Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Why do we need more geoethics in research?

Francesc Bellaubi
(PhD Natural Sciences, IAPG member)

Picture credit: Photo by Antonina Baygusheva

Francesc Bellaubi
Ethics is becoming more and more a hot topic in the discussion about natural resources management and climate change. At the same time, there is an increasing awareness about the complexity, irreversibility and uncertainty in the Earth-Man relation and how feed-back loops impact on the geosphere and, in turn generate geological risks on human activities. In fact, Impact-Risk is a kind of action-reaction loop although the detail of how this exactly works is at the core of Complex Human and Nature Systems (CHANS).

The approach to puzzle out these issues strongly relies on technology and science. Complex models and ineffective cost solutions do not seem to be enough to solve the problems. We live in troubled days under a technocratic and scientism fallacy believing science and technology can or at least may solve many, if not all, of the problems created by the Anthropocene. However, more and more voices point to "the environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of values" (Nasr, 1997).

I believe science and technology, and so the research that make them possible, need to be core grounded in ethics in order to feed a value-based approach to current and future challenges. This is not about realizing the magnitude of the problem we are facing in terms of keeping geosphere stability for human evolution (Galleni & Scalfari, 2005). However, breaking the existing technopoly (Postdam, 1993) inertia and understanding the problem from a values point of view is key if we want to survive in and with dignity in this world.

Research in general and specifically in geosciences when related to natural resources management and governance has not been doing so well in helping to do so. Frequently, research methods are very "extractive". We use surveys and sometimes we rely on historical data, however, rarely does research go back to people to cross check and share results in a truly participatory way. Furthermore, raw data are only occasionally available to the citizens and "analysis, result discussions and conclusion" are cryptic in order to preserve the elite mind. We should make a strong effort to make research more transparent and available to people so results can be discussed and challenged, even when this means we need to move away from our "comfort zone" and realize we are not as smart as we thought we are. In addition, researchers have a moral duty; we cannot only inform and reflect about environmental impacts and risks because those affect moral agents.

We are all pushed to think and to blindly "believe" in science and technology as this sustains the current technopoly paradigm of development but when global issues affect us all it could be an interesting approach to see how our daily relations with other beings (Earth included) stand on ethical behavior. Thus, scientific knowledge doesn't dictate behavior but science needs to be "unsecularized" from the dogma and, rather, to approach Ethics. Knowledge is not only set in our physical brain and mind structures but transcends into the spiritual perceptions that shape our daily behavior. Behavior doesn't sit on rational-bounded knowledge but on moral values, beliefs and natural instincts that determine the why of our actions. It is an ethical duty of geosciences to look at Ethics. "It is also to be hoped that it will contribute to highlighting profound dimensions and forgotten languages of the human element that the predominantly scientific-technical civilization tends to repress and hide" (Velasco, 2007).

Geosciences research needs to be reactive. It is not enough to apply scientific methods, draw hypotheses, analyze data and report results (scientific methodologies are not value-neutral). There is no added value doing so if the end does not improve people’s lives and safeguard the Earth. Research cannot be passive when looking at socio-environmental problems that involve integrity, recognition and redistribution issues in natural resources management. Research needs to be brave and stand up, and needs to be politically and ethically engaged, but mainly committed. Should sound scientific reports be dropped on a table without the ethical need to accompany the decision-making process? And what is the role of advising and counseling from a pedagogical and social learning point of view?

Academia is not and cannot be an "untouched" sanctuary but an open learning forum where issues are debatable and debated and where we should challenge others to challenge us. In these days where the big word "Democracy" is in everybody's mind and mouth, I think making academia more democratic and research more ethical is a good starter in the view of the pressing challenges the Earth and Man are facing together.


Galleni L. and Scalfari F. (2005). Teilhard de Chardin’s Engagement with the Relationship between Science and Theology in Light of Discussions about Environmental Ethics. Ecotheology, 10(2), pp. 196-214.

Nasr S.H. (1997). Man and nature. Chicago: ABC International Group, Inc.

Postman N. (1993). Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Velasco J.M. (2007). Introducción a la fenomenología de la religión (Estructuras y Procesos, Religión). 7th edn. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, S.A.

Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics