Armies of Geologists

I HAVE DISCUSSED in previous articles that I attended the recent annual convention of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), held in Long Beach, Calif. It was a gathering of about 5,200 geologists from around the world, and many others who work in related fields dealing with the world’s oil and gas industries. In addition to the formal members of the AAPG, the convention hosted many hundreds more individuals from related industries (such as the oil service companies, geophysics companies, and the like), as well as from government and academia.

One of the things that struck me about the assembled throng was just how collectively well educated the whole group was. I say that in all humility, because a very large number of the AAPG membership holds more and higher levels of academic degrees than I. That is, there are many members of AAPG with one or more master’s degrees in scientific and technical fields. The numbers of Ph.D. holders, combined with the broad spectrum of research fields in evidence, was entirely impressive if things like that impress you. So the point is that the Long Beach Convention Center was just dripping with academic wax and ribbons.

Mr. Wang, Marine Geologist

I had the pleasure of spending some time with a delightful man named Mr. Wang, from an institution called the “University of Geoscience” in Wuhan, China. Mr. Wang is a marine geologist, and teaches the subject at the university level. He is very smart, as I rapidly discerned after we sat down next to each other on a bus, and during a field trip to look at the rocks of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Mr. Wang and I discussed numerous subjects of a geological nature, subjects of which he has an excellent grasp, in both English and Chinese. Here is some of what we discussed.

I asked Mr. Wang how many students attend the University of Geoscience in Wuhan.

“About 20,000,” he replied.

“You have 20,000 students majoring in geology?” I asked, stunned at the number.

“Oh, no,” he replied with a smile. “Many of our students study in other fields of science, such as physics, chemistry, biology. And we even have a few students who study art and theater.”

No doubt, I thought, the “few” artists and theater majors in a Chinese university are probably the ones who are actually good at it. “So how many people do you have studying geology?” I asked.

“Hmmm…. About 10,000,” he replied.

“10,000? In what fields of geology do the students pursue their studies?” I asked.

Mr. Wang replied, “We teach basic scientific background such as math, chemistry, and physics. Then we teach geological concepts like stratigraphy and mineralogy and structural geology. Then we take the students into specific fields such as oil and gas geology, petroleum engineering, mineralogy, mining geology and engineering, civil engineering, geological engineering, marine geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and whatever other fields branch out from those subjects.”

“Do your students have jobs when they finish their studies?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” replied Mr. Wang. “Our students graduate, and many go to get advanced degrees in China, as well as in Australia, Europe, and the U.S. We also send many students into the oil and gas industry, the mining industry, engineering fields, and the like. We have graduates working at geological projects on every continent of the Earth, in the mining industry and in the oil extraction industry, building roads and dams across China, and as far away as Arabia, Africa, and South America, and even performing research in Antarctica.”

“So,” I asked Mr. Wang, “since you have 10,000 students, is your school the main school for the study of geology in China?”

“Oh, no,” he replied. “Ours is one of three geoscience universities in China. The other two universities are comparable to ours. And many other universities have their own college of geology. Beijing University, for example, is a very great school that is attended by many of the best students in China. It has a college of geology with about 4,000 students.”

“So,” I asked, “can you give me some idea of how many students are studying geology in China today?”

Mr. Wang thought for a moment. “If you add it all up,” he said, “there are about 40,000 or 50,000 students studying geology in China today at the university level. Maybe more, but I do not want to give you a number that is too high. Many of these students might not become geologists, because they will go into civil engineering or some related field. The Premier of China, Wei Jiabao, is a geologist, by the way, and worked as a geological surveyor in his youth. And many other students, such as those studying chemistry or physics in the university, might eventually become geochemists or geophysicists. But we are currently training about 50,000 or so geologists in China, across the nation.”

Are You Impressed Yet?

Are you impressed yet, dear readers? 50,000 students are studying geology in China today. That number is well over 25 times the number of college students who are studying geology in the U.S., which includes foreign students enrolled at U.S. institutions, and that is after something of a surge in enrollments in geoscience departments in the past two or three years. Back in 2004, according to statistics published by the U.S. National Science Foundation, there were fewer than 500 degrees granted in geology and petroleum engineering by all U.S. universities combined, and about half of those degrees were awarded to foreign nationals. The Chinese have 100 times that number in the pipeline.

It may help to make a military comparison. Consider that the U.S. is training geologists by the squad, or maybe by platoon, at the university level. The Chinese are cranking out geologists by the division.

Why Is This Important?

This is an important development. There is a revolution occurring in the scientific approach to understanding the Earth. The fields that make up geology, and related Earth and space sciences, are currently undergoing major advances that promote understanding of our planet as a number of interrelated systems. Many new realms of scientific investigation are emerging through the study of the connections and interactions between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, solid Earth, and near space. Furthermore, geoscientists are playing critical roles in recognizing the extent and magnitude of human impact on the entire Earth system. And this understanding is gaining new context via the growth in knowledge of processes on other planets. So the more people who are out there and who understand at least the basics of geology (let alone the really hard stuff), the better for that nation.

Dave O’Reilly, chairman of Chevron, signs his name to many advertisements that state that the “easy” oil and gas has been found. If you are a frequent reader of Whiskey & Gunpowder, you know what we agree entirely with Mr. O’Reilly, and we carry the Peak Oil argument even further. Just as people say that the “easy” oil and gas has been found, so has almost all of the other “easy” mineral, energy, and water resources of the Earth been located and tapped. The future of modern civilization depends on how well any given group of people, from any given nation or organization, can understand how best to extract or harness the resources of the Earth that are not “easy” to access. So going forward, there had better be some geology majors coming out of the academic sweatshops, and the more the better.

100-to-1 Ratio

By way of comparison with the number of geology graduates, in recent years, U.S. law schools have awarded an average of about 40,000 law degrees annually to aspiring lawyers. So for each geologist that U.S. academia cranks out, the law school industry mills something between 50-100 lawyers. At the extreme end of the ratio, there are 100 new lawyers graduating from U.S. universities for every new geologist coming out into the work force.

Why is it that China is training armies of geologists while the U.S. is training armies of lawyers? And is there something ominous about that fact? Let’s examine a few aspects of this situation. What is going on?

What Is Going On?

The U.S. and China are about the same size in terms of land area so it is not that China needs more geologists to cover more ground. By the criteria of raw acreage, Russia and Canada should be graduating divisions of geologists. But Russia and Canada, the largest and second largest nations in the world by land area, are not doing this. The Chinese are leading the world in the training of large numbers of geoscientists.

In terms of population, China has 1.3 billion people and the U.S. has something over 300 million. So China has slightly over four times the population of the U.S. On a per capita basis, it might make sense for China to train more geologists. But still, there is a difference between China having four times the population and 50 times the geologists in training.

The U.S. is, of course, a developed nation with an advanced (some say “too advanced”), postindustrial (some say “too postindustrial”) economy. And “the world,” says Thomas Friedman, the famous columnist from The New York Times, “is flat.” Another way of framing the concept is to note that things that are on the uphill side will start to roll downhill in this “flat” world of ours. I am sure that you get the idea, dear readers.

The U.S., for example, has essentially built out its interstate highway system, much of which is now clogged with automobiles and trucks speeding (well, crawling at times and in places) hither and yon, while China is just building the beginnings of its own system of national highways, and filling up the roadways with its own domestic version of motorized carriages. If China were to burn as much gasoline on a per capita basis as does the U.S., China alone would require the entire world’s daily oil output and then some. But that is just extrapolating the present into the future, and things are going to change dramatically long before something like that could occur, if it were even possible.

And the U.S. has built up many great cities, while China is still building out its own collection of urban metropolises. Shanghai, for example, has seen the construction of over 300 new skyscrapers during the past 20 years. (One Chinese fellow once told me that it was too bad China did not use that steel to construct 300 offshore oil production platforms.) Overall, China is constructing buildings and roads and infrastructure that is the equivalent of a “new Houston,” about every month. And last year, in 2006, China added more electrical-generating capacity than exists in the entire state of California, where they have been building generating capacity for 100 years. So China is growing, and growing fast.

What Does China Need?

But still, what does this tell us about why China trains so many geologists and the U.S. trains so many lawyers? One might be forgiven for thinking that in a nominally communist state such as China, which is modernizing and evolving politically, the need would be for more lawyers to enforce basic human rights that have not been in place or effect for many decades. (Actually, China is training a relatively small cadre of lawyers too.) And one might think that in an advanced postindustrial state, such as the U.S., which has exhausted a significant fraction of its national energy and mineral resources over the past two centuries, the need would be for more geologists to locate and assist in securing new energy and mineral supplies. Yes, indeed. One might think that. But such is not the case.

One important way to differentiate the U.S. and China is to note the obvious point that the U.S. is a “rich” nation, certainly as measured in its own currency, the dollar. The U.S. can buy what it wants on the markets of the “flat” world, and use its uniquely situated dollar, the so-called “reserve currency” of the world economy, to pay for it. And China is, as its leaders like to remind the world, a “poor” nation that wants to get rich. “To get rich is glorious,” said former Premier Deng Xiaoping.

So can we say that rich nations need more lawyers? After all, much of what lawyers do is argue and fight over money. And where does this leave the poor people of the world? “The poor shall always be with you,” said Jesus in a famous comment. And yet another comment I have heard is that “What the poor people of this world need is not more lawyers.” This is according to an on old acquaintance of mine who is a federal judge. “They need more money,” he added.

So far, so good. And do poor nations need more geologists? After all, much of the work that geologists do is locate and define resources within the crust of the Earth, so that they can come back with other people and exploit those resources. Whether it is oil and gas, gold and silver, iron ore, sand or gravel, or falling water, this is what makes for an advancing, if not an advanced, civilization.

What was it that made for great civilizations in the past? In ancient Egypt, great civilizations arose out of the ability of a small group of people to understand and harness the powers of the Nile River. And in ancient Rome, it was the water-bearing aqueducts and the ores from the mines that permitted a great civilization and culture to flourish. In other words, these were civilizations that relied on people whom we would today call geologists and civil engineers. For a while, at any rate, it worked for the Egyptians and the Romans. Then the water aqueducts wore out and the minerals ran out and there was no replacing these things within a foreclosed time scale.

The Clash of Civilizations?

In his book A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee identified 21 major civilizations over recorded time. As Harvard professor Samuel Huntington pointed out in his famous essay, published in 1993, The Clash of Civilizations, “only six [of those 21 civilizations] exist in the contemporary world.”

“Civilization identity will be increasingly important in the future,” wrote Huntington, “and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among…major civilizations.” Huntington went on to state that “The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.”

In much of the rest of his essay, Huntington went on to explain his thesis of “why civilizations will clash.” One of Huntington’s key points was that “Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western…Non-Western civilizations will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines, and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values.”

You can agree with Huntington’s thesis, or you can disagree. But China’s massive educational effort to train geologists and related scientific personnel for the future indicates a national desire to, on the one hand, adopt the best scientific knowledge of the West. Yet China also intends, in its own unique way, to be among the civilizations that remain on any list of survivors compiled by any Arnold Toynbee of the future.

We live in a world in which the “easy” oil is gone, where Peak Oil looms, where the need for basic industrial resources and commodities is the key to the future existence of Western (and other) civilizations. And we live in a world in which the Chinese are training the scientific and technical cadre that will go out into the world and, one way or the other, find what their country needs and bring it home. There are armies, and then there are armies of geologists.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

April 18, 2007