John Holbrook, Spring 2010
May You Live in Interesting Times
First, let me express what a privilege is it to be the incoming president for GCSSEPM. I’ve known GCSSEPM as a principle outlet for good science in sedimentology and paleontology throughout my career and am honored to have the opportunity to help see that this grand tradition continues well into the future. Starting as a native of Kentucky, and a graduate of University of Kentucky, I have worked my way to Texas and my present role as a professor of sedimentology and physical stratigraphy here at University of Texas at Arlington. I do come here by way of a few detours; namely, an M.S. at University of New Mexico, a Ph.D. at Indiana University, and 12 years as a professor at Southeast Missouri State University. My mission was apparently to be a Texan all along, where I now am in my sixth year. As the old joke goes, “I wasn’t born a Texan, but I got here as fast as I could.”
As I mused over the contents of my first president’s column, I stopped to reread the many great offerings of my predecessors. They range from the witty to the philosophical to the serious but consistently worthy of the read. Having the opportunity as a fellow, if not coeval, UTA professor I wandered over to Bob Perkin’s old lab to see if I could channel some inspiration from a GCSSEPM founding father. Of course, a person really doesn’t have to go so far to find a topic just burning for discussion these days. Just watch the news and you will find no shortage of emerging challenges facing the geology and GCSSEPM community. I’m suddenly reminded of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” While I’m willing to assume for the moment that GCSSEPM did not cause the national debt, war in the Middle East, the economic down-turn, or any other global crisis real or perceived, it is clear that these all will indeed affect us. In an adapt-or-die world such shifts will always require that we be ready to evolve to thrive in our changing environment. Times like the present come on occasion where we are asked to be a bit more nimble than normal. Now would appear to be such times.
Here are but a few of the many things I think will change the ground our organization treads. Though oil prices are in a lull, the moment the global economy rebounds we can expect to see a return to some level of the prior global bidding war over the available bubbling crude. Will we see returns of talks about drilling in the Eastern Gulf, or even the Atlantic Margin? As pivotal purveyors of science geared toward exploration and production of sediments offshore, GCSSEPM must be ready to serve any such growth. Will the push toward low-carbon electrical generation really mean a movement toward nuclear and/or clean coal? If you realistically want to power a .5 terawatt economy, this would appear to be your alternative energy. Uranium mining these days commonly employs water flushing of charged sediments. Someone also may need to pump all that CO2 into the ground if someone else is going to go to all the trouble of capture. Issues with connectivity and seals here abound and these are the sorts of problems we are well poised to tackle. And how about that deficit? Prior to this recent crazy year, the entire discretionary federal budget (2008 total of $2.54 Trillion) was just under $1 Trillion (i.e., defense at 21%, nondefense appropriations at 18%). That would be the budget beyond mandatory spending of $1.57 Trillion (i.e., Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid at 40%, other entitlements at 13%, and debt service at 9%) (Source: Office of Management and Budget). If the gross expected debt is really the $12–14 Trillion being bounced about, let’s see, that would mean if we shut down the government completely to pay down debt we would still run 7–14 years, depending how you like to factor growth. Would you underwrite that loan?
Despite all the talk of so-and-so raised taxes and so-and-so lowered taxes, the total federal tax take has only varied by 1.2% of GDP over the past 30 years. Something somewhere is about to change majorly. Hard to say all the ways this will affect our organization, but one way is surely in research funding. All scientific research funding is within that 18% nondefense appropriations, and busy competing for survival with all cabinet-level functions, the justice system, congressional pay checks, and every favorite earmark. Given that this 18% is the most vulnerable, and the mighty NASA is now struggling, the future of all science funding looks to be getting pretty marginal. The science we do at GCSSEPM was already considered a low priority for federal research funding. That means if we are to continue to produce good science, and train good students, industry can expect to see even more pressure to foot the bill, both within and external to the companies.
If you want to see how effective predictions of future events can be, just look at how past predictions for which we were so certain have since turned out. Remember all those 1970’s Soylent-Green predictions that said we were all going to be out of food by now with the exponential rate of population increase and the geometric increase in food production? I harken back to an essay I read in junior high by Isaac Asimov himself that mused about how we would all be eating algae grown on the roof-tops of our wall-sharing and sprawling buildings by now just to stay alive. Who would have guessed that we would actually decide instead to just stop having kids and get fat? Likewise I think it is an illusion to assume that we, or even our leaders, control emerging economic events any better than a cowboy controls a bucking bull. By the same analogy, it is truly our task to maintain or post in the saddle by being ever-ready for the next move. Certainly not all is doom and gloom. Things have been uncertain before and we have still thrived. It’s just a matter of steering through the rocks and coming out in clear water on the other side. I’ll do my best and am always open to suggestions.
As John Wagner continues to serve as Past-President, we are joined this year by a great slate of new officers. Bruce Hart takes the reigns as President-Elect going into this new year, while Don Van Nieuwenhuise takes on the mantle of Vice-President. Charlotte Jolley will serve as Secretary and has the admirable task of keeping us organized. Johanna Moutoux is the Treasurer and will be there to guard the larders. I also wish to thank our outgoing officers Richard Kilby (Vice-President) and Lana Czerniakowski (Secretary) who have served us so very well. I look forward to an exciting year knowing I am joining a strong team.
University of Texas at Arlington