Monday, December 16, 2019

Defining geoethics

(by Giuseppe Di Capua and Silvia Peppoloni)

how to cite: 
Di Capua G. and Peppoloni S. (2019). Defining geoethics. Website of the IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics,

1) Consists of research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system [19, pp.4–5] [1, p.5] [24, p.30]. 2) Deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geoscience knowledge, research, practice, education and communication, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities [7] [22]. 3) Encourages geoscientists and wider society to become fully aware of the humankind’s role as an active geological force on the planet and the ethical responsibility that this implies [24]. 4) Is considered a point of intersection for Geosciences, Sociology, Philosophy and Economy. 5) Its main issues and topics include: sustainable use of natural resources; reduction and management of natural and anthropogenic risks; management of land, coastal areas, seas and open oceans; pollution and its impacts on human health; global environmental changes, including the climate change; protection of natural environments; research integrity and the development of codes of scientific and professional conduct; literacy and education in geosciences; geodiversity, geoheritage, geoparks and geotourism; forensic geology and medical geology [24].
The ‘geoethical thinking’ (thinking about the implications and applications of geoethics) can be located within broader societal concerns about the responsible conduct of science and the science–society interface [3].
The word ‘Geoethics’ is the union of the prefix ‘geo’ and the word ‘ethics’. The prefix ‘geo’ refers to ‘gaia’, which means ‘Earth’ in Greek, but its ancient Sumerian base ‘ga’ refers more specifically to ‘home, the dwelling place’. The term ‘ethics’ was defined by Aristotle (384/383 B.C. – 322 B.C.) as the investigation and reflection on the operational behavior of humans, searching for legitimate criteria by which to evaluate behaviour and choices, and identifies that part of philosophy dealing with the problem to take decisions by the human agent [19] [23].
Ideas that underpin the conceptual foundations of geoethics can be traced back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when anthropogenic impacts on nature began to be recognised and documented [18] [5] [13] [12].
In the early ‘90, the word “Geoethics” began to be used to define the ethical and social implications of geosciences [25] [6]. The need to increase awareness of the ethical obligations of geoscientists' activity was formalised in 2014 [15], with the publication of the “Geoethical Promise”, a Hippocratic-like oath for geoscientists previously suggested in 2009 [8], proposed to be extended to include applied Earth system sciences [2]. It is included in the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’ [7], and translated into 35 different languages [17].
Initially developed as professional ethics (deontology) inside geosciences [26] [20] [16], and to frame inquiries on the responsible behaviour of professionals in geosciences and the societal relevance of geosciences [23] [3], geoethics is increasingly recognised as an emerging subject that goes beyond professional boundaries to inform human agents’ actions and societal decisions as a whole [1] [24], with well-established conceptual foundations and a developing framework for its practical application across a growing range of geoscience disciplines and sectors for assuring sustainable, safety and healthy conditions to human communities and protecting biotic and abiotic entities [22] [24].
The concept of responsibility is a central pivot in geoethics: the human agent sits at the centre of an ethical reference system in which individual, interpersonal/professional, social and environmental values coexist, underpinning their responsibilities at these four levels (named “the four geoethical domains”) [1] [19] [22] [24].
Values such as intellectual freedom, honesty, integrity, inclusivity, and equity, along with concepts such as geoheritage, geodiversity, geo-conservation, sustainability, prevention, adaptation and geo-education are proposed to society as references on which to base geoethical behaviours [21] [24].
The four fundamental characteristics of geoethics can be summed up as follows: a) human agent-centric, b) shaped as virtue-ethics, c) geoscience knowledge-based, d) with space-time context dependent approaches. Geoethics is a virtue ethics, placing at the forefront individual, responsible action based on the adoption of societal and professional reference values. Its development and application are led by scientists for the benefit of society, within a pragmatic, open and continuous revision process. Geoethics is grounded on geoscience knowledge to assure an informed and conscious approach to problems related to human-Earth system interaction. Geoethics is context-dependent in space and time and ethically sound choices may differ for similar ethical dilemmas: geoethics is shaped and informed by a strong awareness of the technical, environmental, economic, cultural and political limits existing in different socio-ecological contexts. [24].
In geoethics, the Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral adequacy, that identifies six developmental stages for the moral reasoning, [10] [11] is considered as a reference scale for assessing the maturity of human–Earth system interactions [14] [4].


[1] Bobrowsky P., Cronin V., Di Capua G., Kieffer S., and Peppoloni S. (2017). The Emerging Field of Geoethics. In Scientific Integrity and Ethics: With Applications to the Geosciences (pp. 175–212). Special Publications 73. Washington, DC: American Geophysical Union; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

[2] Bohle, M., & Ellis, E. C. (2017). Furthering Ethical Requirements for Applied Earth Science. In Geoethics at the Heart of All Geoscience. Annals of Geophysics, 60(7).

[3] Bohle M. and Di Capua G. (2019). Setting the Scence. In Exploring Geoethics, Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 1–24,

[4] Bohle M. and Marone E. (2019). Humanistic Geosciences and the Planetary Human Niche. In Exploring Geoethics, Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 137–164,

[5] Bonneuil C. and Fressoz J.-B. (2013). L’événement Anthropocène - La terre, l’histoire et nous (320pp.). Le Seuil. ISBN 978-2021135008.

[6] Cronin V.S. (1992). On the seismic activity of the Malibu Coast Fault Zone, and other ethical problems in engineering geoscience. Geological Society of America, Abstracts with Programs, 24, (7), A284.

[7] Di Capua G., Peppoloni S., and Bobrowsky P.T. (2017). The Cape Town Statement on Geoethics. In Geoethics at the Heart of All Geoscience. Annals of Geophysics, 60(7).

[8] Ellis E.C. and Haff P.K. (2009). Earth Science in the Anthropocene: New Epoch, New Paradigm, New Responsibilities. EOS, 90(49), 473.

[9] Fressoz J.-B. (2012). L’Apocalypse joyeuse - Une histoire du risque technologique (320pp.). L’univers historique/Le Seuil. ISBN 978-2021056983.

[10] Kohlberg L. (1982). Moral development. In: Broughton J.M. & Freeman-Moir D.J. (Eds.), The Cognitive Developmental Psychology of James Mark Baldwin: Current Theory and Research in Genetic Epistemology, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

[11] Kohlberg L., Levine C., Hewer A. (1983). Moral stages: a current formulation and a response to critics. Basel, NY: Karger, ISBN 3805537166.

[12] Lewis S. and Maslin M.A. (2018). The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene (480pp.). Pelican. ISBN 978-0241280881.

[13] Lucchesi, S. (2017). Geosciences at the Service of Society: The Path Traced by Antonio Stoppani. In Geoethics at the Heart of All Geoscience. Annals of Geophysics, 60(7).

[14] Marone E. and Peppoloni S. (2017). Ethical Dilemmas in Geosciences. We Can Ask, but, Can We Answer? In Geoethics at the Heart of All Geoscience. Annals of Geophysics, 60(7).

[15] Matteucci R., Gosso G., Peppoloni S., Piacente S., and Wasowski J. (2014). The “Geoethical Promise”: A Proposal. Episodes, 37(3), 190–191.

[16] Mogk D.W. (2017). Geoethics and Professionalism: The Responsible Conduct of Scientists. In Geoethics at the Heart of All Geoscience. Annals of Geophysics, 60(7).

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

[18] Peppoloni S. and Di Capua G. (2012). Geoethics and Geological Culture: Awareness, Responsibility and Challenges. In Geoethics and Geological Culture. Reflections from the Geoitalia Conference 2011 (pp. 335–341). Annals of Geophysics, 55(3).

[19] Peppoloni S. and Di Capua, G. (2015a). The Meaning of Geoethics. In Geoethics: Ethical Challenges and Case Studies in Earth Sciences (pp. 3–14). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

[20] Peppoloni S., & Di Capua G. (Eds.) (2015b). Geoethics, the Role and Responsibility of Geoscientists (187pp.). Geological Society of London, Special Publications 419. ISBN 978-1862397262.  

[21] Peppoloni S. and Di Capua G. (2016). Geoethics: Ethical, Social, and Cultural Values in Geosciences Research, Practice, and Education. In Geoscience for the Public Good and Global Development: Toward a Sustainable Future (pp.17–21). Geological Society of America, Special Papers 520.

[22] Peppoloni S. and Di Capua G. (2017). Geoethics: Ethical, Social and Cultural Implications in Geosciences. In Geoethics at the Heart of all geoscience. Annals of Geophysics, 60(7).

[23] Peppoloni S. and Di Capua G. (2018). Ethics. In Encyclopedia of Engineering Geology (pp. 1–5). Encyclopedia of Earth Sciences Series. Cham: Springer.

[24] Peppoloni S., Di Capua G., and Bilham N. (2019). Contemporary Geoethics Within the Geosciences. In Exploring Geoethics, Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 25–70,

[25] Savolainen K. (1992). Education and human rights: new priorities. In: Adult Education for International Understanding, Human Rights and Peace. Report of the Workshop held at UIE, Hamburg, 18–19 April 1991. UIE Reports, 11. Unesco Institute for Education, Hamburg, 43–48.

[26] Wyss M. and Peppoloni S. (Eds.) (2015). Geoethics: Ethical Challenges and Case Studies in Earth Sciences (450pp.). Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN 978-0127999357.

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics:

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