Vanguards of History: Energy Changes Everything

Kirk Johnson at the All-Convention Luncheon in Houston: “We live in a really unique time ... but unless we put it in context, we don’t realize this is a really important time.”
Kirk Johnson at the All-Convention Luncheon in Houston: “We live in a really unique time ... but unless we put it in context, we don’t realize this is a really important time.”

The human race currently finds itself rounding the corner of an unprecedented turning point in history, and it’s a direct consequence of what AAPG members do on a daily basis.

That was the gist of the presentation Kirk Johnson delivered at the All-Convention Luncheon at AAPG’s recent Annual Convention and Exhibition, titled “Evolution, Time, Tectonics, Asteroids, Climate and the Trajectory of Earth Science.”

As a 2007 AAPG Distinguished Lecturer, and as last year’s winner of the AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award for a book he co-authored titled “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway,” Johnson likely is familiar to many AAPG members, even if they didn’t attend the luncheon at ACE.

“We live in a really unique time,” he said. “People will say, ‘It’s always been changing,’ but the fact is, we’re in a unique time in human history, and it’s manifested by things we see all around us, but unless we put it in context, we don’t realize this is a really important time.”

Johnson is Sant Director of what is arguably the world’s premiere science research and education institute – the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His background is in geology and paleontology.

As such, like many in his field, he’s spent his career immersed in the study of that broader context.

“As a deep-time geologist who talks about billions of years and tens of millions of years,” he commented, “when we’re talking about something as short as a century – the last one or the next one – there are a lot of interesting conversations to be had.”

A Unique Vantage Point

And, of course, his current post also gives him a unique vantage point for a long view of history.

“If you think about museums – they are these places that store stuff from the past, but one of the things that’s happening very much in the museum industry these days is, museums are realizing they’re really places to help people think about the future,” he said.

Johnson explained that the recent past set a trajectory for a future beyond anything imagined by our most recent ancestors.

“I continue to be really amazed at how much has happened in the last century, which seems like a long time in one sense, but my grandfather was born in 1879 and I knew him, so it wasn’t that long ago – and he was born only 20 years after the first oil well was drilled, and that means that so much of what we’re talking about is really in a couple of generations,” he added.

Ready examples of what he’s talking about can be found any given week in almost any science magazine, he said. Or, there are examples closer at hand, but as commonplace elements of our daily lives, most people overlook them as the remarkable artifacts that they are of the spectacular changes of the last century.

“A lot of us have lived through them and have this sense that they’ve been around for a long time,” he said, “but when you look back and go, ‘Oh yeah – my iPhone.’ iPhones didn’t exist seven years ago.”

Cheap Energy: Priceless

More amazing even than the advent of the iPhone, though, are the rapid advances in our understanding of human genetics.

“We just opened an exhibit at the museum called ‘Genome,’ which is about the sequencing of the human genome,” said Johnson.

A mere decade ago, he noted, it cost about $2 billion to read the entire 3.2 billion base pairs of the human genome. Today, it can be done for a scant $1,000.

Most significantly, though, the explosive growth of the earth’s population represents a dizzying transformation of human civilization: Until about 1800, earth’s population had never exceeded one billion people, but in 200 years it swelled to seven billion, and it’s expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and then level out.

“The worldwide population has doubled since I was born,” Johnson said. “Little facts like those, when we put it all together in context, opens up a lot of questions around what’s coming up next.

“There are so many things that are happening now that if you mash them all together, the potential for technology and science to help us figure out the planet and to figure out the next century is just fantastic,” he said.

And, it was all made possible by the industry represented by AAPG.

“We’re here because the supply of cheap energy has allowed us to grow an industrialized civilization over the last 100 years,” he noted. “I mean, it wasn’t like that for the thousands of years that preceded it.”

The energy industry and its members, he said, have been positive agents for humanity’s virtually sudden transformation into an industrialized, technological civilization, and Johnson’s message is that they can and should continue to be.

“We’re at a point,” he said, “where we have the ability to understand things scientifically and to make really smart choices for the future.”

Keep An Open Mind

Given the dizzying changes civilization has undergone in the past century, he said it’s imperative that industry decision-makers keep open minds for even more seismic shifts in the not-too-distant future.

His consistent message to the oil and gas industry, he said, is to think well beyond the usual five- or 10-year timeline, and to make plans on a 50- or 100-year scale.

“The implication there is that our views are going to continue to change as we add new technology and make new discoveries,” he said. “And that’s kind of the thing: We tend to look back and go, ‘That was a discovery that was made and it wasn’t that interesting,’ but as we look forward over the next 10 years we know we’re going to have a discovery of that order of magnitude,” he said.

Of course, we can’t know for sure what most of those changes will be or how our knowledge base will expand – but there are some reasonable predictions we can make about the broad strokes.

“We do know a couple of things that are sort of baked-in,” Johnson said. “Unless there’s some vast pandemic or something, all things being equal, we’ll grow our population another two billion, which is going to create that much more demand on the earth’s system and that many more economic opportunities and that many more brilliant minds to solve problems, and then it will kind of flatten out there,” he continued.

Another practical certainty, Johnson said, is the carbon accumulation in the atmosphere.

“We don’t really know, yet, how the actual impacts will be, but it is causing warming now and acidification of the oceans, so there’s that piece of the puzzle: the amount of carbon we burn to-date is in the atmosphere right now, less what’s been drawn out by the oceans and the plants,” he said.

Also, there’s the direct impact of humans on the landscape through agriculture and urbanization to consider.

“You’ve got a fixed and growing load on the planet right now, so the question, really, as we look into the next century is this challenge we have – the wants and needs of humans on one side – we have the advantages and opportunities of technology, and we have the health of the planet and the natural ecosystems,” he said.

“I’m just trying to get people to think about these things, and the oil and gas industry is a really good audience because they have been active agents of our destiny,” he said.

“If you think about what oil and gas has done to improve the economy and to drive the population in this country and provide cheap energy, it’s an organization that’s rightly proud of its legacy,” he said, “and the challenge to them is to continue to think about the future and how the industry is going to be a force for good in the future.”

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