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The only way is ethics

hjgKnowledge brings responsibility - and geological knowledge brings responsibility for the environment, says Roger Dunshea*.  Time for a new code of ethics for the profession?

We all know geology is the most enjoyable of sciences, bringing together a differential of maths, a wave of physics, a whiff of chemistry and a gene of biology.  We weave these into our learning of crystallography, mineralogy, palaeontology, seismology, tectonics, stratigraphy and much more.  Our science combines analytical techniques in the laboratory with equally important observation, sampling and experimentation in the field (including of course regional beers).  

We grapple with the fundamental structures of this planet, its minerals and history, and the enormous magnitude of time it has taken us to get to where we are now.  As a group of scientists we are in a unique position to appreciate that this planet’s rock-based economic resources are essentially finite and that their replacement is either not possible or may take at least mega-millennia.


Over the last two centuries (0.0000045% of Earth history) geologists have developed their science to enable miners, quarry-blasters, drillers and now frackers to exploit unique deposits of oil, gas, coal, ores and rare sprinklings of precious stones and metals, on a commercial basis.  These resources have delivered abundant power and materials, resulting in outstanding increases in agricultural and industrial output, as well as some glinting adornments for the celebs.  The average lifespan of Homo sapiens has been transformed and global numbers have increased at an astounding rate.  When Hutton and Playfair sailed along Siccar Point (1788) the Earth contained about one billion people.  Today it’s seven billion.  

Geology has played the pre-eminent role enabling the mineral exploitation of this planet, and in the resulting impact on its economy and environment.  Our education has taught us valuable techniques to unravel what goodies (Brent Blend, magnetite, pitchblende, diamond etc.) the rocks hold and hide.  These techniques are the basis for subsequent global economic, scientific and social progress for post-Huttonian Homo sapiens.  But have geologists considered fully the geo-strategic ethical and economic sustainability factors before pointing out where to drill and blast; thus enabling massive irretrievable loss of unique concentrations of chemicals?  Has geology facilitated the prodigious burning of hydrocarbons with climate change likely?


Geologists specialise in different areas of the science.  Some are employed finding new sources of hydrocarbons while counterintuitively others are researching climate change.  Many are researching  fascinating tectonic  events while others are ensuring tunnels and bridges are safe.  Geology has made a major contribution to global society but do we risk threatening the prospects of future generations due to the current unsustainable levels of extraction.  Should geologists start thinking more about helping the long term economic prospects of Homo sapiens?

So while our peers in the medical and life sciences are developing new ethical standards to protect the wellbeing of current and future generations, is it not now time to start discussing and developing a set of geological scientific ethics that can support very long-term global economic sustainability?  

*Roger Dunshea spent most of his career in the UK public sector in managerial and financial roles.  His main area of interest is the Moine Supergroup.