Thursday, July 27, 2017

Overlapping Perimeters: 

Small-scale Fisheries Guidelines, and Geoethics

by Martin Bohle
Martin Bohle

European Commission, DG RTD
Corresponding Citizen Scientist / IAPG 

Picture credit:


This abbreviated essay (contribution to the EADI Nordic conference) contextualizes the FAO "Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication" (FAO SSF Guidelines) with reflections on the meaning of 'Geoethics'. The mutual context of both matters is provided through the lenses of four scholarly contributions to address the goal in the panel description: "… further enrich[ed] [the discus-sions] by developments arising from researching and promoting geo-ethics in the Anthropocene, thus connecting the challenges and opportunities of small-scale fisheries with other global issues". 
The first lens, "Global change and the future ocean: a grand challenge for marine sciences" [C. Duarte 2014] describes the state of the global ocean and coastal seas under the impact of anthropogenic global change, that is, within the 'Anthropocene'. Duarte offers, also a definition of 'anthropogenic global change' [p.1], namely "the global-scale changes resulting from the impact of human activity on the major processes that regulate the functioning of the Biosphere"; which in context of this essay should be read as 'functioning of the geo-biosphere'. The second lens, "Global Ocean Governance: New and Emerging Issues" [Campbell et al. 2016] brings into focus marine issue such as 'small-scale fisheries', 'ocean acidification' and 'blue carbon' as pressing governance concerns, which need to be addressed at regional and global scales, and for which the FAO-SSF Guidelines provide an advanced application case. The third lens, "Walking the talk: implementing the international guidelines for securing sustainable small-scale fisheries" [Jentoft 2014] emphasize that governance is the key challenge to implementing the FAO-SSF Guidelines; a challenge of a wicked nature that therefore requires more than a managerial approach to address it.  The fourth lens, "Earth System Governance – world politics in the Anthropocene" [Biermann 2014] shows that the implementation challenge of the FAO-SSF Guidelines is one particular realization of a more common governance challenge, which requires a normative approach to achieve a sustainable governance of the 'wicked' global commons. The human actor is a key-feature for the reflections in each of these four contributions. Similarly the understanding the meanings of the notions 'Anthropocene' and 'Geoethics' requires to put the human actor into the center of reflections.  
The focus on the human actor is the thread that entangles SSF-Guidelines, Geoethics, and the Human Niche.

A first perimeter: niche-building and small-scale fisheries

Niche-building is an anthropocentric and historical process [Bonneuil and Fressoz 2013, Ellis 2015, Latour 2015, Hamilton et al 2015, Bohle 2016, Fuentes 2016, Hamilton 2017]. Since prehistoric times people purposefully alter their environments, at local, regional or continental scale; including the coastal zone [Mee 2012].  
The fate of the small-scale fishery, which nowadays still contribute to about half of the global fish catch and employ about 90% of the respective workforce (FAO), within the industrialized use of the coastal zone (Newton et al 2012) may serve as contemporary example how people are changing the global geo-biosphere. 
The shift of the dynamics of the Earth systems happens mainly by the impact of the industrial global supply chains. Yet, the cumulated number of local artisanal activities has its global impact, in particular when triggered through environmental systems already strained by industrial exploitation. The small-scale fishery provides one example, of several, of a 'cascading eco-logical crisis' [Galaz et al. 2010] in the Anthropocene: failure of a local socio-ecological system (decreasing fish stocks in Central West Africa because of industrial over fishing) drives a cascade of crisis (Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak):

'Fish stocks have declined along the Central West African coast due to a large extent to rapid exploitation by high-tech international fishing fleet and due to the degradation of mangrove forests, sea grass beds and coral communities as a result of, for example, climate change and pollution. Consequently, diets and trading activities shift to so-called ‘bushmeat’ such as chimpanzees and flying foxes. These are well-known sources of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, Marburg viruses and human monkeypox – all with the suspected ability to rapidly spread and cascade across scales through travel and trade. Moreover, increased bushmeat hunting has reportedly contributed to the loss of species that promote important functions in ecosystems, such as pollinators for food production. Loss of such organisms often undermine the resilience of food producing landscapes and forest ecosystems rendering them increasingly vulnerable to droughts and forest fires. The combined impacts of fish stock decline, epidemic outbreaks, additional losses in ecosystem services, water stress, and poverty put already fragile states such as Congo and Cameroon under severe pressure [Galaz et al. 2010, p. 7-8, edited]'.

In the contemporary world, the change processes of the geo-biosphere are happening simultaneously at a local, regional and planetary scale, and they are composite of natural and social processes [Hulme 2011, Tickell 2011, Monastersky 2015, Seitzinger et al. 2015, Schimel et al. 2015]. The change concerns the marine environment too, to the point that the political decision was taken to list its sustainable use among the Sustainable Development Goals [United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2016]. Geoethical thinking may facilitate actors to federate around common application cases.

A second perimeter: Geoethics and application context

The application context for geoethical thinking is known [Mayer 2015, Peppoloni and Di Capua 2016, Bobrowsky et al 2017]. Applying geoethical thinking means, for geoscientists but not only for them, including new subjects into known application context.
In a first context, geoethical thinking is perceived as tool for professional: Geoethics includes various ethical dimensions such as of individual behavior, social responsibility, and viewing Earth from different angles as a home for many (Cape Town Statement on Geoethics). Geoethical thinking searches different equilibria for a society-earth-centric view within a common frame-work, using, among other, philosophical, scientific, and socio-economic concerns. Different equilibria within a wider, common framework are needed in a diverse world: i) to reflect upon individual and professional behavior in different societal settings, as well as ii) to dwell on shared professional responsibility, integrity, know-how, mutual understanding of diversity, and intellectual hones-ty.  
In a second context, geoethical thinking is about professional ethics: when anthropogenic global change gets addressed as a governance challenge, then firm professional ethics will be needed in a context of applied geosciences; for example for matters such as risk taking, man-aging uncertainties, or revising options. Regarding the underpinning scientific, technical and socio-economic matters, each includes a range of standard ethical issues, such as whether the particular scientific and governance choice is professional 'sound'.  
In a third context, geoethical thinking is about the ethics of expert advice and (shared) com-mon sense: Today, many people ignore the processes and phenomena that shape the intersections of people's cumulated activities and the geo-biosphere. So far anthropogenic global change was unintended.  How insights about anthropogenic global change shape, including denial of global change, are subject to dynamic social and political processes, such as debates about lifestyles, preferences, values, and world-views. To that end, the practitioners, professionals, and researchers who understand the related processes and phenomena should share their professional insights with decision makers and layperson and debate publically value statements, world-views, and preferences.
In a fourth context, geoethical thinking extends the application case of human value systems: Our species has acquired the power to engineer planet Earth, namely to drive anthropocentric global change by the number of people, societal structures, and technological skills. Narrowly, anthropocentric global change is about governing the intersections of human economic activities and the geo-biosphere in function of people's needs.  Therefore, as for any governance issue, also governing anthropocentric global change is subject to value-systems.  
In a fifth context, geoethical thinking means to extend the range of applied ethics to new sub-jects: The overarching societal matters that relate to anthropocentric global change are value-driven, e.g. how to appropriate and distribute natural resources by whom and for what cost, whether to accepted side-effects and risk of collateral damages. These matters are known ethical issues. However, their complexity in the context of anthropocentric global change has no precedent, because of the number of people with different needs, diverse world-views and various preferences.  
In a sixth context, geoethical thinking is about how to take responsibility for Earth system dynamics, in anyone's daily dealings: so far people did not intend to modify planet Earth, although many were aware of the effects on the biosphere of people's cumulative activities. Yet rather recently most people had no insights into the intersection of human economic activity with the geo-biosphere. Nowadays, having lost innocence, anthropocentric global change is an intentional act, and its denial a liability.

Overlapping perimeters

The phase of human history has ended during which anthropogenic global change has happened unnoticed [Zalasiewicz 2015, Waters et al. 2016]. That insight has reached the coastal ocean and the open sea [Durate 2014]. As an illustration, small-scale fishery is one of many drivers of change. In this case the drive is through cumulated actions of many actors across diverse social-economic and natural environments, which happens within an external frame of a dominating industrialized fishery and exploitation of the coastal zone by a multitude of other ac-tors. The resulting complex 'system-to-be-governed' presents a set of wicked problems [Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009], which in turn engulf wicked 'governing-systems' too [Chuenpadgee and Jentoft 2013]. 
The insight gained from small-scale fisheries within an industrialized exploitation, thus one specific global change process, provides a metric for the complexity of anthropogenic global change in general. It also emphasizes the key-understanding that sustainable governance of peoples' activities at planetary scales is a wicked problem, be it for small-scale fisheries [Jentoft 2014] or mitigation of climate change [Pollitt 2016]. Hence [Chuenpadgee and Jentoft 2013, p. 344], 'overall values, norms and principles that guide institutions and actions' set an essential meta-order to iterate the way forward. Geoethical thinking is a contribution to develop such a meta-order for appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system. 
Summarizing, once having lost innocence and such the citizen recognize anthropogenic global change as its anthropocentric intentional act then ethical scrutiny of actions is required. Under these circumstances, namely the perspective of an anthropocentric Holocene or the Anthropocene, geoethical thinking is a shared resource that deems helpful for the mutually respectful governance [Biermann 2014] of a sustainable planetary human niche for a global population of billions of citizens.


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IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics