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The Global Goals: How on Earth can geologists make a difference?

Image credit: Geological Society
On the 30th October the Bristol Geology for Global Development (GfGD) group trekked off to London to the grandeur of the Geological Society for the 3rd annual GfGD conference. Joel Gill, the director of GfGD, opened the conference with the bold claim: “Probably the world’s first meeting of geologists to discuss the Global Goals.” And it’s not an overstatement. Despite first appearances, geology has a crucially important role to play in many of the 17 goals internationally agreedby World Leaders in September this year. So why aren’t we talking about it? The conference acted as a platform for these discussions, it gave geologists a chance to learn how they can actually contribute to the success of these international development targets and it introduced us to new ways in which geology can help make a difference.

Soils and cities


Two scientists from the British Geological Survey touched on some particularly interesting examples of unlikely connections with geology and development.

We heard from Dr Michael Watts about how soil geochemistry is being used to maximise the potential to grow nutrient rich crops in places where people lack vital nutrients in their diets. In many areas of Malawi, people are suffering from selenium deficiency, which can cause a weakened immune system and an underactive thyroid. By increasing the alkalinity of the soil it may be possible to increase the amount of selenium in the plants that grow in that soil.

In a world that is becoming increasingly urbanised, Dr Katherine Royse stressed the importance of consulting geologists in urban developments. The subsurface is a finite resource and is being utilised in every possible way beneath cities, for transport, water works, electricity distribution and much more. In London, many infrastructure and building projects end up costing 50% more because developers weren’t aware of subsurface conditions from the outset.

These examples highlight the necessity for geologists to be included in discussions about health, about sustainable cities and about many other Global Goal themes. Geologists have much to bring to the table.

What did you say?


Of course, a big focus of the GfGD conference was about how we can communicate our science to people with no scientific background. If we want to use geology to help better prepare people for natural disasters, or to help make communities more resilient to climate change, explaining simple geological processes in a way that people understand is absolutely key. And often we need to take a step back to get exactly what angle the person we’re communicating to is coming from.

One particularly striking example of communication was introduced by Solmaz Mohadjer and related to children in Tajikistan who wondered why earthquakes were happening to them. Earthquakes happen all over the world and that seems obvious to us, but it’s not necessarily obvious to everyone. These children came up with all sorts of explanations for the earthquakes they were experiencing including that the Earth was balanced on a tower of elephants! 
Children came up with all sorts of explanations for the earthquakes
they were experiencing including that the Earth was balanced
on a tower of elephants!  Image credit S. Mohadjer (ParsQuake.org)
Through educational tools that the children, teachers and teacher trainers can understand, everyone can learn why earthquakes happen and how they can best protect themselves from them.

But we also need to remember we can’t just march in with all the answers. Jonathan Stone from TearFund encouraged us to be aware of what it is that makes someone an expert. The expert isn’t the person who comes along with the scientific explanation, ‘letting knowledge out like a dam’, the new expert is the person who encourages and inspires others to act for themselves.

Inspiring a new generation of geologists

Many Bristol GfGD members who came to the conference didn’t really know what to expect and went away with new perspectives on their subject. With ideas of how geology fits into all sorts of careers, not just the usual oil and mining sector. And with a view of how geology is one cog in the giant machine that is trying to tackle many of the world’s problems through the Global Goals.

The part of the conference that our group found most poignant were the views of early career geologists on how sustainability is integral to their job. In particular, we heard an account from exploration geologist, Sarah Craven, who was calling for people to become ambassadors for sustainability within the mining industry or indeed whichever sector they choose to go into.

Creating a generation of geologists who are mindful of their impact and who are aware of how they can use their skills to positively contribute to international development is at the heart of GfGD.

We lingered at the end of the conference, still in awe of our surroundings at the Geological Society. The buzz in the room was a tell tale sign that the 3rd Annual conference had achieved what it set out to do. Posing questions about how geology fits into the Global Goals, showing us what great work geologists are already doing and inspiring us to go after these opportunities ourselves. Let’s hope when the outcomes of the Global Goals are reviewed in 2030 that we’ll be able to say, “geologists helped to make that happen!”
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This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Emily White, a postgraduate student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

If you want to find out more about this society, request to join our Facebook group.

Bristol GfGD would like to thank the Bristol University Alumni Foundation for supporting this trip. 

For many of the resources from the conference, please go to the conference webpage
To join the mailing list for Bristol GfGD, please follow this link.




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