21st Century Bureau - A Global Context

A Global Context

I have been fortunate in my 50 years to have traveled the world extensively, having visited some 40 countries on 6 continents. From these experiences I have observed that humans, individually, are fundamentally good, even though in groups we have demonstrated the willingness to hide behind large organizational constructs— government, religion, and industry—to propagate harm against one another and to the environment. I also recognize that today the world is culturally, economically, socially, and politically connected.

As we look to the coming century, I see a few fundamental trends that could drive human behavior and perhaps provide some context into the global challenges that we will face. Again, these trends are simply my thoughts by way of establishing context.

Cultural blending as Asia expands

For the past few decades the people of Asia, particularly China and India, have been slowly and predictably expanding their presence around the world. Over one-third of the world’s population is Chinese and Indian, so the quest for land and resources should come as no surprise. As this peaceful expansion continues, it is inevitable that cultural blending will occur as people from historically different cultures interact.


Religious convergence and extremism

Along with cultural blending will come religious convergence. Already there is a growing global trend toward secularity (about 16 percent—and growing—of the global population declares no religion) as global interconnectedness allows for a broadening awareness of other faiths and systems of belief. This trend will most likely cause continued angst in religious extremists, but most likely in ever-smaller factions, to a level where violent acts based on religious extremism will be minimized.


Redistribution of wealth

As the economies of Asia (including Russia) grow, European and U.S. economies will become relatively less dominant. Combined with physical relocation and cultural and religious blending, there will most likely be a marked redistribution of global wealth. This could come as a contraction in U.S. wealth or as overall global economic growth, such that other countries rise to the level of U.S. prosperity. Much depends on the ability of political leaders to resist building walls (nationalism) and instead build cross-cultural bridges.


Redefinition of class boundaries

As cultural blending and redistribution of wealth proceed, historical class boundaries will be redefined. Currently over 1.5 billion people are without 20th-century conveniences, such as on-demand electricity and water. Most of these people live in undeveloped or underdeveloped nations and are very young. The successful redistribution of wealth will result in a growing global middle class.


Educational expansion

One of the results of cultural, religious, and economic blending will be continued access to education. This is a very positive outcome because education is correlated to economic prosperity, cultural and religious tolerance, life expectancy, reduction in family size, and environmental awareness.


Increased life expectancy

With increased education and continued medical advances will come increased life expectancy, partly from better nutrition and exercise and partly from advancements in medicine and genetics. More people will be living longer—healthier lives are both a challenge and an opportunity.
 

Natural resource stress and demands

One of the great challenges of the coming century, as the world levels out at a population of around 12 billion people, will be access to natural resources. Certain natural resources are finite, by which I mean resources that, once used, are converted to something else that is not usable in the same form. Combusted gasoline is one such resource. Aluminum is not, as it can be recycled and used again. The world contains the natural resources to sustain human life on Earth, but these resources must be used very differently than how we have used them in the past. Efficiency and sustainability must become the mantra of the future, which does not mean a reduction in quality of life necessarily, but it does mean adapting the way we do things going forward.


Nuclear energy (and nuclear weapons) expansion

In terms of energy, we will transition slowly away from the combustion of certain fossil fuels (coal and oil) toward alternate energy forms representing more continuous sources of motion and heat but with substantially lower energy density: solar power, wind, hydro power, waves, tides, geothermal energy, and some forms of cellulosic biomass. These low-energy -density alternate-energy fuels require much greater surface infrastructure. I believe natural gas and nuclear energy will play a very prominent role. Both are globally abundant and have the potential
to serve as large-scale, “base-load” (continuous) sources of electricity.

These base-load fuels will be required until we develop the technology to store and transmit electricity more efficiently, thus allowing industrialscale solar power, wind, and other low-density fuels to serve the continuing needs of a growing population. I hold out hope that cultural blending, religious convergence, redistribution of wealth, and expansion of education will allow this energy transition to be smooth.

 

CHALLENGES AND TIMELESS CHARACTERISTICS

The global context that I have discussed suggests two challenges that the world will face as we move through the 21st century. The first is natural resources, including energy, water, food, minerals, aggregates, and the environment, and the second is natural processes, including natural and induced hazards, climate variability, coastal change, marine development, and competition of species. Resources and processes are at the heart of Bureau expertise and interest. As such, we are actively engaged in energy research (including oil, natural gas, coal, geothermal energy, geologic approaches to energy storage, and energy economics), hydrogeology, natural hazards, and carbon sequestration.

By way of example:
• We own and operate airborne and ground-based lidar that collects continuous topographic position information and allows for the reconstruction of continuous outcrop data.

• We are working with ever-higher resolution 3-D, 4-D, and multicomponent seismic data and pushing the limits of seismic imaging to enhance oil and natural gas recovery, including resource recovery from unconventionals.

• We are integrating surface and space-based remote sensing data to provide for significantly enhanced interpretation and analysis of near-surface hazards, such as sinkholes, subsidence, and coastal change.

• We are working at the very small micro- and nanoscale, to try to develop small, smart sensors to help characterize the interwell space in the subsurface more accurately.

Equally important are the human characteristics that have allowed the Bureau to excel during the past century and that will allow us to remain at the front of the pack in the coming century. These include curiosity and the willingness to engage in debate; the drive to stay current and relevant; a work ethic driven by curiosity and the hunger to attract external funding; the desire and ability to work at the boundaries of disciplines and to integrate results into a common whole; the flexibility to adapt to change; and, finally, a passion for the rocks and the Earth.

These are the timeless attributes of the men and women who have worked successfully at the Bureau for the past century, and these are also undoubtedly the traits of those who will be successful at the Bureau in the next 100 years.

Happy 100th Birthday, Bureau of Economic Geology!