Sunday, 23 January 2022

Cape Town Geoethics– A Problem Statement

Martin Bohle, Dr. és sc.
ResearchGate D-4508-2014
- International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG)
- Ronin Research Scholar @edgeryders; Member of EGU, AGU
- recent publication: Geo-societal Narratives - Contextualising Geosciences 

Recent research into the societal context of geosciences led modern geo-philosophical frameworks to guide professionals and citizens when interacting with World and Planet Earth.  These frameworks combine insights into societal and geoscientific features of the World and Earth into a joint knowledge system (Bohle et al., 2020). Hence, how they are constructed is paramount.


Geo-philosophical frameworks are epistemic problems at the borderline of different knowledge domains (Renn, 2020).  Generally, these frameworks often are tacit about their philosophical foundations, exceptions apart (Frodeman, 2003; Marone and Bohle, 2020).  This silence is disadvantageous because the particular philosophical foundation determines how societal practices are understood when shaping the Human-Earth Nexus, the bundle of planet Earth, a planetary technosphere, and a hegemonic culture (Haff, 2014; Lemmens et al., 2017; Rosol et al., 2017; Dyer-Witheford, 2018; Dryzek and Pickering, 2019).  

Various modern geo-philosophical frameworks inspect the Human-Earth Nexus; see, for example (Zen, 1993; Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2012; Frodeman, 2014; Cherkashin and Sklyanova, 2016; Nikitina, 2016; Di Capua et al., 2017; Bohle, 2020).  These frameworks differ by an epistemic foundation in modern Earth System Literacy from earlier frameworks like noosphere (Vernadsky, 1945; Oldfield and Shaw, 2006; Korobova and Romanov, 2014) or Gaia (Lovelock J., 1979; Lovelock, 1990; Lenton and Van Oijen, 2002; Onori and Visconti, 2012).

The modern geo-philosophical frameworks apply, at least implicitly, realist-materialist epistemologies to understand geoscientific features (Bunge, 2006; Marone et al., 2019). Other epistemological concepts for geo-philosophical frameworks like hermeneutic phenomenology exist (Raab and Frodeman, 2002; Frodeman, 2014).  Hence, geo-philosophical frameworks are distinguished by their epistemic foundation and the specific philosophical foundations, which refer to insights into societal features and normative settings.  

Example: Cape Town Geoethics

The following illustrative description looks into the school of geo-philosophical frameworks called ‘geoethics’ because the author is familiar with it.  The analysis starts with a variant of geoethics, which was summarised in the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics (Di Capua et al., 2017) at the occasion of the 35th International Geological Congress and detailed in 2019 (Peppoloni et al., 2019); hence, for the following, this variant is called ‘Cape Town Geoethics’.

Among the notions that label modern geo-philosophical frameworks, geoethics stands out, despite the term having different connotations (Bohle and Marone, 2021b).  As an emergent moral philosophy, geoethics was defined (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2015b; p.4) as “research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system”.  Summarising the state-of-the-art of this school of thought, Peppoloni et al. (2019) describe Cape Town Geoethics as an aspirational virtue-ethics for the individual human agent acting at the Human-Earth Nexus.  Potthast (2021) defines geoethics as an epistemic-moral hybrid, and Peppoloni and Di Capua (2021a; p. 20) qualify an updated variant of Cape Town Geoethics as a “modern virtue-ethics”.  The Cape Town Geoethics and later variants are founded on (implicit) Kantian moral philosophies (Marone and Bohle, 2020).

Emerging within geology (Lambert, 2012), geoethics was an intra-disciplinary endeavour (Peppoloni, 2012a, 2012b; Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2015a, 2015b) striving for responsible geosciences (Manduca and Mogk, 2006; Mogk, 2018).  Although neighbouring fields such as environmental ethics (Yannacone, 1999; Martínez-Frías, 2008; Hourdequin, 2015), similar constructs in geosciences (Frodeman, 2003) and other disciplines (Forbes and Lindquist, 2000; Lynn, 2000; Cutchin, 2002; Kirby and Houle, 2004; Jennings et al., 2009), and open issues (Bohle and Di Capua, 2019) are known, these sources like general studies in ethics (see for example (Callahan and Engelhardt, 1981; Shearman, 1990; Han, 2015)) were not much explored.

Although the vastness of fields related to geoethics may be frightening, likely significant contributions are missed when staying ‘parochial’, as illustrated by the following example.  As designed from the onset (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2012), Cape Town 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), of which, however, those who pursue developing geoethics (the author included) have not been adequately and early aware.

Such experience of parochial circumstances motivated some authors to seek interdisciplinary exposure and study the philosophical foundations of Cape Town (Bohle et al., 2019; Marone and Marone, 2019; Marone and Bohle, 2020; Bohle and Marone, 2021a).  In due course of study, it became apparent that Cape Town Geoethics has a compound design and shows conceptual discontinuities.  For example, insights into the functioning of the Earth System (Earth Science Literacy) are gained by implementing realist-materialist philosophies.  However, the geoethical practice of comparative Justice is founded on aspirational norms, which implement subjectivist-idealist moral philosophies.  Consequently, the geo-philosophical framework underpinning Cape Town Geoethics is hybrid, and it is exceeding the realm of a realist-materialist scientific epistemology (Bunge, 2006).  

 Acknowledging the compound design of Cape Town Geoethics led to the understanding that variants are possible on the same epistemic foundation in Earth Science Literacy.  Conceptually, alternatives of the Cape Town Geoethics can be constructed by choosing a specific philosophy for insights into societal features and normative settings.  Hence, Cape Town Geoethics is one of several geo-philosophical frameworks (epistemic-moral hybrids).  Subsequently, the authors explored variants by using Kohlberg’s, Jonas’, and Bunge’s political philosophies to account more explicitly for societal features (Marone and Bohle, 2020), such as the level of cooperation (Kohlberg, 1981), the responsibility of agents of change (Jonas, 1984), and the balance of individual wellbeing and duty (Bunge, 1989).  

Several valuable features characterise Cape Town Geoethics, its predecessors and variants, which, however, may need examination:

  • First, the autonomy of the human agent is the pivotal tenet of any variant of Cape Town Geoethics, most explicit for the variant envisioning ecological humanism (Peppoloni and Di Capua, 2020; p.17).  The concept of autonomy of the human agent encapsulates the moral core of geoethics, applying a subjectivist-idealist philosophy for normative settings.  However, human autonomy is limited in any societal reality.  Human autonomy is contextual and not ‘categorial’ (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 framework ‘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’ or ‘functional plasticity’ is a central design feature of geoethics, acknowledging, for example for Cape Town 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)), aspirational norms give only limited guidance because these norms are categorical and independent of the agent, circumstance and audience. For example, the acclamations of the Geoethical Promise (Matteucci et al., 2014), such as “I will never misuse my geoscience knowledge, resisting constraint or coercion”, are praiseworthy. However, the question arises, how they can be applied given challenging circumstances of partial autonomy of human agents?


None of the current variants of geoethics (Cape Town Geoethics, its predecessors and variants) examined the impact of the limited autonomy (also understood as limited free agency) of human agents and related features.   This lacuna should be addressed within the general operational structure of the Cape Town Geoethics. Methodologically it could be done by enlarging its foundations with specific political and moral philosophies, which apply a realist-materialist scientific epistemology (Bunge, 2006) to understand the societal fabric.


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