Our lives are subject to two over-riding constants:
1. Confronting the uncertainty that Nature lays out for us in a way we can benefit from it rather than suffer from it.
2. We are based on planet Earth.
Whatever we work in, this fine balance between risk and reward upon our planet is something we can never escape. And while we continue to dream of worlds beyond our reach, and a future which is increasingly digital, our alternately menacing and generous planet remains the foundation of our lives.
Despite this closest of relationships however, the story of the Earth’s development and its current state is not an easy one to tell. It is one of immense passages of time full of missing chapters, elusive actors and the greatest of stages.
It is one that requires a relentless search for clues worthy of a momentous detective story and a degree of lateral thinking on scales seen in few other realms. Perhaps it’s no wonder, we are still a relatively young science.
For those of us for whom it is a vocation to spend our careers studying it, we face a relentless challenge in communicating these stories that perhaps the rest of the world just getting on with their lives are not always in a position to appreciate:
– The Butterfly and the Hurricane: The Earth is, above all, a family of systems, physical, chemical and biological. Even with the most powerful technology in the world, keeping track of all that is happening and to foresee what will happen is at the limit of our capabilities.
– The Seeds of our Story: Fancy trying to make critical predictions on a subject matter where your ability to sample is often only a billionth of one of those systems at a given moment in an unimaginably long time-scale?
– Expectations: As a profession, we are tasked with helping explain and furnish solutions to questions which pose themselves at every scale from the nano-scopic right through the whole planet itself.
– The Risks are at Magnitude: When we talk of things that may keep us awake at night, those nightmares may consist of a threat to thousands of lives, national infrastructure, economic well-being or the multi-million dollar investments of companies.
In the space of just two centuries, we have learnt a phenomenal amount about this great Home of ours and are now able to pinpoint the paramount risks facing us as a society in a way no civilisation has before it. If we understand anything about what treasures and hazards our home planet has in store for us, it is thanks to our geoscientists.
Yet, as with all colleagues in other streams of science and technology, our astonishing growth in awareness has come at the price of a head-spinning level of specialisation, where even the experts have trouble keeping up. It’s easy to lose a sense of the bigger picture and the great questions of what is important to focus our energies on.
It has often struck me that for every problem we delve into there’s a second way. And that is to look at it sideways – if we can’t get the all the answers we need from attacking something in greater depth, then perhaps we should bring our heads back up from our target and look sideways. Part of that is to ask what solutions are found for similar problems in other realms – namely, it would be fantastic to hear from other sectors, industries and professions how they deal with their own risks, as real and tangible to them as ours is to us and to see what we could learn.
So, when the Geological Society of London put out a request for ideas for their Year of Risk 2017, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to suggest this concept, one that has grown through the sterling efforts of a small, dedicated, team to the Sharing an Uncertain World Conference in London next month: http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/uncertainworld17
For two days, one of the world’s great historical centres of learning about the Earth, Burlington House, will throw open its doors in a novel experiment in sharing lessons in what risk means and how it can be better handled. We shall meet under the gaze of William Smith’s famous map, a document that attempted for the first time to tell the Long Story of Britain’s identity. A tale, significantly, that grew from trying to solve an entirely different problem, that of engineering canals for transporting coal.
During those 48 hours, we want to give rise to a two-way dialogue between those whose stock-and- trade is the risk stemming from our place on the earth and those whose is the application of human, technical and commercial expertise in a range of other exploits that take place on it. We really hope it will be not only be a ground-breaking, but a fascinating event and one that forms a launch-pad for further cross-pollination and let us all deal with those two unavoidable realities a little better.
We hope to see you there!