solar system that exhibits plate tectonics, which recycles nutrients and other materials essential to life through the interior of the planet and back to the surface. The Earth is unique in sustaining an atmosphere that is one-fifth oxygen—oxygen that was generated over eons by single-celled organisms and that, in turn, spurred the evolution of multicellular organisms.
More particularly, the Earth is a congenial home for humans. All of the materials we use in our daily lives come from the Earth—fuels, minerals, groundwater, even our food (through the intermediaries of soil, water, and fertilizer). We have a strong psychological affinity for certain places on the Earth, for the regions where we grow up and live and for the wild and beautiful tracts, whether preserved in parks or apparent in our everyday surroundings. But we have altered the surface extensively during our occupation—erecting structures, clearing forests, damming rivers. Despite our activities, the Earth continues its normal path of inexorable change—through violent paroxysms such as earthquakes and landslides or through the slow, steady erosion of soils and coastlines.
The Earth is a resilient planet. Long after human beings have vanished from the planet, its basic cycles will persist. The largest man-made structures will erode and disappear, radioactive materials that have been gathered will decay, man-made concentrations of chemicals will disperse, and new species will evolve and perish. The oceans, atmosphere, solid-earth, and living things will continue to interact, just as they did before humans appeared on the scene.
But some earth systems are very fragile. We dispose of our wastes in the same sedimentary basins that supply us with the bulk of our groundwater, energy, and mineral resources. Through our social, industrial, and agricultural activities, we are changing the composition of the atmosphere, with potentially serious effects on climate and on terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The human population is expanding into less habitable parts of the world, which increases vulnerability to natural hazards and strains the biological and geological systems that sustain life.
If present trends continue, the integrity of the more fragile systems on which human societies are built cannot be assured. The time scale for the breakdown of these systems may be decades or it may be centuries, but we cannot continue to use the planet as we have been using it. Present trends need not continue, because we are unique among the influences that affect earth systems: we have the ability to decide among various courses, to weigh the pros and cons of alternative actions, and to behave accordingly.
The history of the geological sciences offers many reasons to be optimistic. One of the triumphs of twentieth-century science and technology has been the worldwide identification and extraction of energy and mineral resources, an activity that has brought an increased standard of living to an expanding human population. The geological sciences have demonstrated ways of maintaining water quantity and quality, disposing of wastes safely, and securing human structures and facilities against natural hazards. Essentially, the geological sciences teach us about the nature of the Earth and about our role on it.