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Towards the next revolution

Chris GarlandChris Garland* sees a clear duty ahead for all Earth scientists.

Geoscientist 19.7 July 2009

“The past is the key to the future”. These words point to the revived importance of geology today, and invert the familiar cliché that summarises the principle of uniformitarianism. This axiom has underpinned the study of geology for almost two centuries and implies that, for example, we can go down to Worthing beach and see the same processes at work as those that formed the Piper sand. We can go snorkelling in the Maldives and see the same biological activity as that which built up massive carbonate sequences such as the Portland limestone.

The inverse warns, however, that we may be living in “special” times. The coal swamps of the Carboniferous, the festering anaerobic basins of the Jurassic, or the endless overheated seas of the Late Cretaceous have no counterpart today, but may point to uncomfortable possibilities for the future.

These interpretations are fundamental to our own discipline but they are not widely appreciated outside the Earth sciences, any more than the idea that oil occupies porosity in rocks rather than big caves under the sea. And we geologists, who in the past learned how to seek and produce energy from within the Earth’s crust, are only now beginning to realise the future implications of this energy’s use.

At university in the 1970s, it was fashionable for our contemporaries to see oil companies as villains in the game of world development; but, such liberal sentiments were little or no match for the promised foreign travel and raw excitement of exploration that were offered by the “oil patch”. In retrospect, we can look at the growth and development that has been fuelled by all this energy: cheap travel; warm homes; varied food; convenient power. We can be proud to have been able to help provide light and energy to a world that wanted and needed to grow. However, whereas hitherto society could carry on its development agenda in good faith, the all-bounteous Mother Earth providing everything, we can now see from space the edges of developed areas beginning to merge together as we expand to cover our planet’s dear face ever more completely.

These are exciting times for Earth scientists. Since people are now being warned of future consequences on a geological scale with geological risks, we as geologists have a duty to educate people - starting with our friends - by pointing to the evidence of the past as it applies to the kind of change that future generations will have to face. Our clear duty lies in encouraging more of them, and especially more young people, to take up the study of one or other of the sciences of Gaia, to enhance knowledge of Earth resources, and improve the chances of the scientific revolution that we will need to ensure the survival of human society for the next millennium and beyond.

* Addax Petroleum, Geneva.