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A Special Week for Earth: Earth Science Week

Because Earth Day is not enough

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You may have noticed, as I did a few years ago, that Earth Day has precious little Earth science in it. Professional societies for geologists noticed that too, so they created their own Earth event. In 2013 the week of October 13-19 is it—Earth Science Week. Look around, starting at earthsciweek.org, and see if you like it. The theme is "Mapping Our World."

Earth Science Week occurs almost exactly opposite Earth Day on the calendar. Perhaps the American Geosciences Institute didn't choose that deliberately, but it does serve to help compare and contrast the two occasions. Both occur at turning points in the year. Earth Day, for most of the world's people in the northern hemisphere, is associated with the green burgeoning of spring and has become an anodyne celebration of cute living things. Earth Science Week comes at the turning point into winter, a time for alertness and foresight.

Why a Whole Week?

Why do we need an Earth Science Week when we have an Earth Day? If you ask me, the reasons for both events are the same—our lives, and just as important, our societies depend on the wealth that this planet provides. But here are two reasons for having a separate event.

First, the proponents of Earth Day have settled on a consciousness-raising program centered around the plants and animals. They have kept things simple, at the level of poppies and puppies. Endangered species, threatened habitat, pollution control and international laws to save the whales are absolutely worthy of this effort. And that message is plenty for one day. Earth Day works for what it needs to do, but it's not enough time for what Earth Science Week needs to do.

Because, second, saving the whales will not save us. If you think of the human race living on Earth like a family living in a house, Earth Day is about cleaning house. But our house needs more than a spring cleaning—it needs fixing up. It needs repairs, new furnishings for the new tenants, and better appliances to serve their needs.

That work is not like picking up trash from the beach, which anyone can do. It calls for professionals, scientists and technicians who know how the house is constructed. They must learn ways to run a mine properly, find the right waste disposal site, fix ruined ground, locate clean water, and restore worn-out soil.

Turning young people on to a career in Earth science, and keeping others reasonably informed about it, takes at least a week, and in fact there are events during most of October.

Earth Science Week's Roots and Goals

Earth Day began in 1970 as a political event, aimed at affecting public policy. Earth Science Week began in 1998 as part of the American Geosciences Institute's 50th anniversary. But it has a public policy goal, too—to raise awareness of the value of Earth resources. Behind that is a desire to strengthen science teaching in public schools and halt the erosion of public funding for geological research. I think it's necessary, not just desirable, to teach and fund more Earth science.

Consider an incident from the news a few years ago, a terrible spill of red mud (a byproduct of aluminum manufacturing) in Hungary. The Earth Day approach is to stop using aluminum, which is fine as far as it goes. The Earth Science Week approach is to excite and cultivate the experts of tomorrow and today who can engineer better ways to deal with red mud, preferably by use as an industrial feedstock, or at least by ensuring safer ways to handle it than precarious dams on perpetual waste ponds.

Earth Day demonizes aluminum; Earth Science Week explains and demystifies aluminum. Earth Day is about saving whales; Earth Science Week is about saving us. Earth Science Week is about getting beyond Earth Day to Earth Life.

If you're touched by some part of Earth Science Week, whether it's cookie mining or visiting the Salt Institute, then drop me a note to say so. Because this is my contribution to the event—to get you there.

PS: Some people don't confine their work to just one week, because there are groups that actively oppose Earth science all year. I'm thinking of the National Center for Science Education, which fights creationists who are trying to hijack the public schools. Give their site a visit this week, too.

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