Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

So today is Earth Day, I thought I would reflect on what this day means to me, and how I got to where I am. I credit 3 "life changing" moments that got me to where I am.

Although I grew up doing much hiking, camping, and canoeing, I entered college hoping to be an aerospace engineer, with thoughts of designing and flying aircraft. Due to a collection of bad experiences (not bad grades) after one term I decided engineering was not right for me. For spring break that first year, I went to Yosemite NP. It was an amazing place to be with snow, ice falls, and clear skies. I remember being in my tent, looking out at the stars, and hearing the cascade of falling water and the occaisional crash of large boulders weathering from the cliffs. I was amazed by the beauty of it all, wrote some (really bad) poetry and decided to become  a biology major as that was the closest I could come to environmental science at my University. I had never taken a biology class before (not even in HS) and soon found myself in with mostly premed students learning about the natural world. I enjoyed biology, but was not inspired to become a biologist.

Second was a literature class I took as junior. It was a co-curricular class that looked at science and environmentalism in literature. We read John Muir (which I liked), A Sand County Almanac (which I didn't like), Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams (which I admit was to dry for me to finish reading), Bill McKibbon The End of Nature (which I loved) and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire. Although I enjoyed the whole it was the whole class and the discussions which it brought about, it was Desert Solitaire which inspired me. The humor kept me interested (and got me to read Abbey's Road Take the Other and the classic The Monkey Wrench Gang). Abbey's books became more relevant to me when I moved to Utah a few years later and got to experience those desolate, fragile environments on my own. Through his writings I learned to appreciate not only the beauty of the Yosemites, but also the allure of desolate deserts.

The last event was reading Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. I don't even remember why I picked up this book, but I remember reading it and muttering "how can we be so stupid" at least once every couple of pages. Cadillac Desert got me interested in water and the importance of it to society. I was intrigued by how we (ab)use this precious resource, always expecting that increases in technology will solve our problems. The issues of water resource use and allocation got me interested in geology and from there I got my Masters Degree.

The issue of technology always allowing us to keep moving forward versus the real limits of resources is something I try and teach in my classes. Although I no longer teach an environmental science class I incorporate the realities of limited resources into my lecture plans when I can. In my mind issues from Climate Change to Food Production all boil down to an assumption that resources last forever, and that in the minds of humans forever is only 100s of years. As a geologist the concept of geologic time is an important one, and my goal as a teacher is to get my students to appreciate a longer view of things. The sun will keep on shining for another 5 billion years it would be nice to preserve a little of that time for our ancestors.