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. "