Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Reading Between Years, Somehow About the Anthropocene

Often I read several books in parallel. It is enriching because of the feedback between different matters and the competition of the authors for the reader's attention.

The ongoing reading is a triphthong of 'Thinking fast and slow' by Daniel Kahneman, 'Die Unterwerfung der Welt: eine Globalgeschichte der europäischen Expansion 1415-2015' by Wolfgang Reinhard, and 'Germany – Memories of a Nation' by Neil MacGregor; now finished.

The latter book caught my fullest attention, also because it came in a favourite position. It was a birthday present of a brother and it was a paper edition. Why got it my attention? First, when children play around, then reading a paper book (that is a present) still feels more social as reading an ebook (Sorry Daniel!). Reinhard's book is physically out of reach at our second place of living. So, Neil had an eased game. However his book relates to the work of the other authors and that feature captured my attention immediately.

Neil reflects how [collective] culture is perceived and expressed within Germany; taking a [somewhat British] look on German history. His arguments are well researched and resonate with the reader (me) to a fair degree. However the arguments are mainly associative, and I wonder what kind of association a French, Russian or Italian author may offer.

This kind of [rapid] associative thinking [compared to slow reflective thinking] is what Daniel describes as “system 1” at the level of the individual; i.e. our ability to come up with [first and sometimes wrong] answers nearly instantaneous. Neil's book indicates that the same manner of thinking also might be found at collective, cultural level; possibly describing what other would call a “meme” [*]; i.e. a self-replicating idea. When this view is correct, it is to ask 'what is system 2' [Daniel's notion] at cultural and collective level?

Going beyond an introspective view, Neil describes power projection in German and European context. The projection [mainly] is by soft means, however often taken up once the hard action had been taken. Power projection is the subject of Reinhard's book; in European and at global context. As an historian Reinhard describes the purposeful articulation of soft and hard means and names the actor, or group of actors who project the power. Neil tells more about those who had been instrumental, so that projection comes possible.

I' m looking forward to read more of the Daniel's and Reinhard's book, possibly in junction with further works. To that end my upcoming reading likely will include 'Earth in Human Hands – shaping our planet's future' by D. Grinspoon and 'The Culture of Growth – the origin of modern economy' by J.Mokyr or 'The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective' by Robert C. Allan.

These books came into focus because of my past reading, e.g. 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' by Bill Bryson. The latter extends the current reading into both, the wider history of enlightenment at the root of a scientific world view and the specific path of gathering understanding of how our planet evolved including our species; both subjects are an European and an unfinished project. The upcoming reading is much about the making of the Anthropocene, its past chapter and a possible coming chapter. The past chapter concerns, again an European project, i.e. the making of the industrial revolution. The coming chapter, evidently is a global chapter although with strong, when not hegemonial European taint. Europe a group of people that projected their views to any place all over the globe. When that is fact, what does it imply, e.g. in terms of responsibility. I wonder what Neil may...

[*] “A meme (/ˈmiːm/ meem) is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. ”

Monday, 12 December 2016

Evolution, or on the Path to the Noosphere

First, there was the Geosphere, then the Biosphere and now the Noosphere. 
This sequence is the time-line of evolution.

Initially, on Earth, chemical, geological, geochemical evolution emerged. The biological evolution followed. It leads to the progressive development of cell, body systems and body-mind systems. Offspring of the latter were mind-culture systems that formed societies. All these systems together are information processors and communicators. So far, a conceptual, general frame. However, what is the storyline behind this frame?

Well, To Start Off Simple...

10 billion years ago, stars formed out of hydrogen. Hydrogen is the simplest chemical element. It combines a single proton and a single electron. The first stars fused hydrogen in their cores to form more complex chemical elements, such as deuterium, lithium and also carbon or iron. These chemical elements are the ashes of stars burning away. Once stars reach the end of their lifetime, they 'explode to implode', i.e. forming what we call a supernova. This explosion blasts the ashes, i.e. the newly fused chemical elements into space. New stars form, fuse and explode; more and more heavier elements are formed Now, from these ashes minerals could develop, combining different chemical elements into more complex structures. From these structures, further more complex structures can be made, like planets.

When these minerals had aggregated into forming planets, like Earth had several billion years ago, they evolve in a new fashion. Chemical processes transform original minerals into other minerals, be they simple too but different or be they more convoluted. Various chemical processes combine into process-loops, and so, the Geosphere is forming. Eventually, geochemistry of planets developed as well as their particular geology. Different pools of matter form in the Geosphere, be it in the deeper layers of the planets, or close to the surface, taking on solid, liquid or gaseous forms. Matter exchanges between these pools and flows in closed pathways repetitively, exhibiting geochemical cycles.

...from astrophysics to geology.

After an elapse of time, increasingly repetitive chemical processes developed. These processes are more complex than the simple transformation of minerals in geochemical cycles. Often, particular processes take place on the surface of minerals because these surfaces provide geometrical shapes that ease the development of complex chemical structures, including their replication. In time, some billion years ago, replication of complex chemical structures had reached a state of abundance on Earth, and there were polymers everywhere. As more different stuff, such as minerals and polymers were around, as more and more intricate process could appear. At that moment, Earth's chemical processes had evolved into a phase where 'living beings' could emerge.

Replication of structures is an essential, primary key feature of life. With time, the different replication processes combined and reproduction could appear. This new feature could emerge once the replication processes had stabilised and diversified so that an abundance of 'more of about the same' could be produced.

Take A Bit Of Evolution...

At first, the simplest 'living beings' consisted of a boundary layer of polymers that formed an enclosed surface around some particular substances and segregated them from other surrounding matter. When this boundary layer also surrounded the specific substances that are needed for the replication processes, then the 'closed boundary layer' gets a promising future. Suppose that raw material (i.e. food and energy) is available then more of the enclosing boundary can be produced. Consequently, growth is possible, both in size and numbers. Particularly interesting would be to attain a further skill, namely also to replicate the specific substances that handle the replication process for the boundary layer. When that is happening, then self-replication may happen and 'more of about the same' may grow, i. e. more enclosed boundary layers. We would be tempted to call this 'a cell'.

The primary function of boundary layers is to segregate lumps of matter from each other and other matter. Boundary layers are a fundamental, key feature of 'living beings'. Boundary layers are the interface that controls interaction with other 'living beings' and between a 'living being' and its environment. These interactions take the form of selected fluxes of matter, energy and information across the boundary layer that limits the 'living being'.

The emergence of 'self-replicating enclosed boundary layers for selected cross-boundary fluxes of matter, energy and information' mark the onset of the biological evolution. When the biological evolution feeds back into the chemical-geological evolution of a planet, i.e. the Earth then a Biosphere is forming.

...making stuff, more and more.

Controlled interaction of 'living beings' ends when they die. At that time, the protecting boundary layers break up. Therefore to secure sustained existence of life, 'living beings' have to replicate before they die. Thus for survival, a self-replicating 'living being' has to do this sufficiently often before ceasing to exist, at least once but better more often.

A 'living being' may survive if the self-replication or reproduction process produces copies of it in sufficient quantity and quality. These copies do not have to be perfect and many; just 'a-bit-more-of-about-the-same' will do it. The replicates may vary when compared to the original. However, for the reproduction process to be sustainable, they have to fit into the environment they find themselves in, into the fluxes of matter, energy and information across the enclosing boundary functions.

Reproduction is a process of 'copy-and-paste-me into the environment' that produces 'a bit more of about the same'. The slight variation of the replicated 'living being', when compared to its forebear, is essential for survival. It is a means to open chances to cope with changes that are occurring in its environment. There is a small probability that some of the variants fit reasonably well, by chance to the varied environment, by chance. This fit will ease their replication. Any misfit will hinder replication. In case that resources are few, then the least-fit may not replicate.

Variation is intrinsic to most replication processes because they are faulty, i.e. they produce "just about the same". Fully accurate, faithful replication would hinder survival because of a likely misfit with the environment that has changed. On the other hand, a severe faulty replication would hinder survival because of losing functionality of the 'living being'. The trick for survival is to replicate in a suitable quantity and quality, each replication being a peculiar but slight variation of the forebear. Biological evolution has to follow this approach, and throughout the billion years, it has traced a path muddling through a wide range of possible changes.

...making sense off, at least a bit.

Awareness about one's environment is the key strategy to finding a development path; a very successful strategy indeed, as evolution has shown. It has led to the development of receptors, sensors, signalling systems, nervous systems, and eventually brains, minds and finally culture, society and (digital) technology. What all these different features have in common is that they are means of capturing and processing information about the environment they are belonging, with the purpose of better managing the exchange processes with it. In the end, this leads to a better control of the various exchange processes in support of survival through reproduction.

To Add A Bit Of Complexity...

Evolved brains, thus very complex nervous systems, are carriers of minds or intelligence - initially very simple, with limited skills. Minds have emerged as a new feature in the course of the evolution of 'living beings', once the complexity of their nervous systems had sufficiently developed. Beyond exhibiting other features, minds are internal, virtual representations of the outer world, the environment around the 'living beings'. The brain holds these virtual representations; thus, it is the carrier of the mind.

The information about the external environment that is part of the mind results from inputs that were captured by the receptors and interpreted by sensors. These inputs trigger signals. The nervous system transmits and aggregated these signals. The brain processes these signals in complex manners. It may be, or not that a previous representation of the outer world is modified, and the mind represents the external environment in a different manner. Any of these representations, which we may call 'perceptions', are internal to the 'living being', and they are virtual in the same sense of the word as it is used in information technology. These virtual representations form a kind of 'mental objects' that are created from heavily processed signals. These internal, virtual mental objects represent a somewhat distorted image of the external world; the distortion may vary. In many cases, the representations that are part of by human mind is quite faithful and can be used to guide our actions, .i.e. to drive a car. Some are crap, and other may be fancy and fashionable but without match outside the mind, e.g. souls, ghosts and gods. Thus, the mental object may evolve further due to internal processes of the brain and finally the object may get disparate from any faithful representation of the external environment. Be these virtual representations as they may, these virtual and mental objects represent significant drivers for the 'living beings'; e.g. people are guided by their dreams and visions for the better or the worth of their survival, i.e. reproduction.

...getting virtual, getting  viral.

Some hundred million years ago, these internal, virtual drivers were a new, emerging feature produced by the evolution of bodies, i.e. nervous systems. The evolution was slow. Finally, mind-setting for survival and reproduction was the new game to play, possibly emerging fully to the level that we witness in our close ancestors little time ago.

Evolved minds also included an internal, virtual representation of its carrier, the 'living being'. Understanding of 'oneself' started to emerge, possibly very early in the evolution of mental systems. When mature, then this particular mental object has the purpose to steer, perceive and plan actions of the carrier of the mental object, i.e. the body in the external environment. The processing of mental objects precedes the action of the body, by little for many movements of our bodies or by extended periods of time for planned activities of groups of human beings. The latter kind of processing of mental objects is part of our daily communication by which we describe and evaluate options 'how to act?'. Going beyond this direct communication between 'living beings', we have encoded messages in our culture and related artefacts to guide actions of other humans by triggering their internal, virtual mental objects.

Nervous systems, including the brain and the mind, find an analogy in computer hardware and computer software. The hardware is the carrier to run the software. Hardware and software have to match in essential features. Otherwise, the software cannot function. The brain, the nervous system and the body are the hardware on which the software, the mind, runs. The essential characteristics of the brain determine the manner in which the mind functions. However, beyond the matching of basic features, a variety of minds can be carried by the same brain or nervous system. The essential role of the 'body and mind system' is the same as in earlier stages of evolution, namely: to replicate the 'living being' in quality and quantity of at least 'a bit more of about the same'. Thus, to survive, the body and mind have to evolve jointly.

...bonding once more.

Evolution of minds opens options for cooperation and bonding between individuals. Individuals are similar but not identical body-mind systems that interact with each other. Seen from the perspective of one particular person, the body-mind systems of the other persons, individually and collectively, are part of the environment with which matter, energy and information are exchanged. The evolution of these 'bonded body-mind systems' (i.e. groups of individual 'humans' in our history) led to sharing of know-how and artefacts among them. Artefacts are external representations of mental objects. They are external because they belong to the environment.

Craftsmanship, arts, culture and technology, etc., all emerge as new features among 'bonded body-mind systems'. These new features partially are internal to the body-mind system, i.e. having virtual representations and being related to mental objects. In that form, they mainly are perceptions that are shared between different 'body-mind systems', i.e. they are 'memes' shared among individual humans. Likewise, these new features (craftsmanship, arts, culture and technology, etc.) make up part of the environment in the form of artefacts that are produced by the 'body-mind systems', i.e. by humans who give their internal, virtual mental objects a physical form and add them to the environment. Consequently, these tangible artefacts and their related internal, virtual, mental objects in other persons become implicit to the environments that are external to a given 'living beings', i.e. person. The individuals act in a coordinated manner, as groups, networks or societies, shaping the environment in which, to survive, they have to reproduce, in quality and quantity that is at least "a bit more of about the same". Consequently, the Noosphere is emerging from the Bio-Geosphere.

On The Way Out...

Much has happened since the first stars have formed. Today, the number of human beings and the manner of our reproduction take such a size that we squeeze the Biosphere of planet Earth. The combined strength of us, humans is such that we modulate the Geosphere of planet Earth, starting the Anthropocene. But where do we go from here? Evolution will continue its erratic
path, building increasingly complex systems by means of using simple building blocks. Irritatingly, we will evolve beyond us and our current state of being. Increasingly complex technologies that we create will open developmental paths to new, self-replicating systems that differ from the body-mind systems as we know them today. These systems will reproduce themselves “about the same”, will carry internal representations of their own structures and their environment, will be fused into our culture, and thus these 'artificial beings' will belong to us, be with us, will be part of us. That's, then the Noosphere.

P. S....if we do not crash this planet !

(c) pictures Ukko El'hob

Note: This text had been published some years ago on this bog. It got reworked and re-edited for more thoughts and better reading. Thank you LLL! 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Earth seconds: Evolution did a great job!

Yes, evolution did a great job! 
No wonder it took its time; 4.7 billion years, plus minus some; 
Yes, 4.700.000.000 years.

How long is 4.7 billion years? 
 Is there any chance for us to feel that elapse of time? 
 None whatsoever!

Nevertheless, I would like to take the challenge. I fold that very long line of millions, billions of years into something that could mimic the human time-line.

How? I will count years of Earth's history as seconds of human life. Thus, each year of Earth, or the time needed that Earth circles once the Sun, I will count as one Earth-second. This different manner of counting shall put in perspective both the passing of time that we, humans, feel and the passing of time that describes the development of a planet.

When expending upon that way of counting from seconds to years, sixty Earth-seconds add up to one Earth-minute, three-thousand six-hundred Earth-seconds add up to one Earth-hour, eighty-six-thousand four-hundred Earth-seconds add up to one Earth-day, and thirty-one-million-five-hundred-thirty-six-thousand Earth-seconds add up to one Earth- year (1), and so on.

How does it all feel? 
A second feels like an elapse of time that we know. 
A year feels like an elapse of time that we know, too.

Now you:
How does the difference between the two feel? 

A year counts for many seconds, namely thirty-one-million-five-hundred-thirty-six-thousand; what sounds like a lot, indeed. That thirty-one-million… number does not feel like anything, although a year feels specific and a second feels specific, too. So, try hard to feel a second, or a year. Feeling the difference between both elapses of time should give you quite a particular sensation. That sensation is the thirty-one-million… something by which I like to fold the Earth’s timeline onto a human timeline.

A fairy tale?

Babylonian records of Venus
(from Wikipedia) 
Now imagine counting a year as a second of Earth's life-time. Next, a minute of Earth's life would make up for most of a human life-time; time for sixty circles of planet Earth around the Sun. An hour of Earth's life-time, or three-thousand six-hundred Earth-seconds, would cover most of the period of which we, humans, have some written records. 

It would go back to the 16th century B.C., when the Babylonian people kept astronomical records of the motion of planet Venus. Half an hour earlier, counted in Earth-seconds, the Egyptians would have built the big Pyramids of Giza. 

A day of Earth's life would go back to times when our human species had evolved in Africa, just more or less ready to conquer the globe and to replace other hominid species. 

And a year of Earth's life would go back before modern fauna evolved, before continents had drifted to their present positions, before rapidly cooling Antarctica had become more isolated, and before the Antarctic Circumpolar Current had started flowing. Within a year of Earth's time-line several biological, climatic and geological changes of the Earth system occur. Just like a year in human life may be marked by substantial change.

Earth has an age of 65 million times the span of a human life. This is an enormous number. However, counting Earth-years the count is only hundred-forty-nine. Happily, when counting a year as a second of Earth's life, then Earth’s history folds on a timespan that can be captured by human perception. 

The span of a human lifetime would be equivalent to 60 to 90 Earth-seconds. When counting the 4.7 billion years of Earth's existence, i.e. 4,700,000,000 Earth-seconds, then, the result adds up to hundred-forty-nine Earth-years or one and a half Earth-century. That kind of elapse of time our perception can capture. 

It means thinking back to times when your great-grandparents were young. We know them from pictures that were made when they were old.

Thus, when counting years as Earth-seconds, the time line of Earth's history is folded in such a manner, that Earth's history becomes imaginable for a human mind. It simply means mapping Earth's history on the combined lifespan of our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, us and our children. Thus, four or five generations are needed to illustrate the painstakingly long period of time that has passed since Earth was formed out of stellar dust, since the very first forms of life have emerged, since more complex organisms have formed and, finally, since human beings have conquered the globe.

Fold one: how long is a billion or two?

Our planet, Earth evolves since about 4.7 billion years, since it had formed as ball melting old stellar dust and ice into something new. Ticking years as Earth-seconds Earth started to form nearly 150 Earth-years ago.

A billion Earth-seconds counts for little less than 32 Earth-years.

Thus, ticking years as Earth-seconds, Earth emerged from stellar dust as great-grandparents were born. During their childhood, Earth grew. More and more interstellar dust and ice aggregated by gravitation. Messengers from those very early times are iron-nickel meteorites that hit the Earth still today. When great-grandparents were youngsters, the surface layer of the Earth cooled so much that rocks formed. First heavy basalts emerged that got recycled and, then, lighter granites and gneiss consolidated that float on the basalts.

Acasta Gneiss
(from Wikipedia)
Some of the oldest rocks, Acasta Gneiss (4.3 billion years) can be found in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Since the time of their formation, the chemical evolution of Earth was been spinning-up; different kinds of minerals and rocks have formed. 

Just about when great-grandparents were grown ups and grandparents were toddlers, a billion years of chemical evolution had led to quite advanced living cells (cyanobacteria). They were releasing oxygen into the world and evolution of Earth was made to spin faster. New kinds of minerals appeared and never seen before rocks could form. Living slim started to cover the rocky shores of the ocean. Since that time, stromatolites (3) have been on Earth. 

Once a sufficient amount of oxygen had been produced and released into the atmosphere, iron got oxidised and large iron ore deposits formed on Earth. Grandparents were already old when the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere was approaching levels that we know today, and the deep ocean got oxidised. 

Thus, it took the life span of two generations - about half the history of the Earth or more than 2 billion years – to evolve from molten stellar dust to a planet with reddish land, blue oceans and slimy live along the shore.

Fold two: how long are some millions?

Fossil Stromatolith (Huy, Germany)
(from Wikipedia)
Modern terrestrial animals, mammals as we know them, exist since about 50 million years. The geological epoch when they emerged (Eocene) started after 99% of Earth’s history had passed already. It started warm, and wide oceans created a moist global environment. Apart from the driest deserts, forests were spreading from pole to pole. These forests would look reasonably familiar to our eyes. Dinosaurs had started off, lasted for more than 180 million years and had disappeared well before. Trilobites in the sea had started off half a billion years ago, lasted for 300 million years and disappeared before the Dinosaurs.

50 million Earth-seconds are close to one and a half Earth-year. 180 million Earth-seconds are little less than 6 Earth-years and 300 million Earth-seconds are little less than 10 Earth-years.

Thus, ticking years as Earth-seconds and thinking in generations, the Eocene is part of my very recent past; me being now 32 years old. Dinosaurs I saw a few Earth-years ago, as well as Trilobites when I was an adolescent. Grandparents, as they were young, have seen first stromatolites and other microbiological mats along the shore line of the sea. Forefathers mostly knew rocks only, and witnessed bio-molecules emerging from more simple chemistry, but my parents, me and my children saw and see life conquering Earth.

Fold three: how long is a million or two?

Early human beings (Homo erectus) evolved about one million years from earlier hominid species. These species evolved three to four million years ago, leaving apes well behind them.

Again, ticking years as Earth-seconds one million seconds are a little more than 11.5 Earth-days, and four million Earth-seconds are about one and a half Earth-months. 

Thus, folding time scales and counting years as Earth-seconds, human beings emerged on Earth a little earlier this month, agriculture started just three hours ago, steam engine’s puffing was heard three minutes ago, and the first atom bomb blow up a minute ago.

A fair story!

So, when counted in Earth-seconds, our human history is a story of a few minutes or hours. Counting Earth-seconds, living plants and animals populate the planet since some years, at best since two decades; first they lived in the sea and much later they lived on land as well. Using the same folded time scale, the beginning of microbiological life on our planet dates back hundred to hundred-twenty years from today or up to four billion Earth-seconds ago. That is a century of Earth-years before more developed forms of life could emerge on planet Earth.

Thus indeed, evolution took its time and seized its chances. We are witnessing the very recent bursts of life. However, the endless aeons of ancestor's times stay hidden. It took an enormous elapse of time for simple forms of life to emerge and develop before we could burst into being, as we know it. It is to us to preserve it!

p.s. If you like to read more about Earth's history over billions of years, then I recommend "The Story of Earth: The first 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet" by Robert M. Hazen. 

(1) Approximating the year to 365 days. The sidereal years has 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.54 seconds, or 31,558,149.54 seconds. (2) The contorted white bands in the Acasta gneiss consist of quartz and feldspar, two minerals common in granite. Their occurrence tells us the gneiss was metamorphosed from granitic rock contained in Earth's earliest continental crust. Most granite forms by melting of an older basaltic crust in the presence of water, rather than by direct melting of Earth's mantle. Thus, the Acasta gneiss provides indirect evidence of the presence of water on the early Earth, and for a basaltic crust that formed approximately 4.03 billion years ago. (3) Stromatolites are formed in tidal zones by colonies of cyanobacteria accumulating sand grains into layered structures.

Note: This text was published some years ago on this blog; it got re-edited for better reading. Thank you LL !
Pictures not credited to third parties are mine.

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):  " 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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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).

[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