Thursday, August 22, 2019

Geoethics, an Antidote in a Wicked 'Human Niche'?

(by Martin Bohle, Ronin Institute and IAPG Board of Experts)

doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.32597.78564 

Martin Bohle
Geoethics intends to shape human behaviour ‘wherever human activities interact with the Earth system [*]’. Considering that ambition, geoethics should render human activities a more effective and efficient feature of the Earth system. Such an ambition requires to analyse the function of ‘geoethical thinking’ from the perspective of system dynamics.

It sounds like a buzzword, ‘wicked’. Nevertheless, it describes how human agents may perceive the dynamics of complex-adaptive social-ecological systems that make-up the ‘human niche’. People are an intrinsic part of social-ecological systems. Examples of ‘wicked’ system behaviour are emergent properties, that is, outcomes of complex-adaptive systems that are more than the sum of their parts.

In times of anthropogenic global change, the Earth system emerges as a planetary network of social-ecological systems. Global supply-chains and hegemonic systems of cultural values interconnect them, and, subsequently, the geosphere, biosphere and technosphere amalgamate into the planetary ‘human niche’, blending into the Earth system dynamics also individual and collective human behaviour. 

The technosphere is more than the technological ‘hardware’ of infrastructures, production system and consumption patterns that humankind has built. Human behaviour is the ‚software’ of the technosphere. Human behaviour is encompassing attitudes and actions of individuals as well as the functioning of governance systems of many scales and designs. Human behaviour is an essential feature of the technosphere because it determines what design-features the ‘hardware’ exhibits and how it is deployed and used (‘software’).

Underpinning the human behaviour are individual and social sense-making processes. These processes exhibit rational and affective features; the latter also expressing social and emotional belongingness of the agent. The objects of the sense-making processes are natural and artificial environments, groups and individual human beings, and the individual or collective sense-making agent self. The different perceptions that result from the various sense-making processes show variable, agent-depending biases. Irrespectively, in what manner the perceptions may be shaped or prejudiced, the sense-making processes feed into actions of individuals, groups or institutions. The action, in turn, targets to modulate either natural and people-made environments or human behaviour. It is done by deploying technological ‘hardware’ and economic, social and political processes (‘software’), respectively. Consecutive acts of ‘sense-making and acting’ set a feedback loop within the Earth system.

The kind of a given feedback loop, either negative (that is, damping) or positive (that is, enforcing) as well as its relative strength determines how it may shape system dynamics. The feedback loops that humans exercise in Earth systems through the design of the technosphere is a noticeable key-feature of the human niche in times of anthropogenic global change. Shaping these feedback loops is a governance / cultural task that is exercised, for example, through specifying the design features of the technology, how to deploy and use it, or what are values and world-views that guide the design and use. 
Complex-adaptive systems challenge the capability of human agents to make sense of system behaviour and to act appropriately. The challenge arises, for example, because complex adaptive systems may change simultaneously at various scales, coupled with cascading cause-effects relations and constraining path-dependencies. Therefore, complex-adaptive system dynamics dwarf blue-print-like problem handling. A blue-print-like problem handling is adapted to the so-called ‘tame’ systems (opposed to what is called ‘wicked’ systems). Problem handling of ‘wickedness’ must be adaptive, participative and explorative, as experience shows. Subsequently, the issue arises how to empower human agents to act, in the absence of ‘blueprints’, in an appropriate manner across the system and in a reasonably coordinated manner.

Complex-adaptive system behaviour may arise, in a first instance, from non-linear processes and positive feedback loops within the natural environments that humans did not perturb. That is, complex-adaptive system behaviour may be a feature of pristine natural systems. In the second instance, technological systems can exhibit complex-adaptive system behaviour because of in-built non-linear processes and positive feedback loops. Subsequently, intersections of the natural and technological system can exhibit non-linearity and positive feedbacks at the interfaces. Finally, and in the third instance, as technological systems are built, deployed and altered ‘with a purpose in mind’ the iterations of human ‘sense-making and acting’ are an explicit feedback process. Complex-adaptive system behaviour may arise because of the feedback loop of ‘human sense-making and acting’ that occurs in the social sphere.

Complex-adaptive systems bind human agents in a struggle for control, for mastering circumstances, or for reacting appropriately. Often different agents are not aware of each other, act non-coordinated, or react to effects of other-agents’ actions. Under such circumstance, the notion ‘wickedness’ may reflect appropriately their perceptions of their operation within complex-adaptive system, for example, when facing issues like anthropogenic pressure, environmental and technological risks or multi-level governance. This generic circumstance calls for enforcing capability that enables human agents to face ‘wickedness’ (of geo-systems). To that end, effective capability building must focus on ‘human sense-making and acting’, what, in turn, brings geoethics into the play.

The key-features of geoethics, namely ‘actor-centric, virtue-ethics focused, responsibility focused, knowledge-based, context-dependence’ should be made key-enablers. Taking a systems-perspective, it results because geoethical thinking is about sense-making and acting, that geoethical thinking intervenes directly in the feedback process of ‘sense-making and acting’. Because geoethical thinking is knowledge-based, the interventions of the actors are nourished by insights into the system behaviour (of natural, technological and human systems). As geoethical thinking is concerned about social and political contexts, the actors should be able to intervene in a value-sensitive and culture-conscious manner.

[*] Peppoloni, S. (2018). Spreading geoethics through the languages of the world. Translations of the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics. International Association for Promoting Geoethics. Retrieved from

p.s.: This essay is a stump for a scientific article that is in the making. It draws on various talks given during the last year. The test is shared to invite comments. Please refer to the author when using it.


Bohle, M., Di Capua, G., Peppoloni, S., Bilham, N., Marone, E., & Preiser, R. (2019). Exploring Geoethics - Ethical Implications, Societal Contexts, and Professional Obligations of the Geosciences. (M. Bohle, Ed.). Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-12010-8.

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IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics:

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