Johnson speaks on paleogeography

Markes Johnson, Charles L. MacMillan Professor of geology, gave a lecture entitled “Paleogeography of Oil and Water: Blessing or Burden of Nature?” in the Wege Auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 13. His lecture was the first of five in this year’s Faculty Lecture Series, the focus of which is “Islam and the World After Sept. 11.” This year marks the first time that the series has been united by a central theme.

Johnson first acknowledged the significance of the Sept. 11 tragedies and the war on terrorism for politics, economics, race, religion, women’s rights and censorship. His interest, however, lies in “geopolitics,” or the study of bedrock geology and how it relates to world politics. Johnson is particularly interested in the world’s oil situation. “Who has the oil and why?” was the major question his lecture addressed.

Johnson then proposed that “geography is destiny,” meaning that “lands with abundant natural resources allow human inhabitants to shape their future.” Johnson explained that the study of paleogeography, the geological profile of land, enables people to exploit the resources below the ground and use them to generate wealth.

Johnson then related an incident that occurred when he visited Egypt several years ago to study ancient shorelines near the pyramids of Giza. During his field study, Johnson learned the hard way about conflicts that can arise from American influence in the Middle East. While in Cairo, a gang of angry teenagers who clearly intended “bodily harm” confronted him, and though he escaped, Johnson came face-to-face with the intense hatred that some Egyptians have toward Americans.

Shifting back to a more scientific analysis, Johnson showed the audience a climate model of Africa that illustrated the planet’s various climactic belts. He noted that the climates in Africa are not created by the continent’s geological features, but rather by its latitudinal and longitudinal location on the Earth. As Africa slowly drifts north, its climate is changing gradually – more rain is falling on the continent.

Returning to the subject of oil, Johnson presented a chart showing the Middle East far surpasses the rest of the world in oil reserves. For comparison, the Middle East has 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves, while North America has about six percent that is ready to use. Furthermore, it is clear that the Middle East consumes far less oil than other parts of the world.

Johnson then explained why oil is distributed as it is, showing that there is a very small temperature window under the planet’s surface that is conducive to oil formation. He related oil production to making a “squirrel stew:” if it is too hot it will burn and if it is too cold it will not cook or mature at all. He also explained how ocean currents affect oil distribution.

Johnson later noted that the U.S. and Canada consume the most oil in the world – three gallons per person per day, which adds up to a total oil consumption six times greater than that of the rest of the world. He said the new war must include a “war on oil dependence.” If people do not start conserving oil, Johnson said, the world’s oil reserves will soon become depleted. He expressed concern that people tend to drive cars over distances that they could easily cover on foot, adding that there are too many cars on campus and that students use them too much.

Ilona Bell, professor of English and coordinator of the Faculty Lecture Series, was effusive in her praise for Johnson’s lecture. “Professor Johnson’s wonderfully lucid Power Point presentation helped me see and begin to understand how the paleogeography of the Middle East has given the region such a superabundance of oil,” said Bell. “His blunt account of our own comparatively slight reserves and out-of-control consumption made me realize once again that we, both as individuals and as a nation, need to give much more attention to the ways in which we can reduce our energy consumption.”

Mark Lynch, professor of political science, will speak next in the Faculty Lecture Series with a talk entitled “Sympathy for the Devil: International Politics and the Sanctions on Iraq.” The talk will be held this Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Wege Auditorium.

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