During her time at a mining school Hannah Ritchie wondered why the GfGD society membership was so low. How do people perceive geology’s ability to contribute to a sustainable future? Hannah explores the traditional and changing reputation of geology and the roles academic institutions could play in directing this change. [Editor’s note: This post reflects Hannah’s personal opinions. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.]
Why does geology tend to be painted in a bad light? Why is ‘sustainable’ the last word some think about when you mention geology? Should schools, universities and researchers be doing more to promote geosciences in a positive way?
These are questions that I’ve been considering for a while now. I’ve often felt disillusioned by the negative focus on geosciences in general. How can it be that there are so many important roles that geology can play in the promotion of the SDGs for example, but that there is so little awareness of this by the general public and students alike?
I did my undergraduate at a mining-orientated school and ran the GfGD society there. Our numbers were generally fairly low, and it often made me wonder why. Did people not care about sustainability? Were people just too busy? Did more need to be done to convince people of the environmental and societal importance of geology?
The role of geosciences in extractive industries
Of course, I realise that practices related to geosciences may not always have positive outcomes for our natural world. For example, the mining of minerals, extraction of bitumen from tar sands and fracking for natural gas are prone to environmental hazards.
There’s no question that since the industrial age some practices based in geology have led to damage to natural landscapes and releasing emissions at a greater rate than we would like to. CO2 emissions from fossil fuels alone in 2018 were expected to rise to 37.15 bn tonnes.
I am not promoting, nor ignoring the role that geology plays in extractive industries, merely stating its dominance. However, looking past geology’s ‘traditional’ role and most people’s perception of the subject, a whole world of geoscience exists that many fail to acknowledge.
The importance of geosciences in promoting a more sustainable future
As GfGD proves on a daily basis, geosciences are instrumental in helping to transition our world to a more sustainable one. I believe that it is crucial to change the mentality towards geosciences and the role that we can play in promoting sustainable development.
From my experience at University, … part of me often wished that there was more focus on the ‘good’ that geosciences can do
From my experience at University, aside from core modules, whilst much focus was placed on geophysics, excavation, geotechnics and energy, we were also able to study hydrogeology and contaminated land. These two modules were my main forays into the ways in which geosciences can ‘aid’, rather than ‘harm’ the planet. I enjoyed my course immensely, but part of me often wished that there was more focus on the ‘good’ that geosciences can do.
As highlighted by Joel Gill in February 2020’s GeoTalk, there is a lot in the SDGs that the geoscience community can contribute to, from reducing pollution and providing clean energy, to delivering universal access to water and promoting gender equality. There is a lot of good that can come out of studying geosciences and sometimes I think this is missed by many.
Additionally, whilst extractive industries can cause damage to our world, as alluded to above, it is important to also remember the importance of these industries as we transition to more renewable practices.
Rare earth elements, for example, are playing a crucial role in the development of renewable energy. The mining industry is also waking up to the importance of sustainability and seeking ways of improving its practice. Geologists are needed within extractive industries to aid our transition to carbon-neutrality.
People’s perception of geosciences
It’s not surprising that some people view geology in a negative light. With recent earthquakes at fracking sites near Blackpool, to water pollution in the Amazon as a result of mining. People hear these stories and blame geologists. However, I believe that we all have an obligation to change this damaging and narrow-minded perspective.
I was the only geologist there, surrounded by renewable energy students who were at best surprised to see a geologist!
I once remember attending a workshop whilst at University, about building your own system to purify water without using energy and heating the water using solar radiation. My interest in water and sustainably led me to go along.
I was the only geologist there, surrounded by renewable energy students who were at best surprised to see a geologist! This highlighted to me how people often view geologists – often as complete opposites to renewable engineers for example. However, in reality, we must all work collaboratively to tackle the main issues facing the modern world.
What can be done to change people’s perceptions?
According to a report in 2019, there has been a Europe-wide downturn in undergraduate geology admissions at universities. Is this due to the recent popular rise in environmental concern? If this is the case, then part of the solution could be for schools and universities to focus more on the environmentally friendly contribution that geology can make.
I found that careers fairs at university were dominated by large firms in sectors including geotechnics, oil and gas, mineralogy, mining and engineering. Whilst these traditional paths are important, it would always be nice to see more emphasis on alternative geoscience careers, such as hydrogeology, roles in NGO’s, natural hazard management and research.
According to a report in 2019, there has been a Europe-wide downturn in undergraduate geology admissions at universities
In short, I believe that more emphasis, in general, must be placed on the important contribution that geology can make to our world’s sustainable future. I think this vision could be realised at academic institutions through a number of ways.
Firstly, perhaps more modules with an environmental focus should be offered by universities. Secondly, schools and universities could definitely do more to encourage participation in groups such as GfGD.
GfGD University groups continue to do a brilliant job in promoting geology in a positive light and supporting important projects around the world but could benefit from more support from their institutions. Researchers in geosciences also have a responsibility and could do more in their work to focus on environmental and societal improvements.
We all must change the dialogue around geology. Geosciences are integral not only in the transition to a carbon-neutral society but in the wider applications of sustainability. People must wake up and realise that we are part of the solution, not just part of the problem.
**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Hannah Ritchie). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **