Thursday, January 14, 2016

Geoethics and the Anthropocene

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

Picture Credit: Stephanie Flude (distributed via


The making of the Anthropocene is about altering how human activities and the bio-geosphere intersect. Geoethics provide an orientation how that anthropogenic global change process should happen. For a definition of the notion "Geoethics", please see end-note.

This essay prepares my keynote "Geoethik: Richtschnur für's Anthropozän" at the meeting "nANO meets water VII". The meeting is organized by the Fraunhofer UMSICHT Institute (Oberhausen, Germany) on 18th February 2016 (see: The essay extends some reflections from my paper: Martin Bohle "Handling of Human Geosphere Intersections" (Geosciences 2016, 6, 3; doi:10.3390/geosciences6010003)

To put the notions "Geoethics" and "Anthropocene" into a mutual context, this essay applies the notions "engineering" and "anthropogenic global change", and reflects on the "noosphere" - the ensemble of people-people interactions and their "shared mental concepts". It is within the "noosphere" that people conceive "how to shape the world?"
The notion Anthropocene implies that processes of the geo-biosphere and processes in the noosphere intersect. Ethics appraises human behavior; geoethics concern human behavior in matters that involve the process of the bio-geosphere. The making of the anthropocene, be it either as a collateral effect of humankind's engineering or an intended outcome of alterations of the noosphere or the bio-geosphere, involve ethical issues. These issues are known, they are habitual to engineering and other professional work, although their application case may be new.  In that situation, what provides orientations how to make the Anthropocene? What is particular to geoethics?

About "Engineering"
To simplify; humankind is an engineering species. Biological evolution of people came in pair with tool-making capacity. Prehistoric and historical evolution of humankind meant to modify environments to appropriate resources [1, 2, 3, 4]. During the last century the number of people on Earth, the patterns of their consumption of resources, and the engineering of their environments together accumulate in a process of anthropogenic global change [5, 6, 7] leading to the Anthropocene. Now, re-engineering of production systems, consumption patterns and related intersections of human activities with the biotic and abiotic environment deemed to be a necessary endeavor [8], and is a central feature of the anthropogenic global change process.
Considering engineering in a philosophical context: (i) engineering is the intended, value-driven change of environments with the purpose to facilitate production and reproduction; for example infrastructures like shore defenses, which visibly interact with the geosphere; (ii) engineering includes designing production systems, urban dwellings and consumption patterns that couple human activity with the geosphere through cycles of matter and energy; (iii) engineering is about how people govern the appropriation of living and non-living resources from the environment in view of their value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles.

Anthropogenic Global Change
It is obvious that people are altering Earth [9]; it is debated "since when" and "to what degree?" Humankind's activity has left traces in the geological record since the onset of agriculture in Neolithic ages [10, 11]. The industrial revolution has printed a signal into the geological records at a planetary scale [12, 13]. Since some decades, humankind's economic activity intersects the geosphere in a more general manner, either directly or mediated by the biosphere. The respective geological records scale are forming [14] at a planetary. So far, this kind of "terraforming" was a collateral of the human economic activities to appropriate resources [15, 16, 17].
Anthropogenic global change is a historical process. It is linking how people interact with features of the planetary geo-biosphere, which are undertaken to sustain a population of now several billion people. This feature advocates renaming the present times Anthropocene, the time when humankind's activities modulate state and development path of planet Earth. Thus, it is the paradigm of present times that the production and consumption pattern of humankind causes fluxes of matter that modify earth-system dynamics. Going beyond any scientific meaning, the notion Anthropocene conveys a double message [5, 18]. First, that the development paths of humankind's history and natural earth-systems intersect. Second, that to understand global processes, it requires synthesizing social sciences, humanities and natural sciences [10, 16, 17, 20].
Regarding how production systems and consumption patterns are organized in the context of anthropogenic global change, the guiding paradigms are "adaptation" and "mitigation", or named differently "adjustment to change" and "dovetailing of processes". These paradigms are conventional; they fit well into the development path of engineering endeavors of the last centuries. However, their conscious application on a planetary scale is without precedent [21]. In this sense, people face a double habitual context. The available technological means, scientific understanding, and resources confine the engineering efforts. Within these limits, world-views determine the choices. Thus, the habitual ethical questions that engineering and geoscience imply in a general professional context now are put into a much more complex societal context. Thus, the making of the Anthropocene is as much a process of finding "shared subjective insights" [22], as it results from the "material" intersection of humankind's economic activities and the bio-geosphere [12, 13].   
To recall the obvious; when making choices people are driven by both, their world-views and preferences and their insights into societal, technical or natural processes. Within that context, the attitude of people towards risk, uncertainties, perception of facts and theories is different. People's choices vary with the context [23, 24], e.g. whether the own person, the kin, or the own group is concerned, or whether an action is immediate, has happened, or will happen in the future. The manner how the debate on climate change is evolving shows that this debate is about world-views. Specialists, decision makers, and people ponder what are hypotheses, theories or facts. It is discussed how to handle uncertainty or hazards or whether to consider benefits for other people, in the past or for future generations [25]. Going beyond concerns like "whether it is functioning", people intuitively tend to opt for what they consider as "right" or "worth" in the context of their individual world-view. When people are debating opportunities, change or risks then much of the debate is about "virtue" and what course of action is "worthwhile" [2, 26]; e.g. when appraising impacts and benefits during planning, construction and operation.
Societies abundantly apply geoscience for their economic activities. Crafts-person, technicians, architects, and engineers apply geoscience know-how when engineering environments or creating artifacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. As experience with climate change showed, the cause-effect relations of the human geosphere intersections are difficult to determine. Many people may not recognize how much geoscience know-how is needed to gain insight into the interaction of human activities and processes in the geosphere. Notwithstanding any lack of conscious insight, the noosphere of contemporary societies and the geosphere are well coupled. The ensemble of people-people interactions and the application of their "shared mental concepts" effect the geosphere once put to into practice through engineering.
Now that people have to handle anthropogenic global change, they have to choose how to re-engineer on a planetary scale the production systems, consumption patterns, and their natural, technical or cultural environments. Although such re-engineering would fit into the human culture, engineering global systems differ from previous engineering endeavors. The scale and complexity of the endeavor are different, because anthropogenic global change - e.g. climate change - prescribes global commons for all people, whether the change is collateral or purposeful.
Engineering anthropogenic global change is loaded with implicit societal issues to an unprecedented level because of the impact on all people. On one hand it is intended to engineer systems that have non-linear dynamics with feedback. Such systems exhibit chaotic dynamics that is difficult to forecast. Therefore, non-intended and counter-intuitive system behavior is likely. This feature renders design, implementation, and operation of engineering works challenging [27, 28]. On the other hand, when in the past engineering could not tackle a problem successfully then emigration was an option. Evidently, leaving Earth is not an option. However, "internal migration" to avoid the regional impact of the anthropogenic global change is an option that already is depicted by some as an emerging feature. That dimension of "non-escape" sharpens the ethical issues of engineered anthropogenic change.

Our species has acquired the power to engineer planet Earth. Anthropogenic global change is about engineering the intersections of human economic activities and the geosphere in function of people's world-views and preferences. As any engineering work, therefore, anthropogenic global change is subject to the human value-systems, which underpin people's world-views and preferences. In that context "geoethics" extends the application case of human value-systems.
The overarching societal matters of anthropogenic global change are value-loaded, e.g. how to appropriate and distribute natural resources for what cost, accepted side-effects, and with what risk of further collateral effects. These ethical issues seem familiar regarding their general nature. However, their complexity has no precedence, simply because of the number of people with different world-views and preferences who will be subject to consequences of the choices made. In that particular context "geoethics" means to extend the range of applied ethics to new subjects.
People will appraise anthropogenic global change through their preferences, values, and world-views; and then will decide and react accordingly. To that end, the practitioners, professionals, and researchers who understand how intersections of human activity and geosphere function to bring anthropogenic global change, have to share their professional insights with decision makers and layperson and to debate value statements, world-views, and preferences. In that context "geoethics" is about the ethics of expert advice.
If anthropogenic global change gets addressed as an engineering challenge, then the ethics of risk-taking, managing uncertainties or revising options will be needed in a context of applied geoscience [29]. Ethical dilemmas such as conflicting values, uneven distribution of risks, impacts, losses, and benefits, or collateral impacts like exposure to unexpected side-effects. Debates will be vigorous, e.g. whether a side-effect was to be expected or was intentional. The related range of scientific, technical and economic matters include their particular ethical issues namely whether scientific and engineering choices are professional "sound". In that particular context "geoethics" is about professional ethics.
So far people did not intend to modify planetary fluxes of matter and energy, although they were aware of the effect of their cumulative activities on the biosphere. People ignored the intersection of human economic activity with the geosphere. Nowadays having lost innocence,  anthropogenic global change is an intentional act [30, 31]. In that particular context "geoethics" is about taking responsibility.


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Geoethics consists of research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the geosphere. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of Earth Sciences education, research and practice, providing a point of intersection for Geosciences, Sociology, Philosophy and Economy. Geoethics represents an opportunity for Geoscientists to become more conscious of their social role and responsibilities in conducting their activity. Geoethics is a tool to influence the awareness of society regarding problems related to geo-resources and geo-environment 
(IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics: