Sunday, 31 July 2016

Human Niche & Citizen's Geoscience


Why "citizen geoscience" or "citizen earth scientists" should be a feature of modern geosciences? Why is opportune to encourage of citizens to participate at geoscience projects? How does "citizen geoscience" relate to geoethics? [*]


At the very conceptual roots, 'geoethics' and 'citizen science' have a clear relationship.

Namely, when 'geoethics' (i) "consists of research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system", and (ii) "deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geoscience education, research and practice, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities" (quote from IAPG's outline of "geoethics") then 'geoethics' is as much about citizens as it is about geoscientists, their various lifestyles and different professional conducts, respectively.


Geoethics & Human Niche

The relationship between geoethics and citizen science is enshrined in the generic application case of geoethics, namely "appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system." Interactions of human activities with the geosphere are ample, are very close to citizens' daily lives, and often do not involve a geoscientist acting in a professional capacity. Geoscience know-how is firmly knotted into many day-to-day activities of modern societies and the design of contemporary production systems and consumption patterns. To a considerable degree, the related engineering works are applied geosciences.

Let's recall; within the first decade of the 21st Century, it became evident also for the wider public, that humankind has built throughout its history an anthropogenic bio-geosphere, i.e. the 'Anthropocene' [1, 2]. This 'human niche' [3, 4] was constructed through more and more effective engineering of production systems, patterns of consumption of resources, which transformed the natural environments. The ongoing process of accelerated anthropogenic global change is a genuine part of a historical process of niche construction. People's activities systematically intersect the bio-geosphere for the purpose to maintain people's well-being, mutual care-taking, and reproduction.

Leptic Regosol (Calcaric) - credit: 
Antonio Jordan (Imaggeo)
Examples to illustrate this perspective of engineering a human niche are many, such as (i) Civil engineering is about building visible intersections of the geosphere and economic activities; e.g. dredging a waterway, building a bridge or constructing a hydropower plant; (ii) a less visible intersection is the design of production systems and consumption patterns, which couple human activity and the bio-geosphere through fluxes of matter and energy; (iii) urban dwellings may serve as a further example; they are a visible intersection with the bio-geosphere and on they are coupled with the bio-geosphere through massive fluxes of matter and energy; e.g. receiving drinking water and ejecting waste water, receiving electric power or fuels and ejecting heat, receiving food and ejecting manufactured goods that at the end of their life-cycle are discarded or recycled elsewhere on the globe; (iv) as more as technology evolved as more convoluted get the involvement of geosciences, such as renewable energy from the wind and solar, local weather forecast of thunderstorms, sea wave forecast for shipping, or global position systems shielded against solar storms.


Human Niche & Citizen Geoscience

The comfortable 'human niche' requires a well-functioning bio-geosphere. Such well-functioning may get disrupted to our disdain by natural hazards. Also, it may be threatened by people's acts when natural mechanisms, such as slope stability are ignored. In that sense, geoscience know-how is an intangible public good that is paramount for the well-being of citizens, at least in modern societies.

Retreat of the Morteratsch Glacier, Switzerland
Credit: Wolfgang Schwanghart (Imaggeo)
Against the backdrop that geosciences knowledge is paramount for the well-being of people, citizen geoscience is a very timely and appropriate undertaking of empowerment. Considering professional geosciences; citizen geoscience is complementary to i) the core of professional activities, ii) outreach and communication activities, and iii) commitment to "responsible science and research".

What science policy circles is debated under the label "responsible science and research" refers to a wider set of activities, which intend to put any research into its respective societal context, just as it is appropriate for a knowledge-based society. In that context, the very subject of geosciences and direct relevance of its professions for the functioning of society make the relationship between geosciences and citizen science evident and therefore makes geoethics essential for the daily life in the 'human niche'.

A specific example how the citizen science component evolves in contemporary geosciences is provided by the European Seismological Commission (ESC):  "...social networks have multiplied the direct interactions between individual seismologists and citizens. Observational seismology has entered schools where they can detect signals from large global earthquakes and do real science with real data. Doing real science is one of the goals of citizen science projects alongside augmenting data collection and crowdsourcing observations on earthquake phenomena... These developments change the way we, as scientists interact with society. They present significant opportunities to transfer the value of scientific research to citizens..." (ESC 35th General Assembly, September 2016) and thus to society.


History of Science & Citizens

Considering the history of science from a lay-public perspective, the modern European science endeavour started in the Renaissance. At those times, a minuscule fraction of the still tiny urban elite undertook research of natural phenomena.  At those times, new insights trickled only slowly into the daily dealings of citizens, although their effect can be traced [5].

Multi-functionality Port Wine Region Landscapes
Credit: Mónica Alexandra Rodrigues (Imaggeo)
It took about two centuries of further social, economic and political developments, wealthy sponsor, public prizes such as the 'longitude prize', and governments' investments into infrastructures (bridges, roads, and channels), mining technology, and means for power projection, and still research results, scientific findings and technological developments got used only slowly. Any modification of standard practices had to master a long-lasting process of trial and error before it was accepted by the citizens [6]. The lasting elapses of testing should be seen as positive because they served to make insights and discoveries 'fit for practice' within the realm of societal doings.

Since then, in the wake of emerging capitalistic production forms, the social basis of endeavour into research, science and technology did broaden much. This change can be measured as well by counting the number of scientists as also by the wider interest in applying discoveries and technological developments. However, only after the Second World War the number of researchers, scientists and engineers did explode; possibly 90% of all scientists that ever lived are living today. Nowadays in developed countries several percents of the population work as a researcher, scientist or engineer.

This very recent steep increase of 'scientific workforce' is the basis of the surge of scientific-technical knowledge of the late 20th century. Combined with the eagerness to apply the scientific-technical knowledge at a large scale and rapidly the world of the 21st Century (western counting) emerged.

Global Change & Citizen Spectator


Fed by the rapidly increasing knowledge, the ongoing scientific-technical revolution and its industrial-societal expression leaves huge parts of the societies and their governments in the simple role of a spectator; just as in the past with the difference that the spectator far more rapidly gets drawn into the game.

This passive role (i.e. spectator) is a substantial risk because of i) the speed, breadth and depths of the contemporary change processes and ii) the less-noticed interferences of these multiple change process in the daily societal doings. Notwithstanding, the challenge of the speed, breadth and depths and mutual interferences of ongoing change process may be a singular opportunity if faced, appropriately.

Isolated Thunderstorm
Credit: Peter Huber (Imaggeo)
A useful metric of the risk-taking, which is taken regarding the current change process in the material basis of the society, is the momentum of the anthropogenic global change process of the bio-geosphere, which we witness nowadays. This change, which got baptised "the great acceleration", possibly runs up to case that geologists like to re-name the current geological times 'Anthropocene'. Notwithstanding what the geologists decide for their professional use, the notion 'Anthropocene' is already a quite common intellectual staple that is driving debate in many scholarly circles, public audiences and has led to a fascinating rethinking of how to understand humankind in the world.

In retrospective, the ongoing societal and economic processes that change the dynamics of Earth systems could gain such a strong momentum because the early signals were not captured by the society and governments, although that research had identified them. The depletion of stratospheric ozone and its handling is possibly the exception [7]. As the climate change debates show, first signals got lost; and once signals were captured it took much work and time to agree on 'what to do', hopefully. The now unfolding anthropogenic global change will cause significant adjustments to people's living conditions in most parts of the globe. To tame these change processes, as far as possible, much geoscience know-how will have to be deployed in a socially sustainable manner.

Other dynamics of change of a comparative vigour than the anthropogenic global change process in the bio-geosphere are shown, for example, in fields like information technologies for 'artificial intelligence' or bio-technologies for 'synthetic biology'. Anyhow, to what degree dynamics of change are comparable; the vigour of change in knowledge-based societies requires better linkages between researching, scientific study, technological development and 'ordinary' societal activities. Research, study and development in cooperation with citizen scientists would provide additional linkages. Subsequently, it should limit societal risk-taking to miss early signals about changes that likely modify citizen's daily life.


Global Change & Citizen Scientist

Considering citizen scientists as a possible resource; many people initially take a scientific education for another profession than doing research, scientific study or developing technology. More people are experience-based practitioners in matters that are researched. Thus, the number of people (i.e. citizens) that could get involved with research, science or technological development is bigger as the core of active researchers, scientists and engineers. Given that situation, these citizens are both an ancillary workforce, i.e. a crowd of experienced partners, and sources of additional insights that are rooted in their work and life experiences. Citizen scientists can bring these other insights into the research-science-technology endeavour. Also, through such participation the interferences and aggregated impacts of various intersecting change processes should get witnessed more early.

When considering the contemporary situation (i.e. of a knowledge-based society), namely that research results, scientific findings and technological developments rapidly get applied citizen science may be a test-bed for new insights and discoveries. Obviously, nowadays much testing is done before discoveries get applied; this is part of the research and technological development, and wide-ranging regulations frame these tests. Nevertheless, little testing happens in a comprehensive societal context following lines of conducts that are similar to 'clinical trials' in medical research. Furthermore, a test of research results, scientific findings and technological developments through trial and error as part of the daily societal practice may not be practical or even unethical. The downside of that situation is that the daily dealings of citizens may get changed much, the changes may come with little involvement from their side, and particular involvement upstream to the choices that will drive these change may be missed. Such a situation is a perfect receipt for frustration, resistance and obstruction. Given that situation, more comprehensive insight into the application of science, research and technological development is needed, which does both, it relates to daily practice and involves the citizen actively. Citizen science is a means to gain such insights for the benefit of both, the research providers and the public.


Citizen Geosciences

An example of the possible benefits of citizen geoscience is offered by the change process that the global bio-economy likely will mean for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals as El-Chichakli and colleagues write [8; p.222]: "A global bio-economy must rebuild natural capital and improve the quality of life for a growing world population. It should balance managing common goods, such as air, water and soil, with the economic expectations of people. Three types of innovation will be needed …Also needed will be citizen-science evaluations [my underlining] of new houses, local wood-recycling and construction efforts. Sustainable food systems will require advances in plant breeding, food products, and farming and cultivation techniques ….Inclusiveness and knowledge transfer are important."

Beyond noticing the limited scope of citizen science in bio-economy, as expressed by the authors, what should be questioned, the link between bio-economy to geosciences it is noteworthy. The link is made evident through referring to "common goods, such as air, water and soil" or "farming and cultivation techniques" that are essential geo-features of the 'human niche'.

As for many features of contemporary production systems and consumption patterns, the quote above provides evidence that their link with geosciences is seen implicit, at the best. Possibly, for most, it passes unnoticed although global bio-economy designed to "rebuild natural capital and improve the quality of life" actually means engineering at planetary scale. What that could mean regarding anthropogenic global change is witnessed by the modification of the global nitrogen cycle that happens – somewhat unnoticed – since the beginning of the 20th Century [9]. More practice of citizen sciences in geoscience projects should be a means to counter such negligence of otherwise knowledgeable people.

Summary: Citizen Geoscience is applied Geoethics

Water and colleagues [2] in their paper "The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene" stresses the relevance of functional change. It is the behaviours and practices of people that are built into production systems and consumption patterns of our societies, which bring the interactions with the Earth system, which result in this functional change of Earth dynamics, in turn. Under this perspective, a perspective of an anthropocentric Anthropocene, i.e.; human niche for a global population of billion people, geoethics is a common good that needs citizen involvement.

Therefore, to mention "appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system" as the general application case of geoethics, is crucial. Subsequently, fostering citizen science may be part of the professional activities of any geoscientist. It is applied geoethics.

Ukko El'Hob

[*] The reader looking for an account how citizen science activities evolved and a definition of it, such as "scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions" may refer to the respective entry in Wikipedia or the principles of good practice in citizen science offered by the European Citizen Science Association.

Literature:
[1] Foley, Stephen F., Detlef Gronenborn, Meinrat O. Andreae, Joachim W. Kadereit, Jan Esper, Denis Scholz, Ulrich Pöschl, et al. 2013. "The Palaeoanthropocene – The Beginnings of Anthropogenic Environmental Change." Anthropocene 3 (November): 83–88. doi:10.1016/j.ancene.2013.11.002. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213305413000404.

[2] Waters, Colin N., Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Clément Poirier, A. Gauszka, Alejandro Cearreta, et al. 2016. "The Anthropocene Is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene." Science 351 (6269) (January 8): aad2622–aad2622. doi:10.1126/science.aad2622. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aad2622.

[3] Ellis, Erle C. 2015. "Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere." Ecological Monographs 85 (3): 287–331. doi:10.1890/14-2274.1.

[4] Fuentes, Agustin. 2016. "The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Ethnography, and the Human Niche: Toward an Integrated Anthropology." Current Anthropology 57 (April 4): S000–S000. doi:10.1086/685684. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/685684

[5] Mensing, Scott, Irene Tunno, Gabriele Cifani, Susanna Passigli, Paula Noble, Claire Archer, Gianluca Piovesan 2016. "Human and climatically induced environmental change in the Mediterranean during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and Little Ice Age: A case from central Italy." Anthropocene (January 25). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ancene.2016.01.003.

[6] Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste. 2012. L’Apocalypse Joyeuse - Une Histoire Du Risque Technologique. Le Seuil.

[7] Wu, Yutian, Lorenzo M. Polvani, and Richard Seager. 2013. “The Importance of the Montreal Protocol in Protecting Earth’s Hydroclimate.” Journal of Climate 26 (12): 4049–4068.

[8] Beate El-Chichakli, Beate, Joachim von Braun, Christine Lang, Daniel Barben, Jim Philp (2016) Policy: Five cornerstones of a global bio-economy, Nature 353 (7611), Nature Publishing Group, Jul 12, 2016

[9] Morton, Oliver. 2015. The Planet Remade - How Geoengineering Could Change the World. Princton University Press

The initial version of this essay was prepared for the blog of the IAPG. A extended version was written after the author got informed about the speech of the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation at ESOF 2016 (23-27 July 2016); - doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00675.1, from which this blog-post is derived. Pictures: (i) Imaggeo, (ii) Author 

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