Monday, 21 December 2015

Geoethics and the Anthropocene


To put the notions 'Geoethics' and 'Anthropocene' into a mutual context, this essay applies the notions 'engineering' and 'anthropogenic global change', and reflects on the 'noosphere' - the ensemble of people-people interactions and their 'shared mental concepts'. It is within the 'noosphere' that people conceive 'how to shape the world?'

The natural organisation of  the river system
The notion Anthropocene implies that processes of the geo-biosphere and processes in the noosphere intersect. Ethics appraises human behavior; geoethics concern human behavior in matters that involve the process of the bio-geosphere. The making of the anthropocene, be it either as a collateral effect of humankind's engineering or an intended outcome of alterations of the noosphere or the bio-geosphere, involve ethical issues. These issues are known, they are habitual to engineering and other professional work, although their application case may be new. In that situation, what provides orientations how to make the Anthropocene? What is particular to geoethics?

About 'Engineering'

To simplify; humankind is an engineering species. Biological evolution of people came in pair with tool-making capacity. Prehistoric and historical evolution of humankind meant to modify environments to appropriate resources [1, 2, 3, 4]. During the last century the number of people on Earth, the patterns of their consumption of resources, and the engineering of their environments together accumulate in a process of anthropogenic global change [5, 6, 7] leading to the Anthropocene. Now, re-engineering of production systems, consumption patterns and related intersections of human activities with the biotic and abiotic environment deemed to be a necessary endeavor [11 / 8], and is a central feature of the anthropogenic global change process.

Eventually water
Considering engineering in a philosophical context: (i) engineering is the intended, value-driven change of environments with the purpose to facilitate production and reproduction; for example infrastructures like shore defences, which visibly interact with the geosphere; (ii) engineering includes designing production systems, urban dwellings and consumption patterns that couple human activity with the geosphere through cycles of matter and energy; (iii) engineering is about how people govern the appropriation of living and non-living resources from the environment in view of their value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles.

Anthropogenic Global Change

It is obvious that people are altering Earth [9]; it is debated 'since when' and 'to what degree'? Humankind's activity has left traces in the geological record since the onset of agriculture in Neolithic ages [10, 11]. The industrial revolution has printed a signal into the geological records at a planetary scale [12, 13]. Since some decades, humankind's economic activity intersects the geosphere in a more general manner, either directly or mediated by the biosphere. The respective geological records scale are forming [14] at a planetary. So far, this kind of 'terraforming' was a collateral of the human economic activities to appropriate resources [15, 16, 17].

Anthropogenic global change is a historical process. It is linking how people interact with features of the planetary geo-biosphere, which are undertaken to sustain a population of now several billion people. This feature advocates renaming the present times Anthropocene, the time when humankind's activities modulate state and development path of planet Earth. Thus, it is the paradigm of present times that the production and consumption pattern of humankind causes fluxes of matter that modify earth-system dynamics. Going beyond any scientific meaning, the notion Anthropocene conveys a double message [5, 18]. First, that the development paths of humankind's history and natural earth-systems intersect. Second, that to understand global processes, it requires synthesizing social sciences, humanities and natural sciences [10, 16, 17, 20].

Low tide at Conwy esturay
Regarding how production systems and consumption patterns are organized in the context of anthropogenic global change, the guiding paradigms are 'adaptation' and 'mitigation', or named differently 'adjustment to change' and 'dovetailing of processes'. These paradigms are conventional; they fit well into the development path of engineering endeavors of the last centuries. However, their conscious application on a planetary scale is without precedent [21]. In this sense, people face a double habitual context. The available technological means, scientific understanding, and resources confine the engineering efforts. Within these limits, world-views determine the choices. Thus, the habitual ethical questions that engineering and geoscience imply in a general professional context now are put into a much more complex societal context. Thus, the making of the Anthropocene is as much a process of finding 'shared subjective insights' [22], as it results from the ‘material' intersection of humankind's economic activities and the bio-geosphere [12, 13].

To recall the obvious; when making choices people are driven by both, their world-views and preferences and their insights into societal, technical or natural processes. Within that context, the attitude of people towards risk, uncertainties, perception of facts and theories is different. People's choices vary with the context [23, 24], e.g. whether the own person, the kin, or the own group is concerned, or whether an action is immediate, has happened, or will happen in the future. The manner how the debate on climate change is evolving shows that this debate is about world-views [41]. Specialists, decision makers, and people ponder what are hypotheses, theories or facts. It is discussed how to handle uncertainty or hazards or whether to consider benefits for other people, in the past or for future generations [25]. Going beyond concerns like 'whether it is functioning', people intuitively tend to opt for what they consider as 'right' or 'worth' in the context of their individual world-view. When people are debating opportunities, change or risks then much of the debate is about 'virtue' and what course of action is 'worthwhile' [2, 26]; e.g. when appraising impacts and benefits during planning, construction and operation.

The great tree
Societies abundantly apply geoscience for their economic activities. Crafts-person, technicians, architects, and engineers apply geoscience know-how when engineering environments or creating artifacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. As experience with climate change showed, the cause-effect relations of the human geosphere intersections are difficult to determine. Many people may not recognize how much geoscience know-how is needed to gain insight into the interaction of human activities and processes in the geosphere. Notwithstanding any lack of conscious insight, the noosphere of contemporary societies and the geosphere are well coupled. The ensemble of people-people interactions and the application of their 'shared mental concepts' effect the geosphere once put to into practice through engineering.

Now that people have to handle anthropogenic global change, they have to choose how to re-engineer on a planetary scale the production systems, consumption patterns, and their natural, technical or cultural environments. Although such re-engineering would fit into the human culture, engineering global systems differ from previous engineering endeavors. The scale and complexity of the endeavor are different, because anthropogenic global change - e.g. climate change - prescribes global commons for all people, whether the change is collateral or purposeful.

Normal faults
Engineering anthropogenic global change is loaded with implicit societal issues to an unprecedented level because of the impact on all people. On one hand; is intended to engineer systems that have non-linear dynamics with feedback. Such systems exhibit chaotic dynamics that is difficult to forecast. Therefore, non-intended and counter-intuitive system behavior is likely. This feature renders design, implementation, and operation of engineering works challenging [27, 28,]. On the other hand; in the past when engineering could not tackle a problem successfully then emigration was an option. Evidently, leaving Earth is not an option. However, 'internal migration' to avoid the regional impact of the anthropogenic global change is an option that already is depicted by some as an emerging feature. That dimension of “non-escape” sharpens the ethical issues of engineered anthropogenic change.


Our species has acquired the power to engineer planet Earth. Anthropogenic global change is about engineering the intersections of human economic activities and the geosphere in function of people's world-views and preferences. As any engineering work, therefore, anthropogenic global change is subject to the human value-systems, which underpin people's world-views and preferences. In that context 'geoethics' extends the application case of human value-systems.

The overarching societal matters of anthropogenic global change are value-loaded, e.g. how to appropriate and distribute natural resources for what cost, accepted side-effects, and with what risk of further collateral effects. These ethical issues seem familiar regarding their general nature. However, their complexity has no precedence, simply because of the number of people with different world-views and preferences who will be subject to consequences of the choices made. In that particular context 'geoethics' means to extend the range of applied ethics to new subjects.

Sunset on the bog
People will appraise anthropogenic global change through their preferences, values, and world-views; and then will decide and react accordingly. To that end, the practitioners, professionals, and researchers who understand how intersections of human activity and geosphere function to bring anthropogenic global change, have to share their professional insights with decision makers and layperson and to debate value statements, world-views, and preferences. In that context 'geoethics' is about the ethics of expert advice.

If anthropogenic global change gets addressed as an engineering challenge, then the ethics of risk-taking, managing uncertainties or revising options will be needed in a context of applied geoscience [29]. Ethical dilemmas such as conflicting values, uneven distribution of risks, impacts, losses, and benefits, or collateral impacts like exposure to unexpected side-effects. Debates will be vigorous, e.g. whether a side-effect was to be expected or was intentional. The related range of scientific, technical and economic matters include their particular ethical issues namely whether scientific and engineering choices are professional ‘sound'. In that particular context 'geoethics' is about professional ethics.

So far people did not intend to modify planetary fluxes of matter and energy, although they were aware of the effect of their cumulative activities on the biosphere. People ignored the intersection of human economic activity with the geosphere. Nowadays having lost innocence, anthropogenic global change is an intentional act [30, 31]. In that particular context 'geoethics' is about taking responsibility.


This essay prepares my keynote ”Geoethik: Richtschnur für's Anthropozän” at the meeting 'nANO meets water VII'. The meeting is organized by the Fraunhofer UMSICHT Institute (Oberhausen, Germany) at 18th February 2016; see: The essay extends some reflections from my paper: Martin Bohle Handling of Human Geosphere Intersections, Geosciences 2015, (accepted).

Geoethics (Wikipedia; is the branch of ethics which relates to the interaction of human activity with our physical world in general, and with the practice of the Earth sciences in particular. It may also have relevance to planetary sciences. There are two international geoethics organizations, the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) and the International Association for Geoethics (IAGETH).

Geoethics (IAPG, consists of the research and reflection on those values upon which to base appropriate behaviors and practices where human activities intersect the Geosphere. It deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of geological research and practice, providing a point of intersection for Geosciences, Sociology, and Philosophy. Geoethics represents an opportunity for Geoscientists to become more conscious of their social role and responsibilities in conducting their activity, and Geoethics is a tool to influence the awareness of society regarding problems related to geo-resources and geo-environment.

Geoethics (IAGETH; is an interdisciplinary field between Geosciences and Ethics which involves Earth and Planetary Sciences as well as applied ethics. It deals with the way of human thinking and acting in relation to the significance of the Earth as a system and as a model. Not only geoeducational, scientific, technological, methodological and socialcultural aspects are included (e.g. sustainability, development, geodiversity and geoheritage, prudent consumption of mineral resources, appropriate measures for predictability and mitigation of natural hazards, geosciences communication, museology, etc.), but also the necessity of considering appropriate protocols, scientific integrity issues and a code of good practice, regarding the study of the abiotic world. Studies on planetary geology (sensu lato) and astrobiology also require a geoethical approach.


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Saturday, 29 August 2015

Thirteen #tweets on #evolution

Avant propose:  These very abstract statements summarize the processes that shaped and continue to shape the evolution of planet Earth, human cultures included. When the specific physical, chemical, biological and cultural processes are liberated from their respective details their common features come evident. These tweets aim to show the common thread of the simple processes that describe planetary evolution, which already have been researched to a fair stage [*]. 

1. The story of Planet Earth: the evolution of the geosphere, biosphere, and now the noosphere. Currently, the planetary evolution, driven by the human species and their noosphere, is heading towards the Anthropocene with an open outcome; climax or anticlimax depending on the cultural-evolution of societies of the human species. 
2. The science of evolution: a philosophical insight and a story about the development from stardust to social networks. Evolution has a much wider scope than describing 'survival of species'. Evolution is more than weeding out 'the least fit' for an environment with limited resources. Evolution is an iterative process to assemble and replicate increasingly complex structures. The key feature of biological evolution is self-replication, thus reproduction. Competition is for efficient processing of energy, matter and information to support reproduction.
3. Self-assembling: simple components aggregate to more complex structures. The aggregation of the components is spontaneous with in the respective environment. It happens without any other external driver. These "aggregated components" show new characteristics, which are more than the sum of the characteristics of their components. Getting their turn, these "aggregated components" spontaneously aggregate again; and so on.
4. Replication: copying an original structure. Replication is about, at least, to keep a copy of the initial structure while the original structure has broken apart. Replication is achieved, if that process has come through before the "to be replicated" structure starts to break up. Thus, the replication process is competitive. An efficient replication process multiplies the original structure before it breaks up. A replication may not be entirely faithful but approximate only and, so, leads to variants of the original structure.
5. Self-replication: structures replicate themselves. A self-replicating structure is understood as "living". The self-replicating process is called reproduction. An approximately self-replicating structure is changing its features, and that is what biological evolution is about.
6. Reproduction - boundaries: self-replication confined to an enclosed space. “Stuff” outside a closed boundary is excluded from the replication; that's self-replication. Boundaries limit the “self-replicating structure” and its “environment”. Excluding structures outside a limiting boundary from a replication process turns that replication process into a reproduction process. Reproduction is about reading and applying information for the purpose to replicate a “limited structure” before it breaks up. Thus, reproduction is about processing a limited set of information in a race against time.
7. Reproduction - targets: First, to timely access resources outside the limits of the structure that is reproducing itself. These resources are energy and matter. Second, to appropriately transfer these resources into the structure that is to reproduce. Third, use these resources for reproduction; thus building a new structure with its proper outer boundary. For successful reproduction, these three targets have to be met before the 'to be replicated' structure breaks up.
8. Reproduction - fitness: modest reproduction efficiency. Namely that, within a limited elapse of time and for the purpose to self-replicate, a limited structure transports matter as well as energy and processes information. Evolution happens if the self-replication is not faithful. Reproduction errors occur and variations of the original structure form with varying efficiency. The least fit variants do not replicate before they break-up, so they “die” and other survive.
9. Living beings - All: evolution initially targeted the efficiency of the processes for transport of matter and use of energy within the "limited structures" and across their outer boundaries. Eventually, evolution focused on the efficiency of the processes that handle sensor inputs, processing information and supporting communication between "self-replicating structures" of the same kind.
10. Living beings – humans: A "self-replicating limited structure". Humans, to improve its reproductive fitness, are specialising in intra-species communication and scenario building. Both is supported by a massively expanded capacity (the mind-brain-organ) for processing information. The individual "self-replicating limited structure" aggregate in groups with strong internal bonds to compete with other groups for efficient processing of energy, matter and information.
11. Noosphere - Society: Many groups of “self-replicating limited structures" interact to process information for the purpose to improve the efficiency of the handling of matter and energy in support of their "self-replication".
12. Noosphere - Culture: Designed external environment of the “self-replicating limited structures” purposefully set up to handle matter and energy in support of the “self-replication” of these structures.
13. On the way: Much has happened since stars lighted up fusing the matter that makes our bodies. Much has happened before mind-culture systems, societies, developed along the path of evolution. Now, the number of human beings and their manner of reproduction are such that we squeeze the biosphere of planet Earth. The combined strength of humans is sufficient to shape the geosphere of planet Earth. Thus, we are starting the Anthropocene. Unhappily currently humans behave like an invasive species, showing little control of a sustainable resource consumption.

[*] some references:
Baje Todd J. and Jon M. Erlandson 2013, Looking forward, looking backward: Humans, anthropogenic change, and the Anthropocene, Anthropocene 4, pp.116-121.
Bonneuil Christophe and Fressoz Jean-Baptiste 2013, L'événement Anthropocène - La terre, l'histoire et nous, Le Seuil p. 271.
Hazen Robert M. 2012, The Story of Earth, Viking Pinguin, p. 306 .
Langmuir Charles H. and Wally Broecker 2012, How to build a habitable planet, Princeton University Press, p. 718.
Landes 2003, The Unbound Prometheus – Technological change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present (second edition), Cambridge University Press, p. 576.
Lieberman Matthew D. 2013, Social – Why our brains are wired to connect, Oxford University Press, p. 374 .
Pagel Mark 2012, Wired for Culture. Origins of the Human Social Mind, W.W. Norton & Company New York, p. 423.
Schwägerl Christian 2014, The Anthropocene – The human era and how it shapes our planet, Synergetic Press 2014,p. 235.
Wilson Edward O. 2014, The Meaning of Human Existence, W.W. Norton & Company New York, p.207.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Engineering the Anthropocene

We humans are an engineering species, pushing the frontier of what we know to engineer. Fully embedded in that aeon-old tradition and now facing anthropogenic change, engineering of earth-system dynamics is on our agenda. It will happen through greening of production systems and may happen through decoupling of production and ecosystems (ecomodernism) or modifying processes of the earth-systems (geoengineering). 

         Reservoir in the Italian Alps (Daniele Penna)
Modern people are re-engineering Earth, although involuntarily, by their number and consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources. We are "terraforming by number". 

Albeit standing in an aeon-old tradition, greening, ecomodernism or geo-engineering differs from habitual engineering endeavours of our species. Anthropogenic global change - e.g. climate change - prescribes global commons for all people, irrelevantly how these commons alter. The impact on all people loads this engineering endeavour, anthropogenic global change, with an unprecedented level of implicit value-issues.

Human Geosphere Intersections

Nowadays the humankind's impact on geosphere has reached a magnitude that it is proposed to re-name the present geological time as "Anthropocene" (Todd and Erlandson 2013). Scientists still debate the timing of the onset of the Anthropocene. Some fix it at 16th July 1945 the explosion of the first atomic bomb because that date could be a marker for the onset of "great acceleration" (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014).

Agrarian landscape of Marche region (Daniela Pennesi)
The notion Anthropocene convenes a double insight. First that development paths of the history of humankind and earth-systems intersect. Second that the sphere of our intra-species interactions between people (be it: technical, economic, social, cultural, artistic, public, collective or individual interactions) now are an intrinsic part of the earth-systems of the "Anthropocene" (Bergthaler Hannes et al. 2014).

Oil pump jack in Luling, Texas (Stephanie Zihms)
Societies abundantly apply geosciences. Most of the engineering works for transport systems, energy systems, dwellings, agriculture, waste treatment, etc. have the overarching function to dovetail economic activities with the geosphere. Craftsmen, technicians, architects and engineers apply geoscience insights when engineering environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the stability of foundations, or ventilation of buildings. Understanding the features of rock, soil, water and air is essential for the production of many goods. Also, maintaining living conditions and individual well-being is impossible without applying insights into the functioning of the intersections of human activities and the geosphere. These insights (Langmuir and Broecker 2012) may not be recognized as particular because they are part of the noosphere as experiences, common sense, general education or specific vocational training.

Many people living in Western cultures perceive the scenario of anthropogenic change as a threat to their lifestyle and well-being. Non-surprisingly, jointly with the perception of ‘being threatened' the classical response pattern of our species also emerged: "engineering of Human Geosphere Intersections" is proposed.

Rice field in the delta d'Ebre
(Claudia Grossi)
The first engineering option, ‘incremental greening of production systems' is about dovetailing anthropogenic and natural fluxes of matter to mitigate human impact on earth-systems. Today that engineering approach is already a confirmed feature of governmental steering of production systems; the public debate mainly is about the pace and degree of ‘greening'. The historical forerunner of that engineering option seem to be the energy-limited economies prior to the industrial revolution (Brown 2012, Fressoz 2012) that focussed on resource efficiency.

The second engineering option, “Ecomodernism” (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015) is the most recent branch of thought within the philosophical trail of "better engineering". Its protagonists advocate pushing urbanisation and non-fossil fuel power production to a level that matter is cycling predominately within the human economy. They argue that an economy of a stable human population of mainly urban lifestyle could decouple from the geosphere and biosphere to a fair degree. That engineering option seems to be the classical philosophical choice of Western, industrialised societies, namely to gain independence from nature.

 takes a sample with his grabber.
(MARUM, Germany)
The third engineering option, ‘geo-engineering’ is about how to adjust earth’s physical and bio-geological systems so that their modified functioning counters the impact of human economic activities on fluxes of matter and energy. That engineering option possibly seems to be the classical aeon-old cultural action of our species, namely to adjust the environment to our ways of being (Corner and Pidgeon 2010).

Each of these options exhibit the conventional human response pattern in face of problems, namely to tackle them through engineering the environment. Anyhow, irrespectively of the option taken all three options put the understanding of the intersection of human economic activity and geosphere forcefully into the centre of the lifestyle of all people.

Ethics at Human Geosphere Intersections

The intersection of people's activities and the geosphere is not a major storyline in European (Western) history. Nevertheless, history could be re-written for example as a story of engineering hydraulic works for irrigation systems, waterways, power-systems or sanitary systems (Pierre-Louis Viollet 2000) that were built to intersect human activity and geosphere.

In order to facilitate production and reproduction, engineering is the intended, value-driven change of environments. To that end, engineering includes building of infrastructures like shore defences, which purposefully and visible interact with the geosphere. Likewise engineering includes designing production systems, urban dwellings and consumption patterns, which firm but invisible couple with the geosphere through cycles of matter and energy. Last not least engineering is about how people govern the appropriation of living and non-living resources from the environment. Thus engineering is about value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles.

The processes and phenomena that describe the intersections of human economic activity and geosphere are omnipresent, although they may pass unnoticed by many. The life of people will alter when the intersections of the noosphere, biosphere and geosphere gets modified. People will judge the alternations on the basis of their values and insights into these intersections.

Stratospheric ozone depletion was the first global change process identified that got regulated including engineering choices (replacing coolants). As illustrated by the phenomenon of stratospheric ozone depletion, exact cause-effect relations are difficult to determine and regulate. The processes that govern the dynamics of the Human Geosphere Intersections are non-linear, networked and therefore dynamics are complex and difficult to forecast (Allenby and Sarewitz 2011). For any of the three engineering options to alter the Human Geosphere Intersections (‘greening'-, ‘ecomodernising'- or ‘geo-engineering') ethical dilemmas and non-intended effects are to be expected.

The ethical dilemmas will take the form of conflicting values and uneven distribution of risks, impacts, losses and benefits. The non-intended effects may range from compromising basic needs to challenging individual lifestyles. Consequently, ethics of risk-taking, managing uncertainties or exploring and revising options will be needed when altering Human Geosphere Intersections.


Erosion at work (Joern Behrens)
At the beach on the island of Juist (German Bight)
wind of approx. 5 Bft erodes sand quickly,
but the shells keep a number of small "hoodoos"...
Humans are an engineering species. That was a successful approach, so far, as the recent exponential growth of number of people showed. The engineering power of our species is now up to the point that people start to transform the geosphere, e.g. are starting the Anthropocene. So far, the transformation was non-intended, non-planned, not engineered. This phase of history comes to its end, now the intended transformation of Human Geosphere Intersections is scheduled: be it through 'greening', 'ecomodernism' or 'geoengineering'. What ever the particular choices will be, they will be value-loaded interventions into the intersections of humankind's activities and the geosphere. Therefore, geoethics of an engineering species for a mature Anthropocene are needed. 

Ukko Elhob
Credit for pictures: imaggeo &  Press des Ponts
Allenby, Branden R. and Daniel Sarewitz 2011, The techno-human condition, MIT Press, 222p.
Asafu-Adjaye, John et al. 2015, An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April 2015,
Bergthaler Hannes et al. 2014, Mapping Common Ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History, and the Environmental Humanities, Environmental Humanities Vol. 5, pp. 261-276
Brown, Azby 2012, Just Enough: lessons in living green from traditional Japon, Tuttle Publishing, 231p.
Corner and Pidgeon 2010, Geoengineering the climate: The social and ethical implications, Environment 52(1), p.24-37
Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste 2012, L'Apocalypse joyeuse - Une histoire du risque technologique, Le Seuil 312p.,
Langmuir Charles H. and Wally Broecker 2012, How to build a habitable planet, Princeton University Press 718p.
Todd J. Baje and Jon M. Erlandson 2013, Looking forward, looking backward: Humans, anthropogenic change, and the Anthropocene, Anthropocene (4), p.116-121
Viollet, Pierre-Louis 2000, L'hydraulique dans les civilisations Anciennes, Presses Ponts et Chausssées, 374p.
Zalasiewicz et al. 2014, When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid-twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal, Quaternary International (Available online 12 January 2015 )

Friday, 8 May 2015

International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) - Official Blog: Geoethics as transdisciplinary meeting grounds...

...: Geoethics as transdisciplinary meeting grounds by Felix Riede Felix Riede (Head of the  Department School of Culture & Society, Aarhus University, Denmark; email: quoted:

 "..past human-environment relations and the impact of extreme environmental events – especially volcanic eruptions – on past communities. Attending the session on geoethics struck a deep cord with me. Several of the presented papers promoted a more explicit ethical engagement of geologists with society through the medium of geoheritage and geological practice. Martin Bohle in particular argued that narrative tools – stories – could be employed as powerful tools for generating interest in and engagement with issues such as environmental degradation, pollution, sustainability and risk. What I find interesting here is that this use of narrative as a way of bridging science, policy-making and public engagement is promoted in very similar terms by sociologists and scholars in what is called the Environmental Humanities. "

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Earth-centricity and Story-telling

This essay is discussing narratives as a means for people to associate themselves  with the intersection of people's activities with the geosphere.


As the anthropologists discovered, the human species is a storyteller by evolution. 

Nowadays, engineering and science are part of human story-telling, although their subjects seldom are treated as part of mainstream stories; with the exception of dramatic or outstanding events that reach the headlines. Still, the exception to the exception is the daily weather forecast, which is the geoscience narrative par excellence, possibly with a history reaching back deep into prehistoric times. 

Credits: imaggeo - Irene Marzolff "Dung Cakes"
Engineering and science shape the intersections of humans and their environments including intersections with the “geosphere”. Some of these intersections are more obvious, such as motorways, irrigation systems, hydro-power plants or shore defences. Others are less obvious, such as slope stabilisation, pumping of groundwater, sewage water treatment or beach nourishment. And further intersections, such as anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification or habitat fragmentation, only are recognized through science-based insights into earth-systems.

Narratives, thus stories should be a means for citizens to exchange about their intersections with the “geosphere”.

Traditional and Modern Context of Story-telling

Credits: imaggeo Saskia Keestra "Irrigation canal"
Most traditional earth-centric narratives of rural communities of earlier times have been lost or got modified radically in the global industrialisation process. These stories encapsulated advice and justification for a behaviour that shall sustain stable intersections with the “geosphere”; mainly focussing on how to shape the use of natural resources such as plants, animals, soil, farm land, water or ecosystems such as forest. These stories were means to sustain the intersection of people’s activity and the geosphere. To stay effective these stories related to the “sacrum”, thus to matters that are explained with faith-based reasoning, upon values and beliefs referring to the supernatural, which generally are common and shared in the community. In Greek mythology, for example, gods and people were affected by observed geo-forces. 

When natural phenomena were not explicable with the use of available knowledge and technologies shared social constructions of believes prevailed. Many events, which today are understood as ordinary and understood by scientific approaches, in the past had been considered extraordinary and narrated as such. Faith and referring to the marvellous were used to explain phenomena, to rule the exploitation of limited and common resources, finally to preserve the ecosystem/environment in which the community was settled. Some traditional rural, alpine or other isolated cultures maintained these approaches into modern times. 

Credits: imaggeo Liping Pang  "Deer Park, 
Queenstown, New Zealand"
This kind of thinking, although it is based on faith and belief, is encoding accumulated experience. It had the function to coerce the believer into a behaviour that is favourable for sustained existence. To encode proven practices into rituals that are relating to the “sacrum” takes time and effort, as cognitive science of religion describes. When established the rituals are stable in a given environment in spite of being ‘costly’ to the people. However the rituals can be broken beyond repair if the faith-bases, value and beliefs are disrupted, for example by scientific explanation of phenomena. Thus traditional earth-centric behaviour erodes if its sacrum-based foundations are questioned. 

Science and technology, industrialisation and global urbanisation require a different kind of earth-centric story-telling as traditional earth-centric stories. Now, at the fringe of the Anthropocene, people can base their earth-centricity on substantial knowledge base, mature scientific insight combined with lessons inherited from the past. Likewise modern “earth-centricity” can be built, within a historical context and a robust ethic vision, on humanities and the insight in the decisions and choices of the past that led to the modern world and people's power to intersect with the “geosphere”

Credits: imaggeo Antonio Jordanm "Fieldtrip"
Thus, taking a comprehensive account of natural science and research, humanities and history, anthropology, philosophy and politics shall give the possibility to tell a story, first, of the unplanned making of the Anthropocene and, second, how to shape a mature Anthropocene . The richness of such a narrative allows to counter dooms-days scenarios, which finally would hamper action, and which therefore are deeply non-ethical.

Applying these insights regarding traditional and modern story-telling, narratives seems particular needed for urban people, thus for more than half of the global population. Urban people rarely can notice how the “geosphere” intersects with their daily dealings. The built-up urban environment hides phenomena - putting weather and disasters a bit aside - that inform how much the local “geosphere” had been engineered to make that environment matching people's needs and preferences.

Narratives are a form of communication, by that expertise in sciences and humanities can meet insights in practices and values of practitioners of common trades or laypersons. Art, history and quotidian environment provide many opportunities for earth-sciences story-telling; they range from geomorphology to art including reference to the ‘sacrum’ - short list of examples:
  • The obvious: The Colorado River is a story about people intersecting with the geosphere. It has cut the Grand Canyon (USA) but does not flow into the sea because its waters are withdrawn for irrigation.
    Credit: imaggeo Ioannis Daglis
    "Colorado Horseshoe Bend"
  • The ordinary: The motorway stretching east from Brussels cuts through a strip of heather-covered sandy hills. These aeolian depositions originated from dry-laying basin of the North Sea during ice-age.
  • The pleasant: The Lago Banyoles in Spain has no outlet and is fed by bottom-springs of slaty water. This geologically young lake may end as salt lake hosting flamingos feeding on brine shrimp.
  • On art: Nature and scenery are two subjects presented by artists since ancient times. Paintings capturing landscapes of past times narrate about transformations. Paintings or mosaics show the extent of natural events, like eruptions or floods, modified landscapes.
  • On history: Human activities has marked landscapes with mining-sites, irrigation channels, abandoned networks of local trains and names that narrates of the waters or settlements on sandy soils.
  • More on history: At the time of the eruption of the Vesuvius, artists painted in many of the richest patrician houses reproductions of the volcano before the tragic event. These paintings have been discovered by archaeologists during excavations, and they helped to reconstruct the shape of the volcano, the neighbouring landscape along the coast between Ercolano and Pompei, and the engineering works of the Romans such as aqueducts and roads.
  • On the 'sacrum'; Crater Lake is situated in a caldera in south-central Oregon. It has neither inflow nor outlet, and is known for water clarity and thus its deep blue colour (reflecting the sky and backscattering blue light from the water). The lake is deep, it was formed around 7.700 years ago by collapse of a volcano. To settle water balance of the lake evaporation is compensated by rain and snowfall, and thus the renewal of the lakes water-body is slow taking 250 years. It is a unique lake that previously was a sacred site for the native Klamath tribe. Their legends tell of battling gods, of sky and underworld. The volcano was destroyed in the battle, creating Crater Lake. Still nowadays, the Klamath people regard Crater Lake as a spiritual site.


Credit: imaggeo Ragnar Sigurdson
"Cooking Bread with Geothermal Heat"
People are engineers, even the artist; and engineers are artist. All people build and shape their environments to their taste and needs, applying their understanding of opportunities and constraints. In doing so, they intersect with the “geosphere” to a stronger or lesser degree, contentiously, consciously, naively or blindly. Perceptions, insights and values of people shape how they handle that intersection. Thus, implicitly a kind of geoethics is part of their culture.

Above this, people like stories. Media flood public with stories, bringing events and people into context, and make value-loaded judgements on behaviour of people and appreciation of events. Narratives – story-telling or narration as synonyms - acknowledge that people develop insights mainly by sharing stories. Communication leads people to shape their abstract mental concepts, to compare them with observations, to confront them with critical thoughts or creative ideas, to assess the cultural and social background, to make value statements and to express ethical views finally. Story-telling is a skilful human practice to describe perception of values in different contexts, to spread or to challenge their application. People are enforcing common views including values by sharing stories in their groups of peers.

Cedits: imaggeo Danielle Penna Alpin reservoirt
People's narratives about their intersections with the geosphere have evolved throughout history. Erstwhile widespread narratives about supernatural agents ruling this intersection, which were known many people, have been replaced by scientific descriptions, which are known by some people; and sharing of earth-centric narratives among people ceased. However, as illustrated by the examples presented above, many opportunities exist nowadays for narratives on intersections of people's activities and the geosphere. These narratives have a rich content with many features but science-elements only. Thus modern earth-centric narratives can be told about people and their intersections with the geosphere. These narratives can be positive in content, may overcome doomsday-cry, and do not need faith in the supernatural for being means to enforce constructive behaviour favourable for sustained existence.

Credit: imaggeo Geology for Global Development
"Guatemala City"
To get public awareness for narratives on intersections of people's activities and the geosphere, they have to be spun to reaches conversations of citizens, and therefore they have to be anchored in daily events. Thus, these narratives have to be both earth-centric and society-centric. Opportunities for society-earth-centric narratives are multiple, because earth-science know-how is relevant for both economy and value setting in contemporary societies. Earth-science know-how bears on both the production of goods, living conditions and individual well-being and on insights into the functioning of Earth's systems, the impact of humankind's activities on biogeochemical systems on Earth, and the evolution of live-bearing planets. When interwoven with arts, linguistic and cultural histories, this double bearing can offer a rich matrix for earth-society-centric narratives of people's intersections with the geosphere.


Credits: imaggeo Cyri Mayaud "Planina polje flooded"
Summarizing, why 'modern earth-science narratives are needed'? Namely, to influence practices on how people's activities intersect the “geosphere”. How to narrate? By weaving diverse concerns into common threads that draw on a wide range of perspectives: be it beauty or particularity of ordinary or special phenomena, evaluating hazards for or from mundane environments, or connecting the scholarly investigation with concerns of citizens at large. To increase general interest in earth-science narratives attention of various social groups have to be gained, which have access to a high density of information. To reach these groups, digestible rich messages are needed. Earth-science topics have to be woven into culturally rich narrations of multiple forms that offer a wide range of perspectives how people's activities intersect the “geosphere”, so that people can connect to them and thus associate themselves with geoethics, in the end.

Ukko El'Hob