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Geology is the keystone!

Being human, many of us have a tendency to take “all-things geology” for granted in the way that we sometimes take each other for granted.  And of course, we certainly take for granted the simple comforts in our daily lives.  The “simple comforts in our daily lives”?  We enjoy the warmth of a sunny spring day and the smell of a good rain storm.  We relish tasty, fresh produce; the beauty of a scenic landscape; chirping of songbirds at daybreak.  Most of us feel comfortable in nature.  The notion of “retreat to the woods” from the humdrum, work-a-day world has always been one of the best prescriptions for restoring our energy and zest for life.  Communing with nature helps restore balance to our lives. 

But why does nature restore balance to our lives?

For all forms of life, earth provides (1) a stable, protective habitat, (2) water, (3) food, and (4) key elements/compounds that promote the formation of energy through respiration.  That we feel comfortable in nature is expected.  By all accounts, regardless of creed or philosophy, we are by and from “nature” – we are part of nature – we have been shaped by nature.  Unfortunately, because the mutual relationship with earth is so deeply embedded in our psyche, we fail to recognize, respect, and nurture that relationship. 

The purpose of the Geology Works website is to promote awareness and common understanding about geology and the special relationship that we have with the earth.  Clearly, our earth faces numerous environmental challenges in light of continued population growth and improving standards of living for emerging nations.  However, these challenges can be viewed as opportunities for assuming greater collective responsibility for learning about the earth and our relationship to the earth.  We all need to actively participate in the on-going discussions about the earth and associated “environmental issues”.  As a society, we need to improve our base geological knowledge so that we can more effectively participate in discussions that have a bearing on the quality of our relationships with the earth.  Public discussions about economic development and job formation need more participation from individuals with geological knowledge.  Economic development without measured consideration of the balance among population growth, water resources, and environmental quality is unhealthy (for us and the earth).

Much of the public dialogue about environmental issues has become highly polarized.  In some cases, this polarization results from misunderstandings that stem from a general lack of knowledge about earth systems, engineering, economics, and the scale of human influence on the planet through time.  Geology Works is not about “right” or “wrong”, but about the promotion of geological knowledge.  Toward that end, should we grow to recognize that humans are a geological force in nature, practical solutions to environmental issues are suddenly within our grasp.  English novelist and critic Dame Rebecca West once said “There is no such thing as conversation.  It is an illusion.  There are intersecting monologues, that is all.”

Despite our shortcomings as communicators, we do make progress, albeit in fits and starts, in balancing our collective needs and wants in the face of competing idealogies.  However, one thing is certain, if we are not sitting at the table armed with measured knowledge about earth and earth history, these important perspectives are left out of discussions that lead to policy decisions.

Here is a set of questions worth thinking about:

  1. Where does water really come from when you turn on your tap?
  2. Do we have an infinite amount of water?
  3. How much money is water really worth?
  4. Historically, have we paid the true cost of energy that we consume through use of fossil fuels?
  5. Relative to the above question about fossil fuels and energy, do we pay the true cost for any natural resource that we extract from the earth?
  6. Do we really need to extract resources from the earth?
  7. Where does soil really come from?
  8. How much of earth’s surface remains for development as agricultural land (under reasonable and beneficial circumstances)?
  9. How do glaciers grow?
  10. Multiple lines of evidence present in layers of earth indicate that in the not-so-distant past, large masses of ice (known as continental glaciers) extended out from the northern latitudes to the south across North America (from New York City on the east to as far west as Lincoln, Nebraska).  What does the presence of these continental glaciers really indicate about past climate change on earth?

Science education at some public schools is very good.  However, science education in general and geology education in particular could be much better.  Absence of geoscience education at the secondary level is striking.  Despite this gulf, robust educational guidelines and standards are available at the national level.  For instance, The National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have jointly embarked on a Next Generation Science Standards.  A link to this report is included in our Geology Works sidebar.

A major shortcoming in our science education (on a national level) is the uneven recognition and implementation of guidelines and standards among the States.  A case in point is provided by the Thomas Fordham Institute which rececently assessed and ranked the current curriculum standards across the United States.  California, District of Columbia, Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Virginia did very well in terms of integrating science (and earth science) into the curriculum.  Other parts of our country did not fare as well (specifically, the States of Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Wisconsin received a failing grade).

Pressures on teachers and administrators to maintain current teaching standards while servicing a socially diverse set of students, particularly in the inner cities, is huge.  Addition to the curriculum of quality earth-science content may appear simple enough – but many teachers sense they are already hard pressed to effectively teach “standard” science courses (biology, chemistry, and physics with the requisite math) as the curriculum currently stands.

One solution to this dilemma at the secondary education level might be to resculpt the science curriculum in biology, chemistry, and physics with an eye to practical earth science problems (use of earth science and geology as unifying context).

For instance, simple examples for these disciplines might include:

  • Biology – analysis of the spatial distribution of ecosystems, food webs, and soil types could easily consume an entire semester of class time.  Microscopes could be used to describe the appearance of modern algae (and fossil algae, too – referred to as stromatolites).  Algae as a “current events” topic would quickly catalyze classroom discussions about photosynthesis, the importance of transpiration by-products to the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and the prospects for formulating renewable fuels from algae.
  • Chemistry – chemical elements and the periodic chart could be introduced and discussed with a focus on minerals and mineral properties (again, for context).   A set of chemistry problems could be recast to focus on pH of groundwater and how limestone aggregate can be used to neutralize acid mine drainage in some coal mining areas.
  • Physics – electrical conductivity (or resistivity) could be demonstrated and discussed through measurement of electrical current through seawater in comparison to fresh water.  Further, Newton’s Laws of Motion could be formulated to address precipitation, rainfall-runoff, and sediment transport across a farm field, with reflection on practical techniques to abate soil erosion.  As always, mathematics can be a routine activity built into the practical problem solving.

Where is the Owner’s Manual?

Though the following analogy is overly simplistic, I liken the relationship between humans and the earth to the relationship that a family has to their automobile.  In this day and age, the automobile is indespensible.  Aside from  personal health issues, nothing brings family life to a halt more quickly than a broken automobile.  We depend on the automobile for most everything – food, access to the workplace, errands to furnish and repair the home, eating out, all forms of entertainment, socializing (don’t forget courting!), access to education, health care – everything revolves around the automobile.  We also place great pride in our automobiles in terms of color, style, and overall appearance.  However, most important to us, is the functioning of the automobile.  The automobile is an expensive necessity.  However, we maintain an automobile because our livelihood depends on a functioning automobile.

When we purchase a new vehicle from a dealership, we always find an owner’s manual in the glove compartment.  That service manual holds information about optimal tire pressure and rotations, fuel and fuel economy, oil and filter changes, belts and hoses, fluids and fluid levels, care of the car’s finish, not to mention the diagrams about the electrical and electronic system.  Then, don’t forget the pistons and the rings, the ignition module, the emissions system, the on-board computer….I think you get the point.  We must, or at least we should, care for the automobile to the extent that we can fulfill our dependencies for daily living.

A prerequisite for caring for the automobile is maintaining some level of knowledge about the automobile.  Some of us are mechanical experts.  On the other hand, most of us know very little about the mechanical or electronic workings of the automobile, let alone maintain sufficient  knowledge to repair these systems.  However, all of us, regardless of level of technical training, have enough base knowledge to recognize that we should take a vehicle in for servicing, tune-ups, and repairs.  We maintain this base level of knowledge because we must have a functioning vehicle.  No vehicle, no life (as we know it). 

Earth Rise by William Anders

Photograph by William Anders (December 24, 1968).

Can the same be said for the earth?  Where is the owner’s manual for learning about and taking care of the earth?  How do we learn about the earth?  Do we need to learn about the earth for the purposes of stewardship and maintenance?  Does the quality of our life depend on the qualities of the earth?…or more directly, do our lives depend on the earth?  Clearly, these are rhetorical questions…but are they?  Earlier in this discussion I mentioned that we humans tend to take the earth for granted.  The photograph Earth Rise and a quote by NASA astronaut William Anders (Apollo 8 voyage to the moon) captured the essence of this attitude 44 years ago: “We came all the way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”  Anders’ quote is revealing.  Planet Earth is a very unique planet in our corner of the Milky Way Galaxy – but until we visit some of our desolate neighbors in space, we fail to appreciate the unique qualities of planet earth.

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Your comments, ideas, and suggestions are welcomed below.

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