Sustainable Geoscience: a new Masters course at Plymouth

Ask any geology student if the subject they are studying provides essential knowledge, experience, and guidance on how to meet many of the world’s most acute societal challenges and virtually all would proclaim a loud ‘yes, absolutely’. After all, many are drawn to the Earth sciences by study of applied aspects of natural hazards, minerals and metals, oil and gas, and geotechnics.

And yet, show them how the world views those critical challenges – in the form of the United Nation’s widely accepted ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ – and the geoscientific fervour become more muted. That’s because the 17 SDGs do not seem, at first glance, especially geological. Indeed, although it is possible to see geoscientific concerns lurking beneath the headlines of several of them, in most the contribution of Earth science is difficult to discern.  The familiar totems of minerals and metals, oil and gas, earthquakes and volcanoes are subsumed into broader concerns. More prominent are issues such as water, food and health – which might have a geological angle but which rarely feature as core elements in a conventional geology curriculum.

Fig 1. The Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations 2012)

Indeed, although one might expect a geological understanding to be at the heart of our long-term wise stewardship of the planet, the term ‘sustainability’ or the notion of ‘sustainable development’ are rarely encountered in most university geology curricula (Mora 2013). Why is that?  It is perhaps assumed that the science and application of sustainable living is considered as ‘geography’, which has a far stronger societal interface. Alternatively, it may be that it is just assumed that geologists will apply their technical know-how to these societal issues later in professional life. Whatever the reason, most geology students leave university with little explicit grasp of how their geoscientific understanding of planetary resources and risks interacts with the messy political, economic, social and cultural aspects of the real world.

Fig. 2 Geoscientific concerns quickly get subsumed into and lost within wider social, economic, and political concerns.

This is the real world in which major oil and gas corporations are transforming into energy companies and going ever more renewable. It is a world that consumes an ever richer diet of chemicals and minerals for modern living, yet at the same time is notably less tolerant of our traditional extractive excesses. Environmental concerns at the local and global level are placing more and more constraints on the social licence that mining and petroleum companies have to operate, and greater demands on their corporate social responsibility. Around the world, communities are re-evaluating their relations with the natural world, which in turn opens up new economic opportunities, most notably from tourism in areas of outstanding natural beauty or where the geodiversity of the rocks underfoot offer alternative sustainable livelihoods.

Our new MSc in Sustainable Geoscience seeks to address this dramatically changing world view. It aims to provide geoscientists with a stronger societal interface, examining familiar geological concerns in a wider human and environmental framework. It draws from the humanities and social sciences to offer more holistic perspectives and provides guidance on the protocols and practices of real-world environmental decision-making (Stewart 2016).

Fig 3. The indicative structure of the MSc in Sustainable Geoscience

The MSc in Sustainable Geoscience joins a stable of taught Masters-level programmes within the broad scope of the University’s ‘Sustainable Earth Institute’ (SEI). Rooted in the area of science and engineering, but drawing in researchers from allied fields in health, business, humanities, education and the creative arts, the SEI is an interdisciplinary crucible for sustainable thinking. Alongside existing MSc courses in Sustainable Environmental Management and in Environmental Consulting, Sustainable Geoscience will present a fresh portfolio of practices for the 21st century geoscientist.

Further Reading

Mora, G., 2013. The need for geologists in sustainable development. GSA Today, 23(12), pp.33-37.

Stewart, I., 2016. Sustainable geoscience. Nature Geoscience, 9(4), pp.262-262.


xlarge_iainstewartProfessor Iain Stewart 
Director of the Sustainable Earth Institute
Professor in Geoscience Communication


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