Geologists tend to see a lot of things differently than the general public does.
Knowing something about Mother Earth’s long history of constant change, we don’t immediately blame humankind for any detected current apparent change in the natural world -- and a three-year trend loses significance when your yardstick is in millions (or even hundreds of thousands) of years.
Maybe it’s their pervasive awareness of deep time that gives geologists other perspectives about current events -- that, plus a characteristic geological dedication to comprehending natural processes, which inevitably involves integrative science and mathematics. And proceeding thence to consideration of geological influences upon the activities of humankind, such as agriculture, industrial development, economics and public health.
Maybe it has to do with our understanding that, because Mother Earth constitutes a coarse filter, a substantial envelope of uncertainty commonly attends geological conclusions -- whereas the general public expects science to give precise answers (and quickly, too!).
Most modern societies seem to be able to respond fairly quickly -- if often ineffectively -- to natural crises such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods and mudslides. The public consciousness, and responsive democracies, can identify a crisis, especially where substantial public suffering is involved and publicized.
But it’s the long-range problems that modern societies have a hard time addressing in a purposeful, informed and sustained way, and a lot of such problems have strong geological and economic roots. Also, the free market is most effective when it acts upon transactions at or near the margin, not on contemplated events 10 or 20 years down the road.
Here are some examples of such long-range problems:
- The realities of global energy-resource distribution, apparent world trends of economic development and finance and their consequences on reliable long-term energy supply, to both Western and emerging economies.
- The design and adoption of comprehensive energy policies by all nations -- net producers as well as consumers -- that will facilitate effective energy transitions over the next 50 years.
- Finding efficient, workable, legal and regulatory processes that will balance legitimate environmental protection and mitigation with important resource development and production.
- Arriving at an objective, documented understanding of global climate change, the degree of anthropogenic influence (if any), and practical measures of mitigation (versus prevention) of its effects. Geological perspective, which has been absent for much of this 20-year debate, is fundamental to such understanding.
- Setting up informed, practical (and utilized!) land-use principles in vulnerable terranes, such as landslide-prone foothills areas, naturally subsiding coastal areas and river floodplains.
The geological voice has been mostly absent from such public discussions. In mid-December, I received a letter from the departing AGI congressional intern, Peter Douglas. After witnessing many congressional hearings on energy policy last fall, Douglas observes (Dec. 16, 2005):
“While I thoroughly enjoyed following the debates over energy policy, however, I found that they often lacked a scientific perspective. Among all the experts offering their opinions on how America can achieve energy independence, there are almost no geologists or other scientists testifying.
As a particularly glaring example, I recently attended a hearing on the theory of peak oil. While this was a fascinating hearing, there were no petroleum geologists there to offer their knowledge of the world’s oil reserves.
I know that both AGI and AAPG are working to increase the presence of geoscientists in government affairs, and I hope that soon there will be greater geological input into discussions over energy policy.”
Of course, it’s easy for geologists to cite other causes for their effective absence from the public forum:
- Short-term financial interests always trump long-term issues.
- Politicians and the media can’t understand math and science and won’t deal with uncertainty.
- Private-sector geologists are always accused of biased self-interest.
- Public-sector geologists are afraid to tell it like it is for fear of political repercussions.
- Geologists don’t have an effective public voice.
- Science isn’t a big contributor to political parties.
All are more or less true at different times and places -- but they don’t constitute an acceptable excuse! As concerned citizens and professional geoscientists, we have unique skills and important knowledge, and therefore we have special responsibilities to communicate what we can to public consideration of such critical long-range issues.
Geologists can carry out much insightful research on such topics, but until the implications and consequences have been successfully communicated to the public consciousness -- media, politicians, leaders, citizenry -- geologists haven’t done their job.
Readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (2002) know that special skills are needed to change public thinking about the future -- focus on “knowledge mavens,” contact with “key connectors” and repetition of a sound, simple message. The spread of new ideas is analogous to an expanding epidemic!
AAPG’s recent establishment of “GEO-DC,” our new Washington presence that’s directed by Don Juckett, provides an experienced “connector” who can identify useful opportunities for knowledgeable AAPG members to contribute to. However, GEO-DC is not intended to be a substitute for member engagement!
And AAPG leaders will be treated to a coaching session on effective presentation techniques for TV, radio, press and hearings at the upcoming Leadership Conference (Feb. 10-12) in Galveston, Texas.
There is legitimate reason for hope: There are quite a few examples of important and effective geological influence into public sector issues. Significantly, most of it has been behind the scenes, via effective regulation, interactions with legislative staff, government-requested committee reports and regional cooperatives.
- Geologically sound administration of UK petroleum resources by the Department of Trade and Industry was effectively managed for about 15 years by AAPG member John Brooks (current president of AAPG’s European Region).
- The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate has incorporated sound geological concepts in its administration of Norway’s offshore petroleum resources.
- By most accounts, offshore Gulf of Mexico E&P activities are being responsibly managed by the U.S. Minerals Management Service.
- Regional public ground-water councils, utilizing sound geohydrology, have greatly improved public water supply in many areas of the United States.
- Most state geological surveys do provide important guidance.
- In the United States we have not yet seen the geological equivalent of Dr. Phil, and respected geological popularizers such as Sarah Andrews, Bill Bryson and Simon Winchester have tended to focus on the science of geology -- and the people practicing it -- rather than its applications to the current and future human condition.
But John McPhee, in The Control of Nature (1989) wrote a powerful trilogy about man’s inadequacy in trying to control lava flows in Iceland, the ever-shifting Mississippi River in Louisiana and recurrent mudslides in southern California suburbs. And Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel State of Fear dramatized the dangers of evangelistic environmentalism as it impacts the current debate on global warming.
My guess is that many of the important long-range societal problems of the 21st century will involve basic geology and geological processes, especially as they impact economics, commerce, the environment and public health. Here are a few practical rules of thumb that may improve geologists’ ability to influence such issues:
- Trying to overcome Mother Earth may be heroic, but it’s not a winning strategy; focus instead on trying to avoid and mitigate the effects of natural threats.
- Don’t automatically assume that humankind caused every observed (or suspected) new change in or on the Earth.
- A geological perspective is essential for evaluating the significance of apparent new natural phenomena, and geoscientists can best provide it.
- Vibrant, objective science, effectively communicated, is a fundamental requirement if societies are to successfully address long-term natural problems; closely intertwined politicians, the environmental lobby, the media and selected scientists threaten such objectivity.
- An enlightened and lawfully regulated free market is the most effective and powerful force to accomplish desired change regarding the use of earth resources -- try to align it with resource and environmental goals.
- Objective evaluation of environmental and economic trade-offs is essential for development and administration of sound resource policy.
- Personal contact with legislators, regulators and staff is essential (as well as your Constitutional right) -- all business is carried out on a personal basis.
- Start talking with your neighbors and friends about important long-term issues -- use them to cast a wider net.
- Support political candidates who will endorse sound long-range resource and energy policies.
- Have reliable and understandable facts -- not political rhetoric -- to back up your case.
I’ve been a petroleum geologist for 47 years now, and I take great pride in what my profession has contributed to the progress of humankind. Since about 1900, the astonishing advances in the standard of living of people around the world -- though unevenly distributed -- can largely be attributed to growing availability of reliable and affordable oil and natural gas, found mostly by geoscientists and developed mostly by our engineering colleagues. What a positive contribution petroleum geoscientists and engineers have made!
As the world now enters a long-term energy transition at the beginning of the 21st century, we geologists must make sure that our knowledge and skills are major inputs to the formulation of energy policy -- as well as to all public issues that involve geological principles. AAPG is ready to assist.
Two new initiatives may help:
- To publish regularly in the EXPLORER personalized histories of geologists who were successful in impacting public policy, as well as accounts of individual AAPG members whose professional success beneficially impacted their communities.
- To begin aggressively circulating such stories to the news media.
AAPG has some amazing people among its members; we should see that their stories are made known to the general public.
The Control of Nature, by John McPhee (Farrar; Straus & Giroux, 1989). Fascinating accounts by a master geological writer of three different episodes in which man attempted to control natural phenomena.
Read it, you’ll like it!