Geology’s problem heritage

Part of being a passionate student of geology is coming to terms with its history. The easy part for me is imagining those good old days, when pioneering curiosity-driven people looked around with fresh ideas and fresh eyes, rock hammers in their belts, and made lasting names for themselves. What a pleasure it would have been in centuries past to hang with Hutton in the Scottish countryside, to dig fossils in the Paris Basin with Cuvier or minerals in Italy with Dolomieu, to tramp the Alps with Agassiz or the Andes with Humboldt, or to join in the learned debates of the 19th-century British scientific societies.

Then there’s another part of geology’s history that it shares with so much else in science: the dominance of white men and their self-serving causes. I’m old enough, and have seen and read enough, to have gotten a sense of American geology’s good old days and how their influences linger. I’m free to imagine myself being with those great men of geology as a fellow educated white guy, born in the club.

The good old days were an intimate part of the Westward Expansion, which began for geologists with the 1825 gold rush in North Carolina and ended with the Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. The eastern states funded the first “geological surveys” in the 1830s, state-supported projects to help develop the state’s natural resources. The object was to suss out the territory: to find and map promising mineral deposits so the state could license or sell them to help bring about new wealth. The federal government did the same in the western territories.

This high-minded purpose existed within a political setting of colonialism and imperialism. It relied on official and unofficial theft of Indian lands and genocidal policies against the tribes, carried out with American efficiency and enthusiasm. It relied on the support of the slave states seeking fresh land for their cruel system and the free states, opposed yet conflicted. It relied on the railroads and the power they exerted on behalf of the markets they served. It relied on taking land from other nations as war prizes. The benefits accrued to the white men in command.

The heirs of these men, raised on generations of selective history, may have forgotten their forebears’ cruelty and aren’t inclined to admit its aftereffects, but you see them if you just look around.

In classrooms and textbooks, the saga of science that threads those times is scrubbed of this context. John Wesley Powell is the hero who traversed the Grand Canyon and mapped its rocks, not the ethnographer who disparaged the people along the way that he studied like beetles. Clarence King is the hero “of good English stock planted on New England soil” who mapped the high Sierra and launched the U.S. Geological Survey, not the twisted soul who deceived his common-law wife, a Black woman named Ada Copeland, until confessing on his deathbed.

Last week I found something that helped me cut through more of the unthinking nostalgia that veils our scientific history in a golden haze. It’s a set of PowerPoint slides called GeoContext, easy to drop into a presentation, that treat a few selected topics in the history of geology. Powell and his generation are there, in the deck on “Landscape and Scientific Racism.” The object is to add context to the standard history to make it plain that, among other things, American geology arose as the servant of an expansionist, racist society. And that history, the site’s creators argue in an interview, is an underlying reason why people of color and women keep having to fight headwinds in their geoscience education and careers.

We have examples of the checkered past in Oakland, like Joseph Le Conte, the scientific racist who taught geology at UC Berkeley. More generally, Oakland was founded on the crime of land theft from a family who was granted the land as a reward for kidnapping the Indians who lived on it. Everything stems from that. But to illustrate the tenor of old times I think of Oakland’s rock quarries.

This is Dracena Park. On this site, in the early 1850s, Walter Blair established a quarry that supplied much of the needs of the growing city for crushed rock. He hired Chinese workers, who being at the bottom of the social ladder were the cheapest labor around. But growing anti-Chinese sentiment and outright legal bans drove them into crowded “Chinatowns” or out of the state entirely. Blair gave up the headache (he had lots of other business interests) and sold the pit. The successors worked it for a few more years and then abandoned it, leaving a “swimming hole” in which several children drowned over the next few decades. It took a hundred years before the site was turned into a park. Blair owned this land and felt free to leave a mess behind. That’s the kind of capitalism California is built on.

Competing rock quarries stayed alive with white laborers. The two largest, Oakland Paving Company and Alameda Macadamizing Company, hired Italian and Irish immigrants, respectively. In the late 1800s they split the city between them in a well-known duopoly — in its part of town, one would underbid the other by half a cent per yard — that kept their workers low-paid and kept rivals from growing. Both firms left behind large pits that festered for decades before being repurposed, one as a shopping center and the other as a tennis stadium.

Like the song goes, don’t look away, look around. Our history doesn’t make us bad people, but it does bring us up against things we’re responsible for fixing.

4 Responses to “Geology’s problem heritage”

  1. tperry Says:

    While many might remember when old American professional geologists and their societies shunned women and people of color, many will also agree that the kids brought change. In the 1970s people from a multitude of circumstances and backgrounds began to slowly fill the chairs in the classrooms. After a few decades even the teaching staff was increasingly diverse. Today, there is much work being done by professional scientific societies like the GSA to welcome all regardless of race, creed, origin, disadvantaged circumstances, or academic record. Professional societies and workplaces offer greater opportunity for access and participation, such as funding and improved access to world-class education and mentors for people from disadvantaged circumstances. These are positive actions we can continue to spread and grow for a better tomorrow.

    Let’s leave the condemnation of geoscientists on sociological and behavioral grounds to the sociologists and psychiatrists. It is a mistake to reject sound scientific work because the author was a bad person in other ways. Frankly, accountings by old white geologists of past harm caused by other long dead geoscientists and proffered apologies for the actions of the dead seem to be distractions compared to problems that require focus and inspiration. As I type this, entire mountains are being reduced to waste, whole aquifers are becoming drained or tainted beyond use, and trillions of pounds of unaccounted commercial products are being spread across the world with greater and greater efficiency (meaning faster and using fewer and fewer workers).

    Modern thinking and motivations have no place in the 1850s but are critical to solving today’s very real problems of energy, water, food, and global ecosystem health. Let’s watch out for divisive rancor and faddism that makes money for media moguls (click bait) while distracting and discouraging bright minds instead of inspiring collective work to solve the dire Earth issues that threaten tomorrow. The author is right in pointing out that division is essential to keep the status quo in power. I’d rather be inspired to contribute and solve real problems and inspired to bring collective consumer action to bear on the wrongs that would like to keep us divided and unknowing. I’d rather not be inspired to sling mud at the ghosts of my chosen profession.

  2. Ann Wilkins Says:

    One of your best blogs and so fitting for the times.

  3. mpetrof Says:

    Even in these ‘woke’ times of identity politics…this article was a blessing. Thank you. Mark

  4. oliverburke1 Says:

    This is an important context & perspective to history & geology.

    Thank you.

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