can tell him what has happened with his suggestion, because his encouragement has been more important than he might have realized, even though my book was eventually published elsewhere. But let me first start by saying how important encouragement has been as a whole.
I never intended to be a writer at all. I had two cravings as a youngster: geology and languages. I was attracted to rocks and minerals. I had a small chemistry lab in the cellar of our home. Not to make the explosions my parents feared most, but just to make beautiful crystals of cadmium iodide, thallium sulphate and uranium salts and other highly poisonous stuff that at that time you could buy at any well-stocked drug store. But at the same time I loved language, not so much literature as the grammar, the vocabulary, the music of language, and the idea that you could use it to communicate all over the world. At secondary school I studied ten languages at the same time. My so-called gymnasium offered regular courses in Latin and Greek. Dutch, English, German and French were compulsory, but I also took optional Italian and Hebrew. In the evenings I took lessons in Russian and at the weekends in Finnish. So when I had to select a career I hesitated between geology and languages.
The geology won in the end, but at one point, when I got bored with geology, I switched to the Italian language in my second year. That lasted only three days because then my parents said: ‘Don’t do it, you’re throwing away your career.’ And I’d have had to go into military service. I really didn’t want to do that. So in three days I was back in geology, or rather physical geography, but even now when I look at my bookshelves and I see all those old grammars it still keeps gnawing at my soul. Nevertheless, my later career in geology, which included living for ten years in South America and many trips to all parts of the world, has given me more opportunities to learn languages than if I had been a linguist. It never occurred to me at that time that I could combine those two things in one career. The profession of science journalism didn’t exist then; it might not have been a bad choice for me. Within my geological career I switched subjects a good deal more than most other earth scientists. I haven’t shown much academic stamina, for that matter, and maybe that’s an underlying pattern more common in journalists than in scientists. At a certain moment in the eighties, when I was employed as a professor of geology at Wageningen University, I got upset because of certain bureaucratic upheavals in the organization and started to write letters to the editors of the internal university journal. Many people complimented me. They encouraged me to write more, and when I became chairman of the Dutch Geological and Mining Society I started to publish a monthly column in its newsletter, with more enthusiasm and encouragement from the readers.
So, I thought: people apparently like what I write. That’s why I eventually approached Maarten Asscher to publish my columns. They were published in the end by a small publisher specializing in earth sciences, but that didn’t have any impact at all. Maarten was right at that point. Meanwhile I kept dreaming of something bigger, but my job in Delft didn’t give me enough time to concentrate seriously on it. Science first. I was a columnist for various media such as the weeklies Intermediair and Delta and the monthly Natuur en Techniek, and that was useful to sharpen my pen and develop a better eye for actuality. But that was all usually written on Sunday mornings, and I didn’t want the writing to interfere with my university obligations. Only when the public discussion on climate change started to heat up did I feel it was my time. Why? Well, as a geologist I have always felt that in the light of the immensity of geological time, humankind plays only a very minor role in the earth. ‘We might lose the earth,’ squeaks Al Gore in his movie. Well, the earth is not ours. It was there all the time before we were there, and it has lived through many catastrophes much bigger than man can even imagine. In the past, greenhouse gases were twenty times more abundant in the atmosphere than now. There were periods without any ice caps at all, anywhere in the world, but also with ice caps reaching almost from pole to pole. We have had sea levels two hundred metres above the present and a hundred and twenty metres below the present, and now we are scared of a little bit of warming, which moreover stopped already ten years ago.
All that was business as usual for the earth; only we humans, we think it’s the first time, because we look only at the time-scale of mankind, not at the time-scale of the earth itself. We say we are afraid for the earth, but in reality we are just afraid for ourselves. We see the earth as nothing more than a resource, a supermarket that’s there only to fulfil humankind’s needs. I was so happy when I looked at the German translation of my book and saw this word, not supermarket but grabbelton [lucky dip] in Dutch, had been translated as: the earth is not a Selbstbedienungsladen [self-service store]. [laughter] So beautiful. I really appreciate this; it was Thomas Charpey and Monica Barendrecht, and since then I’ve always used this Selbstbedienungsladen. An anthropocentric image of the world, that’s what you have now. ‘People, planet, profit,’ say the companies. But the planet in that triangle is not the earth, it’s again people, ourselves, just our needs. That’s the central theme of my book. I took half a year’s sabbatical in Bologna in Italy to write it. I had no previous agreement with a publisher at all. Maarten Asscher had already left Meulenhoff. I sent two chapters unsuccessfully to Contact. But then Frank Westerman, a well-known literary non-fiction author who had been a student of mine in Wageningen, introduced me at his publishing house, Atlas.
It has been a huge success, to my own astonishment. It sold over 25,000 copies in Holland. The German translation appeared this year – 2,000 copies sold so far – and a Turkish edition appears to be forthcoming. No English one unfortunately. Many people keep asking me for that, but who knows what will happen? It gave me a lot of publicity on TV and radio, and interviews in all the major newspapers and weeklies. I have given over two hundred lectures on the book in Dutch, English, German, Spanish and Russian.
Why is it so popular? Basically I think that to everybody who is afraid that the earth is suffering from terminal cancer, I am ready to give a second opinion. People like that. I’m calming down the turmoil and the scare, and that helps them to form their own opinion on the subject. Not necessarily mine, sharing mine, but at least one that’s better informed. Yet there’s nothing new in my book on the science side. It’s not a book on the discovery of fascinating new facts or theories. There’s very little about our own research, which is ongoing in the Caspian Sea. It serves more to show how trends in sea level can suddenly turn into their opposite, just as in the stock market, than to show what we discovered there. In the book I show different geological phenomena in different time-scales, always starting with the small timescales, the human time-scales, and then increasing the scale to events so devastating but also so rare that they have never occurred so far in the time mankind has been writing up its history.
I start with earthquakes, then volcanic eruptions, followed by climate, sea level, river behaviour and eventually evolution – actually the same order of subjects as you would find in any regular geology textbook. But it differs in at least three respects from a regular geology textbook. In the first place it’s not a systematic treatment of subjects students should learn, but the result of cherry-picking of those features that best illustrate my point. And that brings me to the second difference. My book is a book with a message. The message is that nature is always on the move. There’s no escaping from it. So we’d better adapt to changes, whether natural or manmade, instead of our present futile attempt to control nature. We can’t do that. We shouldn’t behave like the sorcerer’s apprentice. This message has not developed overnight, it has grown over the years through having to deal every day of my professional life with long time-scales. Many colleagues in geology think similarly on this subject. Geologen ticken anders was the heading of a review in the online version of the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung: geologists tick differently. They have a different sense of time.
The third point to distinguish it from my first book is that it portrays a lot of my personal experience: as a child, as a student, as a professional geologist during forty years in the field, especially focusing on moments of insight. These personal notes are strewn throughout the text. For a science journalist that’s the most difficult part to recreate. Maybe that’s also the factor that brings my book closest to literary non-fiction. So, after all, science and language have come together, quite unexpectedly, stimulated by those like Maarten Asscher and Frank Westerman who believed in my writing.
Now I’m heading for early retirement, not in order to retire but to write another book on another subject that’s been lingering in my mind for a long time, about the subsurface, meaning tunnels and underground parking lots and oil and gas resources, but also hell, and paradise, and the only existing history book of the earth, and the only trip Jules Verne predicted but which was never realized – to the centre of the earth. My favourite rock now is a rock called graphic granite, or schriftsgraniet in Dutch. It has the writing and it has the geology. It consists of large feldspars with peculiar quartz crystals, shaped like hieroglyphs or Hebrew letters. Russians call it Yevreyski granit, Jewish granite. Maybe that’s a tribute to my grandfather, who was the first to put me on the track of language. Not a bad choice for a tombstone, anyway.
Amsterdam, 14-15 November 2008