Standing at the Crossroads
One Reason Geoscience May Fail to Connect with the Public
It is often difficult for a true believer to understand people who do not share those beliefs.
A few weeks ago, when I attended the annual Geological Association of Canada – Mineralogical Association of Canada meeting (GAC-MAC), I noticed a certain recurring theme in conversations. Several times during the meeting, I heard geologists from the industry or government sectors complaining about how little the general public thinks about or values the resource extraction sector.
In particular, they were concerned that teenaged schoolchildren are quite apathetic about the obvious benefits of the mining and petroleum industries. The general observation was that teens tend to be ignorant and apathetic about Earth resources, and that they may express antipathy to the very idea of resource extraction. The suggestion I heard from some geoscientists is that the teens have been “brainwashed” by the environmental movement, and that as a result they are not embracing the real nature of the world in which we live.
All of this left me wondering whether many geoscientists have also been brainwashed – whether we have “drunk the Kool-Aid” of the develop-at-all-costs-and-the-environment-be-damned movement. Don’t get me wrong: there is no question that modern society needs tremendous resources, both renewable and non-renewable, and that civilization as we know it would collapse without a steady supply of petroleum and minerals. But geoscientists also need to recognize that these things come at a cost, and there may be situations where many in the rest of society are not prepared to pay that cost.
Considering some of my fellow geoscientists, I am reminded of the story of the great Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson, who supposedly met the devil at a crossroads at midnight. The devil gave him the gift of guitar mastery, but in return Johnson gave the devil his soul. Presumably this was a conscious decision on Johnson’s part, with his soul considered a fair price for the great gift he was receiving. I fear that many geoscientists are hardly slowing down as they pass through their own crossroads, and as a result they don’t even notice that they have arrived at the other side. Geoscience has received tremendous gifts from industry and vice versa; is scientific objectivity the price of those gifts?
An absolute buy-in to industry’s objectives makes things highly problematic when it comes to spreading the word to society of the tremendous importance of geoscience. Geology seeks an understanding of all aspects of the Earth, and in the practical world this knowledge is applied to a wide variety of endeavours including earthquake and landslide mitigation, land use planning, environmental management, and mining and petroleum exploration. It is easy for us to see resource extraction as a good thing, but considered in the broadest possible scientific context it is clear that it is more of a necessary evil than a pure positive. It is something we have to do to keep humanity going and developing, but it can also have many bad side-effects, on environment and on some people.
We will never convince people who hold differing opinions if we start off by telling them that they are wrong about the world. They are not wrong, and geoscientists, government, and policy makers need to be more prepared to accept and include other perspectives. Under the current system, it often appears that corporate, economic, or political interests are steamrollering environmental protection, so it is little wonder that we meet a public antipathy to resource geoscience. Calling those supporting environmental interests “radical groups”, as was done by Canada’s recent Minister of Natural Resources, is a sure way to achieve push back from a broad sector of the public.
The environment should be comprehensively included in the balance sheet whenever any project is contemplated, and it needs to be made clear to the public that a complete assessment is being done. There may, in fact, be some resources that should not be developed with the technology currently available, because the true cost of their development may be far too high. To a considerable extent the search for resources is now moving into environmentally risky frontier areas such as iron mines in the Arctic islands and oil wells on the outer continental shelves. We should be able to reject projects that are not supportable on the grounds of excessive deleterious environmental effects.
Somehow, modern western society is going to have to become more transparent and we will need to develop systems that permit fair solutions, as we move forward toward what may still be hoped will be a greener yet prosperous future.
© Graham Young, 2014