Thursday, May 14, 2020

Situating Geoethics in the Pandemocene, an Opinion

Martin Bohle

IAPG Board of Experts and Ronin Institute - Montclair, NJ, USA

Martin Bohle

Pandemics are more than outbreaks of diseases. To face it, our modern way of life is a bunch of pandemics. Hence, time to face them, thoroughly and as such – geosciences included. 
A little semantics first; the ancient Greek origin of the word pandemic means ‘all’ (pan) and ‘people’ (demos); that is, something common to all humans. Pandemic applied as a medical term may serve as one example. Broader meanings are, for example, “…globalization, the most thoroughgoing socioeconomic upheaval since the Industrial Revolution, which has set off a pandemic of retrogressive nationalism, regional separatism, and religious extremism” (Martin Filler, New York Review of Books, 24 Sept. 2009, [*]). This quote illustrates nicely that a pandemic mainly is a cultural thing, something deeply rooted in human behaviour. How the “coronavirus” emerged (markets), how the illness COVID-19 did spread through societies (travel), or what works to confine the outbreaks (social distancing) - any of these courses is mainly cultural.
Humans, now seven Billion and soon eleven Billion people, who are needing a decent life on Earth require a globalised society for provision of food, goods and security. There is little alternative to it. Under such circumstances, globalisation is not a question of whether, although it is a profound question of how. The manner how the production of food and goods, the use of commodities and natural resources is done that is a concern for all people, that is, it is pandemic. The exponential growth of the number of human people of the last two centuries has wiped any alternative away. Unhappily that period left us with an unpleasant common heritage of humankind. The manner how the production of food and goods, the use of commodities and natural resources was done in the recent past led to anthropogenic global change. Climate change is only the single best-known example. Anthropogenic global change, like climate change, concerns all people; hence, it is a pandemic. 
Turning to the geoscientists, recognising that the Holocene has ended (Waters et al. 2016) is acknowledging that the pandemics reached the geological record (Zalasiewicz et al. 2019). Hence, as debated since two decades renaming the current times ‘Anthropocene’ seems valid (Bohle and Bilham 2019); ‘Pandemocene’ may be an unthought alternative.

Societal contexts of the geosciences

Geosciences or Earth sciences are an amalgam of fundamental and applied research fields mainly within but also beyond natural sciences, as well as specific engineering disciplines and commercial undertakings on various scales, ranging from individual chartered experts to state-owned or multinational private corporations. Together, these geosciences disciplines nourish a corpus of stewardship knowledge about natural processes that can inform how people could act within the Earth system (Lenton and Latour 2018; Ogden et al. 2013; Redman and Miller 2015; Steffen et al. 2011). Contemporary geoscience knowledge is, therefore, of very high operational value for the functioning of modern societies. That geoscience knowledge alone, however, does not guide how people ought to act. That issue is addressed by ethics, in general, and in the specific form of professional ethics such as contemporary geoethics [**]. However, even in the absence of guidance as to how to act, the geoscientist’s expert knowledge comes with responsibility for the individual scientist, as a professional and as a citizen, towards people and communities.

Can Geoscientists help to cure the Pandemics of the Anthropocene?

Are geoscientists needed, as the medical caretakers in times of a health pandemic, among other workers, to cure the Anthropocene? If yes, are they ready to join forces to face the pandemics of the Anthropocene? Do the societal contexts and the ethical framework of their disciplines enable them to render a contribution?
In general terms, science and research shall serve society (Bernal 1939), and responsible science and innovation is a public good (Blok 2018; Murphy, C., Gardoni, P., Bashir, H., Harris, C. E., & Masad 2015). These insights have taken root in contemporary societies (United Nations 2013) and, although still questioned to some degree, they have become operationalised (Schneider et al. 2019). Like many other natural science communities, the geosciences communities have strengthened their ethical frameworks in the last decade; using the label ‘geoethics’. 

The Cape Town Statement on Geoethics (Di Capua, Peppoloni, and Bobrowsky 2017) outlines an actor-centric virtue-ethic for professional geoscientists. It promotes to act responsibly and knowledge-based. It emphasizes the societal context of the geosciences. However, its scope is intra-professional as summarised in its concluding paragraph “Raising the (geo)ethical awareness and competences of the members of the geoscience community is essential, also to increase trust and credibility among the public. This can best be achieved in the near future by two means: by promoting more effectively existing guidance such as codes of ethics/conduct and research integrity statements; and by introducing geoethics into geoscience curricula, to make geoethics a basic feature of the training and professional activity of geoscientists.

The soft side of geosciences, geoethics

When thinking about probable futures, it deems necessary to go beyond a mainly intra-disciplinary setting of geoethics. Intra-disciplinary frames, like the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics, are advantageous framework, unquestionable. They provide a solid foundation inter-discipinary and extra-discipliary settings (Peppoloni, Bilham, and Di Capua 2019). However, geoethics may be strengthened for use by any citizen (Bohle and Marone 2019). 
Strengthening geoethics may be a choice in the Holocene, although it is a must in the Pandemocene because citizens’ actions should ‘be judged… where they fall on a scale of care and neglect” because “[w]hen humans formed an independent relation with the Earth, we were left to choose between a path of care and a path of neglect.’ (Hamilton 2017; p. 150, emphasise in the original). When facing that claim, tools are required. Geoethics for geoscientists is a specific tool. A more generic tool is needed. The foundations of geoethical thinking can be expanded through the works of Kohlberg and Jonas, namely about moral adequacy of normative frameworks (a: see below)  (Kohlberg 1981) and the imperative of responsibility for those who deploy technologies (Jonas 1984). Combining these approaches with geoethics approach, a ‘geoethical rationale’ emerges. It promotes six normative preferences: ‘actor-centric, virtue-ethics focused, responsibility focused, knowledge-based, all-actor-inclusive, and universal rights-based’ (Table 1). 

A framework like the ‘geoethical rationale’ may be suitable guidance of citizens in the Anthropocene (or Pandemocene). At a more modest scale of action, the normative preferences of the geoethical rationale may help citizens, who also are geoscientists, to reach out beyond their professional spheres. On the path towards this endeavour, the question arises why geoscientists should be among the ‘health workers’, who are needed to mitigate the risks of the Pandemocene.

(a): The highest level of moral adequacy, Kohlberg’s ‘upper post-conventional level’, is described by a morality that is based on individual human rights and justice, by acts that are based on universal ethical principles, and by principled self-conscience and mutual respect. Kohlberg’s grading (relative to ‘societal conventions’) involves (i) acceptance of imposed rules (lower & upper pre-conventional levels); (ii) relationships of convenience (lower conventional level); (iii) compliance with law & order (upper conventional level); (iv) agreed social contracts (lower post-conventional level); (v) the agent acts in line with ethical principles (upper post-conventional level);

A pandemic of anthropogenic global change

Past and Present

During prehistoric and historical periods, humankind modified natural environments to appropriate resources for living and wellbeing (Ellis 2015; Fuentes 2016; Ruddiman 2018). Contemporary societies apply geosciences extensively for their economic, societal and cultural activities (Bohle 2017; Gill and Bullough 2017; Krausmann et al. 2013, 2017; Rosol, Nelson, and Renn 2017). These activities bind, through global supply chains, the entire globe into one social-ecological system (Reyers et al. 2018) that intersects deeply with the physical and biological systems of the Earth. Crafts-persons, technicians, architects and engineers apply geoscience knowledge, at least implicitly, when altering natural environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying the foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. Artists, poets or philosophers of any time or culture refer to the Earth for co-shaping human identity. Contemporary geoscience knowledge seeps into modern thinking and dealings (Moores 1997; Peppoloni and Di Capua 2012), often without being identified as such (Bohle 2015; Bohle, Sibilla, and Casals I Graells 2017), and rarely put forward so openly as in the metaphorical title of the book by the geochemists Langmuir and Broecker (Langmuir and Broecker 2012), ‘How to build a habitable planet’.
Large-scale infrastructures like shore defences, hydropower plants or urban dwellings visibly interact with the geosphere and are a physical expression of how people situate themselves on Earth; views that alter through history (Ellis 2011; Fressoz 2012; Purdy 2015). Whatever the philosophical concepts are that frame the construction of these infrastructures, they could not have been built without a profound geoscience culture (Brown et al. 2017; Häusler 2018; Ruddiman et al. 2015; Wysession et al. 2012) that includes scientific understanding, technological know-how and societal justifications. Likewise, purposefully designed global production systems or consumption patterns couple human activity with the geosphere at a planetary scale. The coupling happens through cycles of matter, energy and information (Haff 2014b; Rosol et al. 2018; Zalasiewicz et al. 2016) that are mostly invisible. Greenhouse gas emissions are well-known as the most prominent example, although a similar case could be made for nitrogen or the global agriculture system (Campbell et al. 2017; Morseletto 2019; Zhang et al. 2015). 

During the last century, humankind's activities have intersected the geosphere in a much more extensive and intricate manner than ever before, either directly or intermediated through the biosphere (Barnosky et al. 2012; Steffen et al. 2015). Over some decades, the increasing number of people living on Earth and more notably the profligate consumption of resources in the affluent industrialised regions has culminated in a pandemic of anthropogenic change (Kunnas 2017; Steffen et al. 2011; Zalasiewicz et al. 2014). The notion ‘Anthropocene’ should be used while also acknowledging the responsibilities, political mechanisms and social processes that led to the current state of the globe, that finally make the Pandemocene. Anthropogenic global change is about how people, given hegemonic systems of cultural values, choices and lifestyles, govern the appropriation of biotic and abiotic resources from natural environments at a planetary scale (Wright et al. 2018). This description of the contemporary ‘human condition’ would be the essence of a geological epoch named the ‘Anthropocene’. Naming it suchlike is an overdue act (Bohle and Bilham 2019).

Scriptum Futurum Recycled

About two years ago, in 2017, I wrote a piece for the Salzburg Global Seminar # 593 [***], stating that “new complexities, irritating disruptions of trusted practices, and accelerating change seem to characterize our times. Uncertainty about the future is acknowledged by many. The rate of change is unmeasured; hence, it is felt”. Back in 2017, the participants of the seminar were asked: What will it mean to be human in 2050 or 2100? Now, the disruption of the habitual daily doings may come with accelerated pace because of the COVID-19 health pandemic.
The years 2050 or 2100 deem far away, somehow. It will be times when my children and grandchildren will be getting as old as I am now, respectively. I wondered, at time of writing in 2017: “Hence, what is 'The New' that is up to us, in a world of somehow self-driving cars, subsistence fishermen and first climate refugees? Our views focus' on the next corner, the next turn of a road. Where are the signposts? Who has a sketch of the roads ahead? Does vision lack? What marks the debates? The technology-fascinated disagree. Nevertheless, their vision is just 'scale-up,' massively to reach a singularity.” At the time of writing in 2017, I offered ten statements. Each implied a considerable alteration of the present state of people's dealings; some deemed clear-cut, some were underlying. 
Today I take out the statement #10 (Our outpost on Moon and Mars may be reopened soon after the burial of the bodies of the early colonists on Earth.) and modify #1, namely replacing ‘emergencies’ with ‘pandemics’ and advancing their onset. I made both changes because time seems to shorten before entering the difficult decades 2020-2040. My scriptum futurum runs as follows:
  1. People overcame the multiple societal-environmental pandemics of the 2020/2030-ties; then life-expectancy had stalled globally. During this crisis, luckily, the use of arms of mass destruction got hindered; although some 'conventional warfare' occurred.
  2. By 2050, collaborative Earth System Governance has emerged, and the life-expectancy (number of healthy years) of people started to increase again.
  3. In most regions, the species extinction rates got capped. The deterioration of vital global ecosystems has halted.
  4. In 2100, the global human population has stabilized at little less than 11 Billion people; slow decline seems possible now. Open societies have led to about equal levels of development in all urbanized regions.
  5. Networks and circular supply-chains enforce participatory handling of societal-environmental problems, including large-scale migration of people.
  6. Joint efforts are ongoing to relocate people from the ocean shorelines (and some other now uninhabitable zones); 'managed human retreat' because of sea-level rise and 'rebuilding of (coastal) urban areas' is a global policy.
  7. The rate of change of societal-environmental systems has been capped, and the diversity of the 'human niche' is made a 'species goal’'
  8. Most production systems use processes that are derived from synthetic biology with embedded quantum-technologies.
  9. Since 2050, emotions emerged spontaneously in complex information systems, and since then, they consolidated into stable societal features. Since then, such ‘feeling systems' and the various (collective and individual) 'people-tool systems' got a dedicated legal status in most countries.
The current turmoil of early 2020, which is caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, indeed “stretch our imagination to the breaking point. Hence, Irritation!” Notwithstanding the current turmoil, I stay by the metaphorical description about the exit-strategy made three years ago:

(1) For many of our fellow citizens, 'The Future,' with capital "F," is the march towards "About-the-Same." It may be a bit more of the same. For most people, The Future is nothing that is 'made.' It is something to be endured. Moreover, disasters or war deem ready to disrupt its regular gait. It is this aeon-old view, "Nihil sub sole novum" (nothing new under the sun) that for many provide a sense of security. Astonishingly, 'The Future' is a reference frame. It embeds our myopic starring at the next turn of events. However, what to do when this reference frame seems to change, to wobble and, hence gets uncertain. Then, menacingly, ‘The Unknown' frames the stages of our plays. Irritatingly, 'The Counter-Intuitive' seems to consolidate out of our plays. Threateningly, they block the way back. The horsemen of the modern apocalypse, 'The New,' 'The Unknown,' and 'The Counter-Intuitive' threat with insecurity, loss of competences, altered divisions of societies, and lost sense!

(2) Some people relish the 'The New,' 'The Unknown,' and 'The Counter-Intuitive’. Artists, Explorers, Scientists feel a deep sensual pleasure when confronting them, as a person and as citizens. The artist's psyche, the explorer's spirits, the innovator's minds, the researcher's souls are resources vibrating with imagination and passion. Hence, nurtured by them, the citizenries may confront Quantum-Technology, Earth System Sciences, Artificial Intelligences, and Synthetic Biology. Then the citizenries will draft the new 'guides to these galaxies.' They will tell, whether '42' is still the right answer, why your towel might be sufficient, and who moved the restaurant(s) at the end of the universe(s)? [##]

(3) Only as citizens, artists, cultural practitioners, inventors, and scientists can push the boundaries of the human imagination. As citizens, jointly they may move beyond the familiar and transcend the borders towards the future. Nevertheless, are they ready to assume this task? Do they invest collaboratively in path-changing discoveries, different fates of our planet, and charting pathways to liveable futures? Only then, 'The New', 'The Unknown', and 'The Counter-Intuitive' will face the broad, vigorous smile of 'The Imaginator'- Surrender!

Conclusion: Planetary human agency and geosciences

How societies alter natural environments depends on their technological means, cultural views on how to deploy them, the scientific insights that underpin these technological means and cultural views, and the economic conditions, cultural constraints and available resources. Together they determine which ‘endeavours’ of anthropogenic change are possible or desirable to undertake. The principal human endeavour in contemporary times is to operate a ‘technosphere’ at the planetary scale (Castree 2017; Haff 2014a, 2014b; Herrmann-Pillath 2018; Leach et al. 2018; Redman and Miller 2015; Steffen et al. 2011), which is the essence of the Pandemocene. 
Within society’s corpus of technological means, cultural views and scientific insights, geoscience knowledge has the potential to fundamentally shape the direction, effectiveness and efficiency of anthropogenic change of Earth system dynamics. To that end, when answering questions about the Earth system like ‘where to situate humankind’, ‘how to change processes’ or ‘what features to safeguard’, the geosciences provide ‘instruments’. Such instruments are Earth science literacy, insights into the origin of Earth including its development through aeons and understanding how Earth system dynamics operate, and, finally, geoethical thinking to guide about the ‘ought to be’. When considering the anthropogenic global change in its daily societal context, people need geoscience knowledge because any given individual interacts with the Earth system, be it only as a consumer of resources. Furthermore, citizens need insights into the functioning of the Earth system to engage in better-informed decision making. A dedicated responsibility of geoscientists results from the specific function that they have within contemporary societies because of the corpus of expertise that they can offer. 
To summarise, geosciences are instrumental in making anthropogenic global change happen, that making it a Pandemic. Therefore, geoscientists are its co-architects who should assume the responsibility that comes with their role as agents of technology-driven change. In this context, how geoscientists use their expertise is not an impartial matter. They are called to duty to offer cures in the Pandemocene; that is the essence of geoethics.


This post is a shortened version of a text (10.13140/RG.2.2.28145.22886) that draws on two conferences contributions (“Taking responsibility: Geo-societal studies of alternative futures,” EGU2020, Vienna, with Martin Kowarsch, MCC; “Geoethics for Operating in the Human Niche” GGM’20, Porto, inspired by E. Marone), a paper published in 2019 (“The ‘Anthropocene Proposal’: A Possible Quandary and A Work-Around” with N. Bilham, and a blog post prepared for the Salzburg Global Seminar #593.  


[*]; consulted 11th April 2020.

[**]; consulted 11th April 2020.

[***]; consulted 11th April 2020.

[#] Salzburg Global Seminar #593 "The Shock of the New: Arts, Technology and Making Sense of the Future" (Salzburg, 20-25 February 2018).

[##] See plots in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams.


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