Sunday, January 30, 2022

A Geo-philosophical Topic – Agency at the Human-Earth Nexus

by Martin Bohle

International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG)
Ronin Research Scholar @edgeryders; Member of EGU, AGU

Martin Bohle

Research into the societal contexts of geosciences led to the construction of various geo-philosophical frameworks, for example, geoethics as formulated at the 35th IGC in 2016 in Cape Town (Di Capua et al., 2017). These frameworks combine insights into societal and geoscientific features to build a joint knowledge system for the realms of both planet Earth and the world of humans. Geo-philosophical frameworks shall guide professionals and citizens when interacting with World and Planet Earth, that is, operating at the Human-Earth Nexus. Different geo-philosophical frameworks are distinct by the epistemic, political, and moral philosophies that describe the respective insights combined as a specific framework. Identifying these philosophical building blocks consolidates geoethics and relates it to broader knowledge realms than geosciences.

Materials and Methods

The Human-Earth Nexus is the bundle of planet Earth, a planetary technosphere, and a hegemonic culture (Haff, 2014) (Rosol et al., 2017) (Otto et al., 2020).  Various modern geo-philosophical frameworks are designed to inspect this nexus (see references in Bohle and Marone (2021)). In terms of knowledge systems, they are borderline problems at the intersection of different knowledge domains (Renn, 2020).  
The features of a geo-philosophical framework depend on their philosophical foundation, which is a compound of scientific epistemology and selected insights into geoscientific matters, societal features and normative settings. The choice of a specific philosophical foundation, explicitly or tacitly, determines the specific features of a given geo-philosophical framework. Hence, variants of the philosophical foundation lead to variants of the given framework. 
The following paragraphs refer to the school of geo-philosophical frameworks named ‘geoethics’.  Its development is briefly recalled, and a research question is outlined to examine one of its features.

‘Cape Town Geoethics’

Emerging within geology (Lambert, 2012), geoethics was an intra-disciplinary endeavour striving for responsible geosciences (Peppoloni et al., 2019). Early studies in geoethics were summarised as the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics (Di Capua et al., 2017). Since 2016 various works have dwelled on this basis, which, for the following, is called ‘Cape Town Geoethics’.
Among the notions that refer to modern geo-philosophical frameworks, the term geoethics stands out, despite a somewhat dispersed use in the scientific literature (Bohle and Marone, 2021). Peppoloni et al. (2019) described 'Cape Town Geoethics' as an aspirational virtue-ethics for the individual human agent acting at the Human-Earth Nexus, and Potthast (2021) defines geoethics as an epistemic-moral hybrid. For example, 'Cape Town Geoethics' is founded on Kantian moral philosophies (Marone and Bohle, 2020).  
Geoethics is neighbouring various fields, for example, environmental ethics, engineering ethics and sustainability ethics. Also, Frodeman (2003) proposed a geo-philosophical framework for the earth sciences and related concepts in other disciplines are known (Forbes and Lindquist, 2000). Although the vastness of fields related to geoethics and the number of open issues (Bohle and Di Capua, 2019) may be startling, likely significant contributions can be found when exploring them, as illustrated by the following example:

As designed from the onset (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2012), geoethics should enable ethically sound operational practices of geoscientists depending on environmental, social and cultural settings. Hence, geoethical practices aim at comparative Justice and pluralism of sound choices. This idea of Justice is well-established (Sen, 2010) and hence supports Cape Town Geoethics’.  
However, those who pursue developing geoethics (the author included) have not been adequately and early aware of this Indian economist, philosopher and awardee of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (1998).

The example above illustrates that exploring the ‘intellectual neighbourhoods of geoethics’ should be beneficial for its robustness because it anchors geoethics on a broader knowledge domain. Happily, the geoethics session at the EGU conference in 2022 [*] calls for such an exploration. The intellectual quest can go further.
Acknowledging the compound design of any geo-philosophical framework, including geoethics, leads to the understanding that variants of the framework are possible on the same epistemic foundation in Earth Science Literacy. Hence, methodically, alternatives of the Cape Town Geoethics can be constructed by choosing a specific philosophy for insights into societal features and normative settings reflecting that geo-philosophical frameworks are epistemic-moral hybrids. Recently, some variants of 'Cape Town Geoethics' have been explored by using Kohlberg’s (1981), Jonas’ (1984), and Bunge’s (1989) political philosophies to account for specific societal features (Marone and Bohle, 2020). 
Drawing on the above, I suggest exploring possible variants of the 'Cape Town Geoethics' through analysing the compound philosophical descriptions of insights into societal features and normative settings underpinning it. Such research will strengthen geoethics.

A specific research question

Several unique features characterise 'Cape Town Geoethics', including its predecessors and variants, could benefit from examining how they depend on the philosophical foundation.
First, the concept of autonomy of the human agent encapsulates the moral core of 'Cape Town Geoethics'. The autonomy of the human agent is the pivotal tenet of any variant of 'Cape Town Geoethics'. This feature is made most explicit for the variant envisioning ecological humanism (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2020; p.17).  However, human autonomy is limited in any societal reality, as illustrated by Ayeh and Bleicher, when considering, for example, ‘geoethics and responsible mining’.  Generalising such understanding, human autonomy is contextual and not categorical (e.g. Kantian; see (Marone and Bohle, 2020)). For example, differentials of power, voice, sense-making skills, group pressure or access to resources (knowledge included) limit human autonomy. Thus, free will or free agency would be bounded, if not precluded. Therefore, this pivotal tenet of the geo-philosophical frameworks  ‘geoethics’ needs deeper examination.
Second diverging practices emerge when responsible and ethically sound choices depend on environmental, social and cultural settings, which are given. Such ‘operational pluralism’ (permitting ‘functional plasticity’) is a central design feature of geoethics, acknowledging, for example, in the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics, that choices “taken in a specific social and cultural setting, that respect the ethical norms of this setting, may appear unethical elsewhere” (Peppoloni et al., 2019; p.30). This feature is essential to handle the diversity of circumstances at the Human-Earth Nexus, and therefore, it should be kept while also acknowledging the partial autonomy of human agents.
Third, comparative Justice and operational pluralism are essential in any geo-philosophical framework for agents acting at the Human-Earth Nexus. However, it exposes the human agent to high decision-loads and requires adjusting messages to audiences and circumstances. Under these complex conditions (see Sen (2010) for detailed discussions), aspirational norms give only limited guidance because these norms are categorical and independent of the agent, circumstance and audience. For example, the statements of the Geoethical Promise (Matteucci et al., 2014; p.191), such as “I will never misuse my geoscience knowledge, not even under constraint”, or its variants in the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics, are praiseworthy. However, the question arises, how they can be adjusted to serve the human agent in challenging circumstances of partial autonomy?
None of the variants of geoethics ('Cape Town Geoethics', its predecessors and variants) examined that human agents have limited autonomy/agency. This issue, essential when operating at the Human-Earth Nexus, should be examined, and it should be tackled within the general operational structure of 'Cape Town Geoethics' (e.g. comparative Justice, operational pluralism). Methodologically it can be undertaken by enlarging the foundations of 'Cape Town Geoethics' with specific political and moral philosophies, which apply a realist-materialist scientific epistemology (Bunge, 2006) to understand the societal fabric, for example, describing differentials of power, voice, sense-making skills, group pressure or access to resources.




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