|Dr. Greg Wessel|
Dr. Greg Wessel is a professional geologist and the President and founder of Geology in the Public Interest. Over the last several years, he has been increasingly concerned about the public’s lack of knowledge and interest in key environmental problems that threaten the long-term sustainability of humans on our planet.
1. The mission of Geology in the Public Interest states that the group seeks to engage in situations when “…geologic expertise can solve significant environmental and social problems.” What got you interested in forming this organization?
Our motivation stems from a shared ambition to drive change in a positive direction, building upon our experience as geoscientists and engineers. It also stems from a shared frustration with the way things are going now. We joined in this effort, and formed the nonprofit, when it became increasingly clear that all of us need to do far more than we do now to save the future for our grandchildren. Given that geology underlies all the problems we now face, it makes abundant sense to enhance the input of the geosciences to affect positive change. One could argue that this is the only way mankind can approach the future. Since the election of 2016, we’ve seen both the level of frustration and the ambition to drive change increase, particularly among Americans but also worldwide. To be frank, there have been times over the last three years when we’ve been positively frantic to get something to work, and so we’ve been following as many paths as we can.
2. I know that you have a background in mineral exploration. I worked for a short while in mineral exploration myself. Indeed, it was while doing that work that I had a big epiphany about human impacts on the planet. Most of the places that my company sent me to get placer (stream bed) samples were significantly altered by human activity and I had real concerns about the quality of the samples I collected. What got you interested in issues of sustainability?
|Mine waste in Bolivia. Photo by Greg Wessel.|
My interest in sustainability came relatively recently, following a career in exploration and then engineering geology. But I’ve been concerned for a long time about unconstrained growth and the impact of our activities on the natural world. A lot of my time in exploration was spent in the field where I could experience firsthand the beauty and wonder of nature, and at the same time predict the environmental damage that would result from discovering a mineral deposit. For that reason, I migrated into mapping and structural geology (also because it was fun) and ultimately worked in industrial minerals and commodities that could be argued would better benefit mankind, such as fertilizer minerals. The project of which was I was most proud was working with a huge deposit of magnesium salt in Russia that could be solution mined and form the basis for low-cost magnesium metal production. For reasons having nothing to do with geology, that project was an administrative failure (principally because of its location) but it remains a really good idea.
I am also taken with the idea of mineral recovery from unconventional feedstocks and mine/smelter waste. Many people in the mining industry think “sustainability” means making sure they’ve got new reserves to exploit in the future so that the income stream is sustained. In fact, the industry doesn’t talk much about being sustainable; instead they talk about being responsible, which can be met through much lower standards.
It is my belief that mining can be made far more sustainable than people think, in a real sense, provided the true costs of operation are addressed through higher commodity prices and/or the creation of a capital fund by saving a portion of the annual depletion that is then used to mitigate for the environmental and social damages of current operations as well as past activities. Others have used such funds to generate economic activity that replaces the income generation of mining, and one could argue that this is still important in order to conserve social resources, but if environmental resources are not conserved as well, then there is little point in conserving much else.
The intent is to apply this fund in such a way so that the restoration that is accomplished is maintained in perpetuity, bringing that portion of the world into the 21stcentury looking much as it did hundreds of years before. In this case, the mining operation becomes a vehicle to accomplish restoration that would have gone wanting otherwise. Mining can thus become a path to restorative sustainability, which is defined as the capability of an action being continued while restoring and enhancing environmental and social resources.
This approach may seem overly ambitious or even naïve, but the problem all along has been that many of the actual costs of mineral production have been ignored, with society bearing the impact through habitat loss, water contamination, and air pollution. Given that raw material costs make up such small percentages of the costs of manufactured goods, we should be able to pay for environmental protections if we choose to do so. But at present, we are not holding ourselves to high enough standards.
3. You have worked all over the world on a number of geologic projects. How significantly do environmental protections vary from place to place?
|Redbed copper deposits in Boliva. Photo by Greg Wessel.|
There is variance, not just in environmental protections but perhaps more importantly in available reserves and operating costs. I’ve always thought it was a cop-out for companies to blame their moves to foreign countries on the costs of our environmental protections, because the exciting new discoveries back then were being made there and not here. It’s also true that other countries have been moving toward greater environmental protections over time, and the major mining companies especially have been upping their game, partly in response to demands from the host countries and others. They are all trying to be more responsible, but that is far from being sustainable as most people would measure it.
4. You did your undergraduate and masters work at the University of Missouri-Rolla (you also did your Ph.D. at the Colorado School of Mines). My father earned his electrical engineering degree from Rolla back in the 40’s. That school is known as Missouri’s main science and technology university. What was your experience like in that focused science environment?
Both schools were and still are excellent for geology and mineral engineering, and in addition both are now quite progressive when it comes to the social impacts of engineering and resource exploitation. Mines has a program in Humanitarian Engineering (https://humanitarian.mines.edu/), and more and more students are involved in Engineers Without Borders and similar philanthropic organizations. I was a student long enough ago (starting in 1970) that I have seen a dramatic change in educational emphasis (from oil and mining to environmental and hydrology) as well as student demographics and diversity. It is quite heartening to watch the students at work today and see just how well they are being prepared for their future. We are in good hands with our young people.
5. I saw you give a paper at the last Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Phoenix this year on the work Geology in the Public Interest’s project that created a Summit on Geoscience and Society. What was the purpose of the summit?
|An activity at the Summit on Geoscience and Society.|
Photo courtesy of Mark Shimamoto.
The Geoscience and Society Summit, held in Stockholm in March of 2019, brought together about 70 people from 20 nations to discuss ways to build bridges between geoscientists and others to enhance the contributions of geoscientists in advancing resilience and sustainability worldwide. The meeting was hosted by the American Geophysical Union, the Bolin Centre for Climate Research, and Geology in the Public Interest, who partnered with the Geological Society of America, the American Geosciences Institute, the Geological Society of London, Geoscientists Without Borders, the International Association for Promoting Geoethics, Geology for Global Development, and the Geology and Environmental Science Department at Wheaton College.
The goals of the meeting included: assessing the role geoscience can play to inform solutions, facilitating interactions between the science and user communities to advance foundational capability, and developing processes to improve interdisciplinary engagement and science diplomacy. Five workshops were held over three days, with the first four advancing discussions toward a final session designed to summarize conclusions and suggest models for the future. Discussions were wide-ranging but there was general agreement on the importance of certain aspects of our work, such as the effectiveness of communication between stakeholders, the need for education about the geosciences and sustainability at all levels (particularly grade school and middle school), the criticality of uniform standards to measure sustainability, and the value of making successful actions scalable.
The final session highlighted the need for new programs to enhance the impact of the geosciences at the grassroots level by 1) combining creative science with effective outreach, 2) increasing local geoscience education within affected communities, 3) reducing barriers to collaboration, and 4) providing pathways to a better understanding and appreciation of the common good. Suggestions included creating a new internet-based platform for collaboration that allows easy participation, reconfiguring the GSS meeting structure to allow it to be hosted at sites in the developing world, and partnering with others in smaller, progressive programs. All these suggestions and more are being acted upon, with the last already resulting in a short course that is planned for the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna in May of 2020.
6. Like many in the geoscience community, I am really disappointed with many of our world’s leaders who either try to deny climate change or focus on small distractions that do not address the major issues we are facing. What do you think we need to do in the geoscience community to try to advocate for action?
|Wessel at the Science March.|
As geoscientists, we are fortunate (or burdened, depending upon how look at it) with being very good at understanding two things that many people don’t get: how interconnected we are with nature and with others worldwide, and the large impacts of small changes over time. It’s important to remember that few people think at the same scale we do, nor do they have the same concept of time. For this reason, it is our responsibility to encourage people to think in a way that they can understand that their individual actions really do impact the planet, and to hope that their standards for judging progress will change when they do begin to see that they can be a positive force.
Politicians depend upon voters to keep them in their jobs, so about the most you can expect from politicians is to reflect the voting public, which is clearly not enough. Given our political system and the way capitalism works, it’s no surprise that our leaders really don’t lead.
For us, it’s important to show other people ways that they can make the paradigm shift required to do something about climate change. This is tough, because most people when faced with this topic look like deer in the headlights. I recommend looking for simple ways to get people thinking differently in your community. Where I live, we are working on a simple exercise to do just that, but we’re not ready to go primetime with it. Anyone interested in learning more is welcome to contact me and I can share what I have (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
There is a little book that I carry with me whenever I travel, and there is a great quote on pages 18 and 19 from Dwight D. Eisenhower that reads “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.” Given the nature of the challenges we face, it is my opinion that young people should travel as far and wide as they can, especially if they are in the geosciences, to see what the rest of the world is like, before returning home to fix our nation. To do this, you’ll need a copy of this little book, which you can get from the Department of State. The title is “Passport.”
7. One of the surprising developments in the last few years with climate change policy is the leadership from the business community. For example, many companies are working hard to achieve climate neutrality and others are transforming their supply chains to make them greener. The statement linked hereby the Business Roundtable and signed by the CEO’s of most of the major US corporations notes the importance of sustainability and protecting the environment. Based on your experience, do you have hope that businesses can help us turn not only a policy corner on climate change, but also attain real outcomes in making our planet more sustainable?
|Mining operations in Potosi, Bolivia.|
Photo by Greg Wessel.
I am alternately buoyed by news from the corporate world and depressed. Up to now, it’s not easy to make the case that business has saved the environment. There are some excellent examples of companies that are doing philanthropic work and/or addressing the common good, often through their associated foundations, but the principal goal of any profit-making enterprise is to do just that, make a profit no matter what. The problem is that businesses commonly make a profit at the expense of the common good and the environment. This is why tobacco companies denied the negative impacts of their product for so many years and also why oil and mining companies are doing the same. When corporations get serious about doing full-cost accounting, then I’ll be less critical. That said, consumers can drive businesses to be more responsible, which brings us back to our need to promote grassroots change in our own communities, as I described above.
8. You organized a session at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December in which I will take part. Can you describe the session and explain what prompted you to put it together?
The AGU session title is Geoscience and Sustainability at the Grassroots Level: Building on the 2019 Geoscience and Society Summit(Session ) and the intent of the session is to advance the conversation around how to build bridges between geoscientists and other stakeholders to enhance the impact of the geosciences in solving environmental and social issues at local and regional levels.
We invited authors to submit papers that describe successful projects or programs that enhance the impact of the geosciences at the grassroots level by either 1) combining creative scientific approaches with effective outreach, 2) increasing local geoscience education levels within affected communities, 3) reducing barriers to collaboration between diverse constituents, 4) providing pathways to more effective communication, or 5) lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the common good (in whole or in part) at local or regional scales. We will also summarize the themes that emerged from the Geoscience and Society Summit and that will guide future progress and follow-on efforts. We invite everyone to attend.
9. All field geologists have amazing stories about their experiences doing field work. I have some good ones from fieldwork in Yemen, Venezuela, and Florida. Can you tell my readers an interesting experience from your decades of field work and your extensive travels?
I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing field experiences throughout the western US as well as in Bolivia, Poland, and even in Russia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Russia, I was asked “How do you teach your children capitalism?” while working with former KGB and Communist Party officials. In Bolivia, I inadvertently found myself on the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but just for fun I’ll leave you with a real story of lost treasure.
|Offset quartz veins in Bolivia. Photo by Greg Wessel.|
While a student at Rolla, I had a chance to make several trips into the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. The Superstitions host a volcanic center and resurgent caldera, and you’ll probably recognize it as the home of the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine. On one trip, I was doing a recon in the desert near the edge of the caldera looking at the geology and I stumbled across an odd outcrop that was a quartz vein/stockwork with abundant manganese oxide. It was very different from the surrounding volcanic rocks and low to the ground next to a dry wash. The outcrop was fractured and vuggy and bees had established a hive in the rock and were buzzing around. Trying to avoid being stung, I grabbed a few small pieces and took them back to examine, but I wasn’t there to prospect so the fact that I took a sample was unusual. Shortly after, I read that the nearby rich gold mines at Goldfield (present day Apache Junction) were developed on manganese-rich quartz veins at the perimeter of the caldera. My outcrop appeared to be identical but it was not near Goldfield and there was no evidence of mining activity or prospecting nearby that I could tell. A couple of years after, I had a chance to spend a day looking again for that outcrop so that I could take a proper sample. I wandered back and forth through the area I was sure I had traversed before, but never found anything resembling the manganese-rich quartz. It may have been buried in a subsequent flash flood, or maybe I was just off course. It was clearly outcrop, about the size of a large car, but I never was able to locate it again.
10. Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’d like to share one thought with your readers who might be discouraged about climate change and how our governments are not dealing with it. I’ve learned over the years that human progress of any kind resembles a Slinky on the floor. The Slinky I’m talking about is the kids’ toy that is a loose metal spring that you stack at the top of a flight of stairs. Tip over the top coil and it will walk down the steps.
Take that same Slinky and set it on its side on the floor. A little friction on the floor will mimic the resistance within humankind. Now take the end coil and slowly pull it away from the rest of the spring in an attempt to drag the spring across the floor. The forward-moving coils will stretch out far ahead of the bulk of the spring, which will remain in place until the progressive coils are far out front. It takes a lot of pulling to get the entire spring moving, and even when you do, most of the spring (the majority of people) remains far behind.
It’s the numbers of those at the back who determine our future success, so my advice is to
spend some time figuring out ways that you can get behind the people in the rear, and then