Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A more serious Earth Day post

The price of oil is over $100 a barrel. Copper is worth so much that wiring gets stolen from building sites. In my part of the world, water would be scarce due to population growth, even without the added problems of climate change. After years of being those oddball geeks from books by John McPhee, geologists are in demand again. So why am I finding it so hard to figure out how to pitch the science to people?

Geology is, after all, everywhere around us. It’s under our feet – perhaps below a few layers of pavement, but it’s still down there. It’s the river that’s running high on the other side of the levee, or another river, on the other side of the country, that doesn’t have enough water for all the people who want to use it. It’s the beach we play at. It’s the mountain we ski on. It’s the rocks that fell on the highway when the roadcut got wet. It’s the sudden lurch of an earthquake beneath our feet, even in the supposedly stable mid-continent. And yet so many people go about their lives blissfully ignorant of the physical world around them.

Part way through college, I came to a horrible discovery. We already knew how to avoid fracking up the environment. Want to avoid contaminating groundwater? Make less toxic waste, and don’t just dump it. Use too much energy*? Turn off the lights, walk or bike or carpool, turn down the heat or the air conditioning. And as for living in harmony with the environment – avoiding the need for flood control, avoiding getting buried by a landslide – well, it isn’t that difficult. The land beside rivers is prone to flooding. Steep slopes have landslides. The problem wasn’t that scientists didn’t understand. The problem was that people weren’t aware, or didn’t care.

I bailed on environmental geology as a career, figuring that education was more important. I still think so, but I don’t have much hope for its effectiveness, either.

As far as I can tell, American society has come nowhere in the past twenty years. Well, ok, maybe not nowhere. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs have improved, computers go to sleep automatically, refrigerators and washing machines are more efficient, and the Prius has finally been invented. But that isn’t a heck of a lot to show for twenty years.

And I’m not sure that geoscience education has much to contribute today, either. We can tell students about the research behind An Inconvenient Truth and argue with young skeptics. We can talk about the resources that go into driving to the ski area, riding the lift, and proposing to someone on the slopes. But do the students hear? And does the connection of geology with the resource industry mean that we become the Bad Guys who are profiting from the destruction of the planet? How can we explain that the oil industry exists for them, for them and the other billions of people driving cars; that coal is burned because they use electricity; that metals are mined to build their mountain bikes?

We weren’t very effective in the 90’s, when we weren’t in demand. How can we be effective now, when we’re seen as part of the problem?

*We didn’t talk much about carbon dioxide in the 80’s, unless we were climate scientists, so the issue was wasting energy rather than generating CO2.

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