The Case for an Earth Education

The Wahiba Sands, Oman. Photo: Glen Burridge.

It’s breakfast time over one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.

Out of a night spent 40,000 feet above a satin Indian Ocean, suddenly appears the rose-blood drapes of the Wahiba Sands. This is the Arabia of our dreams and a sight that screams out an immediate and memorable beauty.

It is a mere prelude to what awaits.

Progressively, as we push north, these long dry waves of desert sand give way to gigantic biscuit-coloured fans of material that have spent generations washing off the real star of the show: The Al Hajar Mountains of Oman.

What lies below us has been described as the Grand Canyon of the Middle East. Several kilometres of ocean floor pushed up towards the sky, crafted by the forces of the lithosphere and gravity into a myriad of amphitheatres, avenues and cliff-faces on an epic scale. If you want to see the raw power — in all its life-giving and destructive energy — of this precious planet on which we live this is as good a place as any to come see it. And this crystalline morning is doing the perfect job of illustrating how tectonics — a force used as a simile for just about any other important change in our world — is the architect of continents.

The Al-Hajar Mountains, Oman. Photo: Glen Burridge.

With every flight we take, we have the opportunity of a ring-side seat on the planet, to take in what — by any measure — will be the most extraordinary thing we will see during that one turn of its axis.

But now, with the whiff of pancakes and bad coffee wafting down the long aisles, there is just mine and a handful of other window-blinds open, perhaps two other people looking at the view. The main focus of attention is, by far, the flickering liquid screens. The outside is a nuisance; an encroachment on the digital.

Since when have we thought this level of detachment wise?

Considering it’s our all-and-everything, we should be concerned how little attention is paid by society-at-large to the study of our Earth. This is a tragedy for us as much as it is for our planet. 21st Century problems don’t come in small packages, they come at planetary scale. I’ll contend right here that most — if not all — come down to how 7.6 billion little homo sapiens, increasing at 220,000 per day (yes, you read right…..) interact with this Big Home of theirs. We make our own risk.

Let’s just say it: The impact of our education in Earth Sciences leaves a lot to be desired. Even those who could be considered highly educated in every other respect will routinely show a deficit in knowledge of what is literally below their feet, all around them, why it is there and where the resources they consume come from. We would be shocked by a comparable lack of awareness in history, technology or health. Yet, we seem to accept this for our planet’s workings.

There are exceptions, notable by their rarity, but how many high-level scientists, politicians, diplomats or business leaders know how to read the land around them and can relate the history of our planet? There’s a tragically comic story of a geology professor walking into the office of a colleague — world famous in another field — amazed to find he’d hung a geological map in his office. Astonished and quietly pleased, he asked his illustrious colleague how long he’d been interested in the field, only to hear “oh, I’ve no idea what the map means, I just thought it looks good on the wall.”

This is not the public’s fault. Even Nobel Prize winners in physical science might go an entire career barely going near the subject. Very few will ever get beyond the equivalent of their geological times-tables. And it’s tragic because they and the public officials who will make significant judgements based on the science would benefit from not only its raw knowledge, but a mode of thinking defined by the humility of facing knowledge’s terrifying counterpart – namely, the very immediate and often epic consequences of nature’s uncertainty. At worst, it makes reasoned public debate about the key geo-risks of our time tendentious and prone to descent into polemic.

When we look at the forces that shape our world, we readily see those of human origin: Politics, faith, money, hope, conflict. We see it ordered by nation states, settlement, communication links and the extent of our ability to adapt our environment to our needs. In only the last few decades of our handful of million years on the planet, have we become sufficiently aware of our role in shaping our surroundings to even contemplate the wisdom of such a role. We have now considered giving it a name — the Anthropocene, the “period in which humans altered the Earth”.

All stories take place within a setting and for most of human history it is the breathtakingly thin zone between the top of the Earth’s crust and its atmosphere. Our true story is how the focal points of civilisation on the planet have been shaped — and will continue to be — by the underlying arena of their location.

Earth Science is the story of how your life, that of everyone that has ever lived, and everyone that will, has been shaped by the nature of the ground on which we stand. Don’t believe anyone who tells you geo-politics, geo-strategy, ….. geo-anything is dead or unimportant, because it is the one constant you can bank on.

Dispersing ourselves, generation by generation, from the continental rift that scythes through East Africa, our progress was governed by our ability to respond to the slowly changing diversity of the lands we encountered: Our earliest communities grew from confluences of water and of lithology; our innovations spread along those lines of least physical resistance that nature bestowed us as trade routes. And every time we met a natural barrier, we would either conquer it or it would sculpt our developing mental representation of this world and our place in it. If all stories need a setting, then the tale of our journey — and what we’ve built once we’ve arrived — has been shaped by the environment we found ourselves.

Even when we reach out, on our celestial voyages, to the other planetary bodies in our solar system, there is one thing that will shape our destiny more than any other — more than we care to admit — as it has done for our fate on Earth. It is the very nature of the land on which we stand and what we can learn about it.

That is why we all need to ensure we have a sufficient Earth Education.

Glen Burridge
Executive Director of the European Federation of Geologists
GeoERA-GeoConnect³d Stakeholder Council member

* This article was originally posted on LinkedIn and is part of a series:

Part 2 of The Case for an Earth Education: Geological Reading Age

Part 3 of The Case for an Earth Education: Knowing What You Should Fear

Part 4 of The Case for an Earth Education: Common Ground

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