Vibrant geologies: an ethnography of human engagements with subterranean worlds

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Geography - SoGE

Abstract

"This project explores some of the multifaceted modes of human engagement with the subterranean world. The research draws on one year of ethnographic work in the Northwest Territories, Canada, including an institutional ethnography of the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, participatory observation techniques of geologic fieldwork and interviews with expert geologists, policy makers and mining industry representatives. The project has three main outcomes which relate to how we understand geology and how it is enrolled into society and economy. First, the project explores how geologists construct the geological landscape through their mappings of and engagements with subterranean space. Second, it examines the possibilities of accounting for the "invisible value" of minerals and subterranean geo-environmental processes through scientific practices and legal frameworks. Third, it considers how an Arctic mineral development economy is supported by science-informed informed policy making, and the challenges of relying on "evidence based" decision making regarding invisible landscapes."

Publications

10 25 50

Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/N509711/1 01/10/2016 30/09/2021
1926783 Studentship EP/N509711/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2020 Matilda Becker
 
Description NB. The geographic context of this research was the Northwest Territories, Canada.

The key finding of this research is that the way we as humans imagine, engage with and depict the geological world is much more diverse than currently understood and accounted for by geographers and political theorists. Using geologists as an example of practitioners who engage with the subterranean world, this research demonstrated there are a number of challenges and opportunities for geologists to portray the vast changes that have occurred to the planet over scales of billions of years. However, the research demonstrated that traditional methods of depicting geology via maps and static data points while suited well to geological environments that are very stable, are less adept at conveying change during the period of climate change we currently find outselves in. Specifically, in the Arctic environment, permafrost presents a critical challenge to existing and planned built infrastructure. This geological layer is poorly accounted for in mapping due to 1) an overbearing focus of government resources on mineral resource and mining geology; 2) a lack of expertise and capacity to both collect, manage, disseminate data collected on melting permafrost and in turn the ability to communicate this with different governmental decision makers as well as practitioners such as engineers building and planning infrastructure.

The second major output of this work was the examination of mineral potential maps and deposit model estimates produced by the Government of the Northwest Territories in support of a multi-billion dollar road and energy corridor project to the Arctic Coast from the city of Yellowknife. The road is intended to link up "geology with high mineral potential". My research demonstrated a serious disconnect between geologists' understanding of the possibility to estimate a piece of geology's potential for hosting minerals and policy-makers desire to portray a geological region as being "high potential". The impact of this is that mineral potential estimation products are being produced of parts of the Arctic which are very geologically misleading. The impact of planning economic futures of a Territory based on mineral potential maps is both myopic and fiscally irresponsible and offers the potential to create significant damage to fragile Arctic ecosystems and traditional livelihoods.
Exploitation Route Work with the mineral potential map and communication of its caveats should be taken forward by either academics or lobbying groups to ensure that honest discussion of the uncertainties contained within these products is understood and that concerns about the vast sums of public money being put forward to this project is challenged at a governmental level.
Sectors Construction,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Presentation of Evidence to Standing Committee for the Economic Development and the Environment, Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, Canada
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact I provided feedback to the Standing Committee for the Economic Development and the Environment (SCEDE) for the 2019 Northwest Territories Bill 39 Environmental Rights Act. In my presentation of evidence I demonstrated the need to protect the right to a "healthy environment" in order to ensure healthy communities, resilient economies and lower socio-environmental inequalities. In particular, I asserted that stricter legal terminology was necessary to define "healthy environment", "significant environmental harm", and "public concern"; and suggested the creation of an online Environmental Registry which would contain information on all environmental decisions and consultations pending and made in the Territory. I presented empirical evidence from other Canadian jurisdictions including Ontario which has an Environmental Registry, and demonstrated empirically the link between healthy environments and communities. The need for an Environmental Registry was understood and recommended by the SCEDE to the House, but this change was not implemented in the Bill.
URL https://www.ntassembly.ca/sites/assembly/files/19-08-13_cr_27-183_report_on_bill_39_enviro_rights_ac...
 
Description Public Presentation in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 40 people from the general public (including politicians and policy makers, practioners, mining industry representatives, Indigenous government representatives, researchers, and interested "lay" public) attended an hour-long talk summarising the key findings from my research. The presentation sparked interest and generated some debate amongst attendees about their relation with/perceptions of the geological world in what is a mining-town. The presentation was also provided a platform to receive feedback on my work and identify further channels for information dissemination and collaboration with local groups.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Talk to Northwest Territories Geological Survey 1 - preliminary overview of results 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 20 geologists from the Northwest Territories Geological Survey attended this presentation with outlined what I had learned from working with them for a year. The presentation outlined my key findings and the future progression of my research into the write-up period. The presentation was semi-formal and offered an environment for debate around theories I was working with, and helped guide my understanding of how professional geoscientists might respond to the language and ideas I was using. Participants responded that they enjoyed hearing about their work from a new perspective and found it useful to reflect on their own communication techniques.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk to Northwest Territories Geological Survey 2 - feedback on first two chapters of research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This second presentation to the Northwest Territories Geological Survey involved outlining the key findings and arguments of my thesis. The presentation gave greater detail on critical reflections and analysis of my fieldwork with the Survey, and allowed the geologists to debate and respond to finer points in my argument. Again, the presentation was useful for understanding the accuracy of my own geoscientific understanding, as well as expanding how participants understood their own work. Friendly debate was generated between geologists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020