Saturday, June 13, 2015

Geoethics: from "Blind Spot" to "Common Good."

by Martin Bohle

Martin Bohle
Directorate General Research and Innovation
European Commission
Brussels (Belgium)

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this paper solemnly engage the author


We humans are an engineering species, pushing the frontier of what we know to engineer. The number of people, the patterns of their consumption of resources, and the engineering of their environments cumulate nowadays into a process of anthropogenic global change. Obviously, people are re-engineering Earth.

Apparent since some decades, the human economic activity vigorously intersects the geosphere. Anthropogenic matter and energy fluxes across critical interfaces have such magnitude that humankind drives global change. Stratospheric ozone depletion and increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration were early markers for that anthropogenic global change. This kind of impact of the human economic activity on global geochemical cycles was unintended. It happened incidentally, just "terraforming by numbers", a kind collateral effect of political, social and individual choices regarding appropriation of resources and engineering the environment. It became evident in hindsight, humankind neglected significant consequences of its multiple interactions with the geosphere. People ignored the importance of human intersections with the geosphere.

Regarding choices, humans are a value-driven species. People do what they consider "right" or "worth" in the context of their individual world-views. If people debating anthropogenic global change issues nowadays, then much of the debate is about "virtue" and what course of action is "right". Thus, much of the current global change debate is about world-views. Specialists, public decision makers ponder what are facts, theories or hypotheses (or not). Similar discussions are about how to handle uncertainty or hazards or whether to consider benefits for other people or future generations (or not).

When considering how humankind engineered anthropogenic global change (Schwägerl 2014), it comes apparent that traditional Western value-systems did not address Human Geosphere Intersections. So far, western ethics did not consider intersections of human activities and the geosphere as a particular subject, putting the beauty of scenery apart. Specific 'geoethics' would deal with the way of human thinking and act about intersections of human activities and the geosphere. Specific 'geoethics' could guide decisions how to handle intersections of human activities and the geosphere. Without 'geoethics' there could be a kind of blind spot in the field of view, at least partially.

Now facing anthropogenic change the question arises, what to do about it? Fully embedded in the aeon-old tradition of our species, the modulation of earth-system dynamics through engineering is ongoing. There is no choice left, whether the modulation is collateral or purposeful. Although standing in an aeon-old tradition, engineering Earth would differ from previous engineering endeavours of our species. Anthropogenic global change - e.g. climate change - prescribes global commons for all people. How these commons alter or how to organize this alteration are important issues for all people.  The impact on all people loads engineering anthropogenic global change with implicit value issues to an unprecedented level.

Engineering the Anthropocene

Nowadays the humankind's impact on geosphere has reached such a magnitude that renaming the present geological time "Anthropocene" is proposed.
Scientists still debate the timing of its onset. Some fix it at the explosion of the first atomic bomb at 16th July 1945 (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014) because that date could be a convenient marker for the onset of "great acceleration". The notion "great acceleration" describing the exponential growth of humankind's impact on geosphere and biosphere since the mid of the last century. On whatever "date" scientists will agree, the notion Anthropocene convenes a double insight. First, the development paths of the history of humankind and earth-systems intersect. Second, understanding the functioning of global processes of the Anthropocene requires both humanities and natural sciences (Baje and Erlandson 2013; Bergthaler et al. 2014). Consequently, the sphere of interactions between people are an intrinsic part of the earth-systems in the "Anthropocene". These intra-species interactions can be of technical, economic, social, cultural, artistic, or public nature, may take collective or individual forms, and are value-loaded. These people-people interactions shape the "noosphere" the system of interactions of people that shapes values and coordinates actors. Noosphere, biosphere and geosphere are essential features of Earth's future evolution. Irrespectively how one likes to delineate them, together noosphere, biosphere and geosphere are the commons for future humankind's existence.

Societies abundantly apply geosciences, be it for their economic activities and for setting values in social, cultural or individual contexts. Understanding the features of rock, soil, water and air is essential for the production of many goods. Craftsmen, technicians, architects and engineers apply geoscience insights when engineering environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the stability of foundations, or ventilation of buildings. Likewise maintaining living conditions and individual well-being is impossible without applying insights into the functioning of the intersections of human activities and the geosphere. Most of the engineering works for transport systems, energy systems, dwellings, agriculture, waste treatment, etc. have the overarching function to dovetail economic activities with the geosphere. Insights into human geosphere interactions (Langmuir and Broecker 2012) may not be recognized as particular because they are part of the noosphere as experiences, common sense, general education or specific vocational training. Nevertheless, the noosphere of people-people interaction and the geosphere are deeply interwoven.   

The intersection of people's activities and the geosphere is not a major storyline in European or westernised history (Fernández-Arnesto 1996). Nevertheless, history could be presented for example as a story of engineering hydraulic works for irrigation systems, waterways, power-systems or sanitary systems (Pierre-Louis Viollet 2000) that were built to intersect human activity and geosphere.

Following a long period of admiring engineering prowess during the previous century, anthropogenic global change is part of the western public perception of 'the state of the globe' nowadays. Many people, at least people living in Western cultures, perceive the scenario of anthropogenic change as a threat to their current lifestyle and well-being. Non-surprisingly, jointly with the perception of 'being threatened' the classical response pattern of our species also emerged: "better engineering".

Three approaches currently are proposed. The notions "dovetailing", "decoupling" and "modulating" qualify them, respectively.

The first engineering approach 'incremental greening of production systems' aims to dovetail anthropogenic and natural fluxes of matter to mitigate humankind's impact on earth-systems. Today the engineering approach 'incremental greening of production systems' is already a confirmed feature of governmental steering of production systems. Current public debates mainly are about the pace and degree of 'greening'. The historical forerunners of that engineering approach seem to be the energy-limited economies of times prior to the industrial revolution (Brown 2012, Fressoz 2012), which focussed on resource efficiency.

The second engineering approach aims to decouple anthropogenic and natural fluxes of matter to mitigate human impact on earth-systems. That approach labelled "Ecomodernism" (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015) is the most recent branch of thought within the philosophical trail of "better engineering". Its protagonists advocate developing urbanisation and non-fossil fuel power production to a level that matter is cycling predominately within the human economy. They argue further that an economy of a stable human population of mainly urban lifestyle could decouple from the geosphere and biosphere, at least to a fair degree. Ecomodernism seems to be the classical philosophical choice of Western, industrialised societies, namely to gain independence from natural processes.

The third engineering approach aims to modify earth's physical and bio-geological systems so that they can handle anthropogenic fluxes of matter. That approach labelled 'geo-engineering' seems to apply the aeon-old action of our species, namely to purposefully adjust the environment to our ways of being. Modified functions of Earth's physical and bio-geological functions shall counter the impact of human economic activities on fluxes of matter and energy (Corner and Pidgeon 2010).

Each of these approaches exhibits the familiar and conventional human response pattern in the face of problems, namely to tackle them through engineering the environment. Anyhow, irrespectively of the approach retained to engineer planet Earth they all forcefully put the understanding of the intersection of human economic activity and geosphere into the centre of the lifestyle of all people. Whether "dovetailing", "decoupling" or "modulating", making any of these approaches work requires understanding how human activity and geosphere intersect.

Geoethics for the Anthropocene

Our species has acquired the power to engineer planet Earth, be it intentionally, by number, by ignorance or by negligence. Anthropogenic global change is the paradigm of our times, and therefore it has to become an explicit part of our value-systems.

Philosophically, engineering is the intended, value-driven change of environments with the purpose to facilitate production and reproduction. To that end, engineering includes building of infrastructures like shore defences, which purposefully and visible interact with the geosphere. Likewise, engineering includes designing production systems, urban dwellings and consumption patterns that firmly but invisibly couple human activity with the geosphere through cycles of matter and energy. Last not least, engineering is about how people govern the appropriation of living and non-living resources from the environment. Thus, intrinsically engineering is about value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles. 

The processes and phenomena that describe the intersections of human economic activity and geosphere are omnipresent, although they may pass unnoticed by many. The life of people will alter when the intersections of the noosphere, biosphere and geosphere will get modified. People will judge these alternations on the basis of their values and insights into these intersections. The practitioner, professionals and researcher who understand the processes at the intersections of human economic activity and geosphere, have the task to share their understanding with decision makers and laymen.

As illustrated by the phenomenon of stratospheric ozone depletion, the cause-effect relations at the human geosphere intersections are difficult to determine. The processes that govern the dynamics of the human geosphere intersections are non-linear, networked and therefore dynamics is complex. Consequently (Allenby and Sarewitz 2011), it will be particular challenging to forecast how human geosphere intersection may change when engineered. For any of the three engineering approaches, 'greening', 'ecomodernising' or 'geo-engineering', to alter the human geosphere intersections ethical dilemmas and non-intended effects are to be expected.

The ethical dilemmas will take the form of conflicting values and uneven distribution of risks, impacts, losses and benefits. The non-intended effects may range from compromising basic needs to challenging individual lifestyles. As an example, the expected effects of increased UV-radiation because of a thinned ozone layer in the stratosphere ranged from increased mutation rates to renouncing sunbathing. Consequently, if altering human geosphere intersections, then ethics of risk-taking, managing uncertainties or exploring and revising options will be needed. Practitioners of geoethics should provide part of the answers how to take these matters up.


Humans are an engineering species. So far a successful approach, as the recent exponential growth of number of people shows. The engineering power of our species starts to transform the geosphere, e.g. humans are starting the Anthropocene. The current transformation was non-intended, neither planned nor engineered. This phase of human history is coming to its end. The future transformation of human geosphere intersections should minimize anthropogenic global change. Engineering the transformation of human geosphere intersections could be based on three different options, each having their intrinsic scientific, technical and ethical implications. The first option, 'dovetailing' the anthropogenic and natural fluxes of matter and energy through 'greening' of the production systems and consumption patterns. The second option, 'decoupling' the anthropogenic and natural fluxes of matter and energy ('ecomodernism') through the massive increase of the energy input and urbanisation. The third option, 'modulating' natural fluxes through 'geoengineering' to counter the impact of anthropogenic and natural fluxes of matter and energy. Comprehensive blueprints for these approaches are not available. However, the protagonists present outlines and building blocks and philosophically argue why the proposed choices are engineering-wise 'sound', ethical 'right' and cost-effective; see for example the 'ecomodernist manifest'.

Whatever the precise engineering decisions will be, to modify the intersections of humankind's activities and the geosphere, they will depend more on people's values than on any other feature. The engineering choices will have consequences for the lifestyle of many people. Therefore, values will be essential for the decision taking. Current public policies apply a 'greening' approach when muddling on to regulate modification of production systems and consumption patterns. The ongoing intergovernmental negotiations how to mitigate global climate change show how value-loaded are decisions on interventions into intersections of humankind's activities and the geosphere. Beyond the thorny technical and ethical issue whether the retained (involved) engineering approach is 'sound', the overarching societal issue is much more complicated. Namely, how to appropriate and distribute natural resources for what cost, intended collateral effects, and with what risk of non-intended collateral effects. Although these ethical issues seem familiar when regarding their general nature, their complexity appears to have no precedence because of the number of people who will be subject to consequences.

Sound decisions on these particular ethical issues of 'engineering Planet Earth' will require insights into the functioning of the human geosphere intersections. Therefore, public debate and decision taking will apply geoscience in a context of a far wider set of considerations. Geoethics are supposed to deal with the way of human thinking and acting to guide appropriate behaviours and practices where human activities intersect the geosphere. Therefore, geoethics should enrich the debate and facilitate the decision processes of a mature engineering species entering the Anthropocene.

Author's note: 
This text is built on reflections published in my blog "What's Prometheus doing today" on 17th May 2015.

Picture credit:
[Author's first name] [Author's last name] (distributed via Imaggeo, the open access geosciences image repository of the  European Geosciences Union.


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