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Standing at the Crossroads

June 17, 2014

One Reason Geoscience May Fail to Connect with the Public

Old schoolhouse at a crossroads in southwestern Manitoba

Old schoolhouse at a crossroads in southwestern Manitoba

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.

Lauder, Manitoba

Crossroads in Lauder, Manitoba

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?

Elmore Railway

Lyleton, Manitoba

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.

Wawanesa, Manitoba

Wawanesa, Manitoba

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.


St.-Lupicin, Manitoba


T. rex apparently weighed about 5-7 tonnes, so it could have safely crossed the bridge on T. rex Drive in Eastend, Saskatchewan.

T. rex apparently weighed about 5-7 tonnes, so it could have safely crossed the bridge on T-REX DRIVE in Eastend, Saskatchewan.

© Graham Young, 2014

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Brandy permalink
    June 18, 2014 11:57 am

    Very interesting thoughts Graham. Perhaps people of the late Victorian Age were unaware that THEY, were in fact “standing at the crossroads”. The history of the electric car (in actual manufacture) dates from the 1880s. Due to the rather inconvenient power source provided by batteries…a problem only now being more effectively addressed, gas fueled vehicles won-out over them and the petroleum industry developed a stranglehold that plagues us 135 years later. It is still not too late to make more electric vehicles, however, the economic complications of this task also prove prohibitive. Every last sand and clay infested piece of tar will be taken to the refinery and made into gasoline…all of it, and only then, will alternative fuel sources be used.

    • Graham permalink*
      June 18, 2014 11:59 am

      Steve, thanks for your thoughts!

  2. June 18, 2014 1:54 pm

    Well, we could have met – as I was at that conference too. And I experienced very similar interactions. See the first line of my ‘Geoheritage surge’ blog post. And you became a Science Borealis blogger! Hurray.

    I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote here. What struck me too about the GAC-MAC was that there was no media release, no effort to involve or communicate with the citizens of Fredericton / New Brunswick, no public session, nothing. Why are some (definitely not all) geoscientists surprised that ‘a kid today doesn’t even know what a mineral is’ (quoting one of my fellow geoscientists at that meeting)? Communication and understanding is a two-way process

    • Graham permalink*
      June 18, 2014 2:08 pm

      Thanks Elisabeth. I think there was actually a public lecture by Randy Miller at that meeting, except it was to a limited public in a small space, and wasn’t widely publicized. Still, your point is quite valid – it is very difficult to get the media to grab onto general Earth Science stories, as I found when I was communications chair for the GAC-MAC in Winnipeg, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And so much rests on the need to get more geoscience into the schools – we need more training of teachers, more space in the curriculum, and more recognition that we are one of the BASIC sciences!

  3. Jeff Young permalink
    June 19, 2014 8:54 am

    I don’t think there is much difference in our youth today from our youth. I suggest that the difference is in the adults. As a child we generally want to be like our mom or dad or older sibling. As a teenager we all try to distance our self from our parents only to look in the mirror one day to see how similar we have become.

    As an urban kid we got our resources from the taps, the stores and the local garage. There was no great understanding of the Earth or our connection to its resources. I suspect most professional geoscientists, including those doing the complaining, discovered geology and Earth science in their first year at university and this is still probably true today.

    As Earth historians we should all know better.

    • Graham permalink*
      June 19, 2014 9:02 am

      Jeff, you are quite right. Some of us may have had an inkling of where some things came from (particularly if we had a rural link), but even then we didn’t particularly care. Geologists, like so many other people, seem to feel a need to be loved and valued for what we do, and that may reduce our objectivity.

  4. June 19, 2014 8:30 pm

    I don’t necessarily agree with the need for more geoscience in schools. See my “geoheritage surge” post – because what would be given up? Can you imagine the debates? Waste of energy, which can be better spent on creating good Geoheritage sites. I.e. Joggins (UNESCO WH Site) gets more than 10,000 school kids each year. I don’t think that experience can be replaced by any class room experience.

    • Jeff Young permalink
      June 20, 2014 8:53 am

      In the mid 1990s the Pan-Canadian Protocol introduced Earth Science as one of the four basic sciences to be taught across the country and at all levels. Earth science was to be introduced as an equivalent science to chemistry and physics at the high school level. For me, in Manitoba, the protocol suggested a progressive step forward. Since then Earth science has “languished” at the Grade 4 and 7 levels in Manitoba. Additionally, much of physical geography has been dropped from the social studies program, because it was to be taught as part of the science curriculum. One step forward and two steps back.

      My experience with the Pan-Canadian Protocol suggests that we should not put the onus on others (i.e., teachers) to promote our interests or what we think are the interests of society. Implementation of the protocol would have meant a significant restructuring of science departments at the high school level. The physical geography teachers that I talked to included topics such as plate tectonics in their courses and felt it was an encroachment on their turf. An encroachment that they would resist. Furthermore the chemistry and physics teachers had no interest in adding to their teaching loads. This was not a “win-win” situation.

      Actually, Earth science has not languished at grades 4 and 7. Rather our outreach efforts have been focused. With limited resources we can more easily respond to needs. As an example we recently teamed with Janice Williams, Mining Matters, to deliver a one day professional development whereby we not only shared ideas, but offered resources. Resources that would be stretched far too thin if Earth science was delivered at all levels.

      Teachers need help and resources to deliver dynamic Earth science curricula and inspire students. Geoheritage sites are one of numerous ways to accomplish these goals. Field experiences are one of the most important reasons why many of us are Earth scientists. The field experience cannot be replaced. I would also like to suggest that, Earth science does not need to be constrained to a set specific of specific outcomes. What we should consider in our outreach activities are overt connections to established curricula, whether in Earth science, chemistry, physics, language arts, math, art, etc… This will make the job of the teacher easier and therefore more likely to be accepted.

    • Graham permalink*
      June 20, 2014 10:50 am

      You are right that experience is critical, but somehow there needs to be more thought given to how Earth Science can be fitted into the curriculum. So much geology is complicated and needs an understanding of chemistry, and yet much of it is covered only in the early grades when the students don’t have the tools that would permit some understanding.

  5. Jeff Young permalink
    June 20, 2014 10:08 am

    “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.”

    When I was a teen my mother warned me about some of my friends to which I would respond that maybe they weren’t the problem.

    Actually I support the resource extraction industries, but recognize that they are fallible. I don’t think anybody wants “their world” polluted or changed negatively, but it does happen. And nobody wants it to happen in their back yard even though their back yard is the biggest polluter of all. I support the need of “environmental” assessment to ensure that necessary steps are taken to try to limit impact. At the same time every human project occurs in “environmentally risky frontiers”.

    I think the biggest frustrations for me are the contradictions emanating out of suburbia. They talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. One of the first government programs that I remember to move society (largely urban) toward environmental consciousness was reduce, reuse and recycle. Suburbia immediately embraced recycling and our kids do it as part of their lifestyle. Everybody gets to feel good with limited change in lifestyle. But try to introduce a limit on the amount of garbage being picked up and that will leave you unelected.

    • Graham permalink*
      June 20, 2014 10:48 am

      Jeff, I agree completely. We have created a human environment that is very badly planned from the environmental perspective, as is our system of making so many objects that can’t be prepared and have to be thrown away. Then we tell the individuals that they have to be environmentally responsible, when there is no way that we can be really responsible when our suburbs are designed so that we have to drive everywhere, and our products are designed so that we are always buying new ones at those big box stores (which we have to drive to get to).

      • June 27, 2014 8:54 pm

        I have a cousin who used to own a shoe repair shop. Remember when people would have their leather shoes re-soled or re-heeled?

        I have 2 partly working toasters in my basement. It was cheaper to replace them than to repair them. It goes on … and on.

        But I recycle … my recylce bin is out most weeks for collection but my garbage skips a week. Brandon also has kerb-side organics collection. Its a great system. If only my employer, Brandon University, would sign on to this service.

  6. June 27, 2014 8:45 pm

    Hi Graham

    The last time I went to GAC-MAC was when it was in Ottawa; before that was in Vancouver. I had the same experience in Ottawa as you describe – minerals, oil and gas and why those damn environmentalists are a pain in the butt.

    I wanted to talk about fossils (of course) and ancient climates and environments of the geological past. But there was little interest in my talk or that of my graduate student, or of my undergrad student’s poster. ‘Why?’ They asked, looking quite crestfallen that their fellow Canadian geoscientists seemed uninterested in Eocene fossils. A good friend – a Quaternary palynologist from Vancouver quipped “Well … we’re not selling the next diamond find.” I haven’t been back to GAC-MAC since. A colleague with the GSC in Calgary – a 40 year veteran of Canadian geosciences – told me last year that he is no longer able to work on anything that doesn’t directly relate to finding oil and gas or coal. I almost didn’t renew my GAC membership this year.

    But a positive story. Many of us get into geology (or paleontology; I’m actually a biologist) because as kids we liked fossils (or dinosaurs), or collected rocks or minerals (my brother kept a slab of uranium containing mineral under his bed … explains a lot), or maybe were fascinated by volcanoes. But I didn’t see that curiosity when I was at GAC-MAC; just a money-making world-view. Frankly, its the same at the equivalent Australian meeting. But I was at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver in October 2014. I go every 3 or so years, when I can afford it. What a contrast to GAC-MAC. Yes, GSA has plenty of oil and gas and mining types, and sessions dedicated to their interests. But also paleontology of every type, volcanology and sedimentology just because some folks find these topics fun, and the rooms were packed. These guys, our American cousins who liberal Canadians like to look down on in our moral ‘superiority’, even the cowboy boot wearing stetson hat toting Texan oil men were sometimes there in the room listening to talks about Permian global warming and why Lystrosaurus dominated Pangea. And yes, even talks about human-caused climate change – heck, you’d be howled at if you spoke on this topic at GAC-MAC. I met and talked to old friends across diverse areas of geoscience, and of course many other paleontologists. My graduate student had a blast. I had the best of times. Such a contrast to GAC-MAC those years ago in Ottawa.

    A final point. Another commenter on Graham’s story asked why there was no public statement or other outreach at GAC-MAC in NB. This is a prominent feature at GSA and other US geoscience meetings I have attended. Whether it was just promoting some interesting story from a conference presentation (grad student finds T-rex at Saskatchewan crossroads!), or a major discovery (kimberlite pipes with diamonds found to underlay Brandon Manitoba!), or to make a policy statement: say … ‘Canadian geoscientists make declaration asking for environmentally responsible resource development’ and ‘promote partnerships with aboriginal groups for economic prosperity from resource development’.

    OK, not in this lifetime. I guess I won’t be back at GAC-MAC anytime soon … but I am co-chairing a session at GSA this year … in Vancouver.

    • Graham permalink*
      June 28, 2014 8:50 pm

      Dave, it is great to hear from you and receive your comments; I hope this summer is going well. I may see you in Vancouver, if not before.

      • June 30, 2014 4:08 pm

        A very soggy summer! A little water in our basement. Hope to see you in Vancouver.

  7. June 27, 2014 8:55 pm

    ps – great pictures, as always.


  1. Standing at the Crossroads | Gaia Gazette

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