Book review: Footprints, by David Farrier

In 2013 a storm revealed fossil footprints on Happisburgh beach in Norfork. At 900,000 years old, they were the earliest evidence of humans in Britain – a remarkable echo of the distant past that vanished again as quickly as it appeared.

That same year, the earth’s atmosphere crossed the symbolic threshold of 400 parts per million of CO2. The juxtaposition of these two events triggered a question in David Farrier’s mind: what will we leave behind? What will wash up on beaches and speak of our society? “Footprints is my attempt to discover how we will be remembered by the very deep future.”

“Our present is saturated with things that will endure” he notes. Some of them are large and significant, like cities or the road network. Others are mundane, like plastic bottles. Farrier explores these ‘future fossils’ in a variety of ways. Sometimes the book reads like travel writing, as the author visits different locations, contemplating Shanghai from the top of its skyscrapers and the bottom of its metro. It’s the subterranean bits that will survive the longest, though ultimately all cities will be reduced to a stripe in the rock strata, maybe a metre thick and several kilometres underground.

At other times Farrier uses imaginative speculations to range across enormous time scales. The story of a plastic bottle begins with algae in an ocean 150 million years ago and ends millions of years in the future, pivoting on the instant it is thrown away.

While the book constantly circles back round to the climate crisis, pollution and biodiversity loss, it doesn’t need to press its point home. The short-termism of consumerism is thrown into sharp relief, the waste, the insult to future generations. The unsustainability of it all, and the vastness of all that will be lost as human civilisation meets its inevitable undoing, eventually. These are themes that test the limits of language, and the author has an answer to that.

Farrier is not a climate scientist, a geologist or a historian, though the book blends all those things. He is an English literature professor at the University of Edinburgh. That gives the book an unusual grounding in literature. As he writes about the lasting works of civilization, he draws on the arts to explore what they have meant to us – roads as written about by Jack Kerouac or Ben Okri, cities as described by Italo Calvino and J G Ballard. Ursula le Guin on plastic bags. The photographs of Edward Burtynsky. This literary approach illuminates the subject in ways that a purely scientific study could not, adding new layers of perspective.

Footprints certainly made an impression on me and the way I look at the everyday objects around me. And in a good and thoughtful way, the book left me with a real sense of wistful melancholy. Or maybe it’s a melancholic wistfulness, I’m not sure. Professor Farrier would know the difference.

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