What I Learned about Life on Earth from Inside a Rock!

A few days ago, I attended a conference for geologists. The most boring event ever, you think? Think again.

Scott Tinker – 34th IGC

Here is the story.

When I booked to attend the 34th International Geological Congress last year, it was for all the wrong reasons.

I ran a translation business and hoped to get in touch with potential clients. I wanted to translate articles related to climate change and help make a difference. I also intended to be there when the International Commission on Stratigraphy would name the ‘Anthropocene’, a new time period deemed to have commenced during the industrial revolution. A symbolic recognition that mankind has become the driving force on Earth. And I wanted to see that.

But none of this happened: the decision on the Anthropocene is not to be made any time soon owing to some committee rigmarole, and the only need for translation I could spot was for the Chinese delegation.

However it turned out to be the ideal place to be after all, and for all the right reasons.

I’m now running Expatriate Connection, an online resource and community for expatriates. What relation to geology?

A large number of the geologists at the conference were expatriates or had lived in another country; geology is a highly mobile profession. Indeed, very few geologists are born on a tectonic vault near the sea with a gold mine in their backyard and an active volcano at the front door. For a geologist, overseas field work is “de rigueur”. What about work-life balance then?

Maria, a twenty-two-year-old student I met at the conference, told me that now she realised that travel is a big part of geology, she was doubting her future in the profession because of a deep concern about her future family prospects!

Nothing in the scientific curriculum prepares you to face issues such as dealing with other cultures, raising kids abroad, supporting an accompanying spouse. I know it firsthand. I’ve been there.

This is why I’ve set up Expatriate Connection, this online resource and community for expatriates.

The 34th International Geological Conference was a huge event. Thirty-seven themes were developed during 3200 scientific sessions over 5 days, gathering 6000 participants, coming from 137 countries. Meaty.

The topics went from the most specific ones like “A U-Pb zircon-rutile geochronology study: implications for the Cambrian evolution of the Koonenberry margin” to the more trivial “Using Minecraft as a vehicle to facilitate student engagement and learning”. For the non-initiated, Minecraft is a computer game extremely popular among the young generation (both my sons are raving fans!)

Here is a snapshot of the presentations I liked most.

The most trendy

The iMine model (I love the name) from Stephen Fraser (CSIRO).
Towards the intelligent future mine: what a program!

The most baffling

The conclusion from Michael Dale’s study on the photovoltaic industry. The PV industry, due to the energy intensive process of Silicon will only “pay back” the electricity consumed in its early growth by 2018! Greenhouse gas emissions may only be offset three years later at most.

I’m happy the balance is positive eventually as I’ve installed solar panels to contribute to the environment, not to worsen the situation!

The most intriguing

From Murray Hitzman: the critical elements of new energy technologies, explaining the strategic importance of rare earth production for our future. It’s fascinating to see how governments are monitoring those elements ready to engage in secret missions. A touch of James Bond…

The most emotional

The geoethical implications of the Fukushima nuclear accident by Tokio Oshka about the role of money in the nuclear industry.

“Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.”
Rabelais        Click to tweet

The most entrepreneurial

The African Association of Women in Geosciences led by Ezzoura Errami: African women taking the lead on their destiny.

The most creative

The paintings made by geological artist J. Jackson, also called the rock doctor. What an amazing display of colors, forms and relief.

The most surprising

The expansion tectonic theory advocated by James Maxlow and William Thiel.

“But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.”  ~Francis Darwin       Click to tweet

Are they the new Galileo?

The most hopeful

CO2 sequestration is not a dream. It’s currently being implemented.

The most disappointing

Shale gas seems now to be the preferred solution to power the US economy. With GHG emissions half that of coal, this unconventional fossil fuel has been advocated as a “clean” energy source.  No convincing study was presented about the possible spread of millions of gallons of chemicals injected into the ground during the fracking process used to recover shale gas, some of them being highly toxic. Stating that no case of contamination had been reported so far is not a convincing argument for the safety of this process.

It would have been interesting as well to discuss the possible risk of landslide resulting from the fracking process to recover shale gas.

I’d like to conclude with Iain Stewart’s message about the importance of establishing bridges between geology and the social sciences.

While understanding our earth is important, it’s useless if all the challenges, the dangers and the beauty of it is not communicated to the public.

“Science has made us gods even before we are worthy of being men.”
Jean Rostand                         Click to tweet

Those five days were intense and intellectually stimulating. I won’t forget the warm welcome I got from Angela at BHP Billiton and Judy from Townsville University, the great conversation with Walter from Metso, the interest from Craig at RSC and Gary from the Geological Society of America, the picture with Constant and Leonard from Ivory Coast, the support from Chrissy from Gnomic Exploration Services, the smile from Madelaine at Gold Fields, the French souvenirs from Graham at CSA, the discussion with Michael from IMC, Patrick from CSA and Greg from ALS, the Brazilian coffee offered by Agilson at Vale, the very friendly safety specialist Barbara from the Bullion Group, or the nice talk with Merissa from Rio Tinto.

Oh, and what is it that I learned about Life on Earth?

Our future is linked to three variables: energy, water and population.

1. Energy

Our world is currently consuming 16 Terrawatts/year; by 2050 that number is expected to increase to 44 Terrawatts/year – the equivalent amount of energy used by the earth to move the tectonic plates!

The question is: how are we going to generate this energy?

Several options were presented: use of unconventional fossil fuels, nuclear power, and renewable sources. None is ideal. They are uncertain, or liberate CO2 into the atmosphere.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Science is always wrong.  It never solves a problem without creating ten more.”            Click to tweet

The best energy is the one we’re not consuming! This is the timid conclusion of the Scott Tinker documentary “Switch” presented twice at the conference.

Food for thought: We had a great performance of Aboriginal artists to open up the conference and a demonstration on how they light fire with two pieces of wood. There was no session to explain how they lived for 40,000 years without electricity. Is our occidental way of living the only one to pursue? Can’t we incorporate some wisdom coming from other civilizations without compromising on our quality of our life?

Numbers were shown: Americans use four times more energy than Italians. I’ve lived in Italy and I can certainly testify that the quality of life there is great.

From the 1.4 billion people with no access to electricity in March 2011, 600 million are located in China. To ensure social stability, China is commissioning a coal powerplant every week (source USGS), has ordered 26 nuclear powerplants, and is massively investing in wind farms.

But to produce energy for powering our economy, whatever the process, we need water.

2. Water

Water and energy are closely linked: we need water to produce energy / electricity and we need energy to purify, distribute and treat water. Water is not equally distributed around the globe, and certainly not concentrated near cities, where half the world’s population lives.

3. Population

Currently 7.2 billion, the world population is expected to rise to up to 9 billion by 2050, with 75% of the people living in cities.

We’ll have to cater for the needs of all those people. Will the earth be able to withstand this number? Most probably, yes.

Will we be able to survive in the new conditions we’ll have created for it? Who knows…

There is a general consensus: there are still plenty of resources available, for the next century at least.
Scarcity is not our problem right now.
Easy and cheap availability will be the issue.
We’ll have to dig deeper and process more to get the materials we need to satisfy our needs.

The mining industry has got plenty of exciting projects ahead. And companies are desperately looking for geologists and engineers. But there is a skills shortage. Why? Because of the difficult working conditions? Or because of the challenges of an expatriate life?

You tell me. Speak your mind in the comments!



  1. Thomas Gillme says:

     A lot of very interesting subjects are treated in this article.
    I know quite nothing about geology but I was very interested by the expansion tectonics theory for instance.
    The demonstration of lighting a fire with two pieces of wood reminded me a website explaining primitive techniques :

    • Thanks a lot, Thomas for your comment and for sharing this very interesting resource, the website about primitive techniques. This work is essential to keep the knowledge which otherwise would be lost in those (mainly) oral cultures.

      2012/8/26 Disqus


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