Social changes and Geosciences

Gian Vito Graziano – past President of the Italian Consiglio Nazionale dei Geologi

In a context in flux, where to the well-established movement of goods a more intense movement of persons is added, including different forms of immigration, the needs of society consequently change. Even the increase in population is expected to change the social landscape structurally in the medium to long term. The world population, today just over 7 billion, is growing rapidly, and by 2050 the UN estimates that it will have reached 9.1 billion people. According to the “World Population Prospects” nine countries – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the United States, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, China and Bangladesh – alone are expected to account for half of the estimated increase worldwide, with a growth forecast that reaches 95% (UN, 2013).

In this context of global change, climate change represents the most commonly perceived challenge for humanity, but not the only one; in fact there are additional challenges, no less demanding, from food supply to the development of a more orderly and socially-acceptable world economy. We think first of all of the basic needs of food and water, but there is also a growing demand for energy, housing, and infrastructure, and the resulting industrial and educational requirements. Meeting these needs will take natural resources, energy, transport, homes. This will most likely lead to the emergence of new practices and new occupational needs, linked to a demand for services that will be shaped by changing global needs.

In order to meet these increased human needs, it is necessary to immediately implement interventions in response to the special features of social change. These interventions should be characterised by the contributions of science, increasingly relevant and specific; for this, scientific skills are certainly necessary, but also the professional and organisational ability to integrate and strengthen them to meet global needs (Tellus Institute, 1998). In this sense the Geosciences are among the disciplines that are best able to respond to many of the social goals that we will have to confront in the future. The Geosciences also represent a deterrent against any forms of the future tied to an economic vision based solely on market forces and a consumer society, which undoubtedly represents a dangerous development model. If we continue in this direction, it will expand the risk of social monopolisation already in place, the continuation or worsening of poverty and the persistence or the aggravation of environmental degradation, all of which not only affect the resilience of ecosystems and the global economy, but may even erode social cohesion. In the coming years an analysis of global scenarios will have to define a priority of shares, or a strategy where scientific research, technological innovation and education will all play a key role.

In the report “Geologist 2.0” presented at the 2014 Summer Council Meeting of the European Federation of Geologists (EFG), Prof. Manuel Regueiro from Ilustre Colegio Oficial de Geologos de Espana pointed to studies on the various scenarios as a platform from which to begin to address these challenges, and pointed out that in this approach the geosciences have a feature that makes them different from other scientific disciplines and makes them unique in the general panorama, that is, to know and conceive of the past as a prelude. The geosciences, showed Regueiro, are one of the few disciplines, if not the only, to base their ability to read and understand the evolutionary phases and transformations – from the earth’s crust to those of natural habitats – on the time factor. But not only this; in a possible transition to forms of development based on sustainability, the geosciences are a necessary condition to guarantee a global future, not only ecological, but also human.

Supported by the testimonies of past climate changes, geologists are convinced that CO2 is one of the main factors of change in the climate system. The evidence confirms the basic physical principle that the placing of large amounts of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, into the atmosphere causes an increase in the temperatures of the planet. These findings also show that this is likely to lead to a rise in sea levels, increasing acidity of the oceans, a decrease in sea water oxygen levels and significant weather changes.

If then we go back to the basic needs of food and water, we are all well aware that thousands of people on our planet are still dying because they have no access to water or because they drink contaminated water, and that water resources can be universally guaranteed not only by hydrogeological exploration and with the proper use of resources, but also with civil management and water distribution. Similar reasoning applies to the food supply, where agriculture needs to protect productive soils and enhance their fertility, through the knowledge of rocks and minerals, the direct application of this knowledge, and implementation of technical protection and conservation of territories.

It is no coincidence that the Council of Europe, in promulgating the Water Charter, has stressed the need that water management is framed “in the natural catchment area, rather than within administrative borders and policies”, a concept dear to geology and taken up in the current international model of water management, the “water resource management” that inspired the water policies of the European Union.  This stresses the essential value of the catchment area for the coherent and integrated management of water resources. The issues related to water and food should be incorporated into a broad framework encompassing the qualitative and quantitative water needs of the population and for production and agricultural activities, protecting against threats linked to hydrogeological and climate change.

The social demand for energy, infrastructure and housing or shelter is a major factor in the progressive growth in the demand for geological culture and the professional services related to it. Activities such as providing rocks and materials for construction, urban planning and natural systems, disposing of waste, searching for energy resources, and seismic micro-zoning all depend on the geosciences and requiring geologists. There are not many in the world: about 500,000 earth scientists, 0.007% of all scientists (MEAB, 2005). It is estimated that there will be demand for another 10,000 new geologists around the world over the next 10 years (MEAB, 2005), but the trends of the geological profession have often been irregular, employment-related and more often tuned to the cyclicality of the industries employing the geoscience.

And in turn, industry (especially the mining industry), policies for the environment and water resources, and universities are driven by politics and markets, as indeed are governments (Landon, 2003). Thus, we must draw the attention of public institutions, finding ways to touch the daily life of the people, to realise the value of our work, recognising that we can improve their lives – sometimes even save them – or more generally be aware of the fact that geological knowledge can undoubtedly count. The recognition of geology as a field safeguarding public interests is an alternative paradigm (Graziano, 2012), but it is perhaps the one that will bring the geosciences to attain the place they deserve in global policies for a more secure and sustainable world, helping to create effective role models both in the aspect of environmental sustainability and in economics.

In the philosophy of science, a paradigm is the disciplinary matrix of a scientific community that is concentrated in a global vision and generally accepted in the world where it operates. The disciplinary matrix of a part of the geological community (including the Italian one) is developing into a global vision of society.

This is a responsibility that the community itself has taken on, tending to “… encourage the use of critical analysis of natural resources, the promotion and protection of the Geosphere, accurate information about the risks, the involvement of the society in the idea of ​​a common and shared geological heritage, which favors a social construction of knowledge” (Manifesto of “Geoethics and geological culture” as reported in Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2011; see also Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2015).

But local responsibility remains, which we are struggling to extend to the entire community, especially in those countries where the geosciences are historically and inextricably linked to strong economic powers. But this is the only way forward, one which requires closer cooperation between the European and world geological associations: the daunting task is to take the path of responsible development. The world needs science and science is undoubtedly on the side of geologists: we must walk on this road – we cannot afford to choose another.


Graziano, G. 2012. Professional ethics: know-how, deontological code and legality. Annals of Geophysics, 55(3). doi: 10.4401/ag-5560

Landon, S.M. 2003. The geologist: past, present and future. The Professional Geologist, Jan-Feb. 22–23.

MEAB. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Scenarios. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board. Island Press: Washington, D.C.Peppoloni, S., Di Capua, G. 2011. Geoethics and geological culture: Awareness, responsibility and challenges, Annals of Geophysics, 55, 3, 2012; doi: 10.4401/ag-6099

Peppoloni S., Di Capua, G. 2015. The meaning of geoethics. In: Wyss, M., Peppoloni, S. (Eds.): Geoethics: Ethical Challenges and Case Studies in Earth Science. Elsevier: Waltham, MA. pp 3–15. doi 10.1016/B978-0-12-799935-7.00001-0.

Regueiro, M. 2014. Geologist 2.0. Presentation, “Geologists of Europe in the 3rd millennium” Workshop, Summer Council Meeting of the European Federation of Geologists (EFG), Palermo, Italy.

Tellus Institute. 1998. Global energy, sustainability and the conventional development paradigm. Tellus Institute: Boston. 2013. World Population Prospects: 2012 Revision. United Nations: New York.

This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 43 – Geothermal – The Energy of the Future

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