Sunday, 13 March 2016

Why Geo-Humanities ?


Throughout their history humans developed their skills to alter their environments and nowadays it is obvious that they are altering Earth. So far, this kind of ' human geo-biosphere intersections' was collateral to the human activities, which are undertaken to appropriate resources or to shape the environment in view of world-views and preferences. Thus anthropogenic global change is a composite societal and natural process at a planetary scale, which includes attributes of the geo-biosphere and artefacts of the noosphere [1 - 5]. 

The noosphere is understood to be the ensemble of shared mental concepts, such as social, cultural or political insights of people and their interactions [6:130]. Understanding the features of the noosphere belongs to scholarly disciplines summarized as "humanities". 
With the aim of describing the composite of human geo-biosphere intersections that characterize the Anthropocene, this essay proposes the notion ‘geo-humanities' and presents some aspects of its scope. In such a synthesis (‘geo-humanities'), the natural sciences contribute to understanding the abiotic and biotic processes, which determine earth-systems dynamics. The humanities contribute to understanding how people interact given their subjective characteristics, which are expressed as world-views, culture, values, preferences, etc. [7 -10].

Observations: Scope of geo-humanities

The scope of matters that could be gathered into a corpus of “of geo-humanities may be derived from the purpose that a respective scholarly subject should address [11 - 15]. We propose as outset, four goals: i) the particular knowledge about the functioning of the intersections of geosphere and noosphere, ii) the societal and individual intentions how to handle these intersections, and iii) the ethical choices how to intersect in a particular manner; [from 30]:

Managing Knowledge  

Many people may not recognize how geoscience know-how mediate the interaction of human activities and processes in the geosphere because that know-how is part of habitual experiences, common sense, general education or specific vocational training. Nevertheless, societies abundantly apply geosciences for their economic activities, e.g. the features of rock, soil, water and air is essential for the production of many goods. Craftsmen, technicians, architects, and engineers apply geoscience know-how when engineering environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. Geoscience know-how makes the engineering works (transport systems, energy systems, dwellings, agriculture, waste treatment, etc.) dovetailing the economic activities and geosphere. Likewise, maintaining living conditions and individual well-being requires geoscience know-how, e.g. ventilation, evacuation of excess water, controlling pollution from combustion engines, or maintaining radio connections when solar storms hit the Earth.
Among people's "works", engineering has the peculiarity to be the intended a value-driven change of environments with the purpose to facilitate production and reproduction. To that end, for example, engineering includes the building of infrastructures like shore defences, which visibly interact with the geosphere. Likewise, engineering includes designing production systems, urban dwellings and consumption patterns that firmly but invisibly couple human activity with the geosphere through cycles of matter and energy. Last but not least, engineering is about how people arrange the appropriation of living and non-living resources from the environment. Thus, intrinsically engineering is about value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles because it reflects the societal choices of people.
At present times, the production and consumption pattern of humankind causes fluxes of matter that modify Earth-system dynamics. The notion Anthropocene captures this feature and conveys the message that the development paths of humankind's history and natural earth-systems intersect. Therefore to understand global processes, know-how of social sciences, humanities and natural sciences have to be synthesized. The link from the noosphere to the geosphere is provided by insights on how people collectively pursue their economic activities with the purpose to maintain their well-being, mutual care-taking, reproduction, and interaction. Through their "works" people couple humankind's activities to the geosphere. The particular manner how these 'works' are conceived, designed, built and maintained depends on people's world-views, culture, values, and preferences.
Understanding anthropogenic global change is a demanding process that has to handle multifaceted content. Understanding and addressing the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion has taught a first lesson on this. The impact of increased UV-radiation because of a depleted ozone layer in the stratosphere was quite easy to conceptualize, as there were observed and reported effects ranging from increased mutation rates to abandoning sunbathing on Australian beaches. Likewise addressing a solution through some quite limited technological changes was relatively easy. As later experiences with climate change processes confirmed, the cause-effect relations of the human geosphere intersections are difficult to determine, even in hind-cast. The processes are non-linear, networked having positive and negative feedbacks. Such systems exhibit chaotic dynamics that show a behavior that is difficult to forecast. Notwithstanding this difficulty, when human geosphere intersections get altered, then some forecasting skills will be needed.

Shaping Intentions

The interactions of people in the noosphere are of diverse nature and form, e.g. of technical, economic, social, cultural, artistic nature, and of public, collective or individual form. Furthermore, these people-people interactions are both loaded with worldviews and preferences, and purposefully shape personal and shared views and coordinate actors. Thus, the making of the Anthropocene is as much a ‘mental' process in the noosphere, as it results from the ‘material' intersection of humankind's activities and the bio-geosphere. In that context, civil engineering and applied geosciences are the human activities that shape the “Commons” of the Anthropocene, and thus their implementation is prescribed by how these activities are intended in the noosphere. 
During the last centuries, the scholarly studies records show both, the appraisal of human works and concern of the state of flora and fauna impacted by these works. The scholarly study records includes tales how to master hostile conditions, description of processes (in the noosphere), how skills developed, and accounts of deplorable intersections of human activities with the biosphere. Following an extended period of admiration for human prowess to intervene into biosphere and geosphere, today anthropogenic global change is part of a widespread perception of ‘an endangered state of the globe'. That change of opinion began during the previous century with concerns about the state of the biosphere. It was perceived as endangered at the regional scale by industrial pollution, the inherent risk of chemical or nuclear technologies, or losses of species. Similar concerns about the biosphere were also voiced in the 18th and 19th century at local scale when industrialization started. Nowadays, people worry about the implications for their lifestyle and well-being, and also they wonder how 'to better design' human interventions into biosphere and geosphere.

Justifying Choices

The manner how the debate on climate change is evolving shows that this debate is about world-views. Specialists, decision makers, and people ponder what hypotheses, theories or facts are. It is discussed how to handle uncertainty or hazards or whether to consider benefits for other people, in the past or for future generations. 
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 very different. People's choices are subjective and vary with the context, e.g. whether the own person, the relatives, or the own group is concerned, or whether an action is immediate, has happened, or will happen in the future. 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, changes or risks then much of the debate is about 'virtue' and what course of action is 'worthwhile' to take. 
Anthropogenic global change is loaded with implicit societal issues (ethical dilemmas) to an unprecedented level because of the impact on all people. Among these issues there will be conflicting values, uneven distribution of risks, impacts, losses, and benefits, or collateral impacts including exposure to unexpected side-effects. The side-effects may range from challenging individual lifestyles to compromising basic needs. Nowadays the altering of human geosphere intersections is an intentional act or an act of intended negligence. Thus ethics of risk-taking, managing uncertainties or revising options will be needed in a context of applied geoscience. 
People need insights into how the intersection of human activity and geosphere function to make these intersections work. The Anthropocene brings these insights to the centre of people's lifestyles. The degree of understanding "how to build a habitable planet" may vary depending on the paradigm. Notwithstanding the different degree or form of people's insight, they have to acknowledge both, the existence of human geosphere intersections and the challenges that their alteration at planetary scale implies.
The non-linearity of process at human geosphere intersections renders design, implementation, and operation of change processes challenging; Further, a non-intended and counter-intuitive system behaviour is likely to manifest, and with that the societies have to cope. In the past when societal or environmental problems could not have been tackled 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 of world-politics. That dimension of “non-escape” sharpens the issues of anthropogenic global change.


Our species has acquired the power to engineer planet Earth. However, even if many people may not take notice of the processes and phenomena that characterize the intersections of human activity and geosphere, the anthropogenic global change is subject to the human value-systems, which underpin people's world-views and preferences. People can tackle anthropogenic global change as part of their world-views and preferences only if insights into human geosphere intersections become integrated into their interactions in the noosphere; e.g. reflecting people's lifestyle, preferences, values, and world-views. To that end, the practitioners, professionals, and researchers who understand how intersections of human activity and geosphere function have to share their insights and have to show how value-loaded are the interventions into human geosphere intersections. For any 'culture', the particular issues of 'altering Planet Earth' require that people have insights into the functioning of the human geosphere intersections. Thus for 'altering planet Earth', reliable insights provided by humanities and social sciences are needed, which have to enlarge sound scientific, engineering, technical and economic knowledge that was accumulated during the last decades. Such an enlarged body of knowledge could settle under the notion of "geo-humanities".

*Summary of  our  (R. Casals i Graells, A. Sibilla, M. Bohle*) presentation “Why Geo-Humanities” (poster 1300) at EGU General Assembly (Vienna 17-22 April 2016), session: Geoethics: theoretical and practical aspects from research integrity to relationships between geosciences and society”; * European Commission, DG RTD / Corresponding Citizen Scientist – IAPG (Rome),, ResearchGate: D-4508-2014; Disclaimer: For the lawyers, this are my views and not of my employer.

[1] Bonneuil, C.; Fressoz, J.-B. L’événement Anthropocène - La terre, l'histoire et nous; Le Seuil, 2013.
[2] Braje, T. J.; Erlandson, J. M. Looking forward, looking back: Humans, anthropogenic change, and the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 2013, 4, 116–121 DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2014.05.002.
[3] Ellis, Erle C. “Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere.” Ecological Monographs 85 (3) 2015.: 287–331. doi:10.1890/14-2274.1.
[4] Monastersky, R. The Human Age. Nature 2015, 519 (7542), 144–147 DOI: 10.1038/519144a.
[5] Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Galuszka, A., Cearreta, A., Edgeworth, M., Ellis, E. C., Ellis, M., et al. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene.” Science (80) 2016, 351 (6269), aad2622–1 – aad2622–10 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622.
[6] Deutsch D. The Beginning of Infinity – Explanations that Transform the World; Allen Lane 2012. ISBN: 978-0-141-96969-5 [page 130: “people consist of abstract information, including the distinctive ideas, theories, intentions, feelings and other state of mind that characterize an 'I' “]
[7] Palsson, G.; Szerszynski, B.; Sörlin, S.; Marks, J.; Avril, B.; Crumley, C.; Hackmann, H.; Holm, P.; Ingram, J.; Kirman, A.; et al. Reconceptualizing the “Anthropos” in the Anthropocene: Integrating the Social Sciences and Humanities in Global Environmental Change Research. Environ. Sci. Policy 2012, 1–11 DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004.
[8] Wilson, E. O. The meaning of human Existence; W.W. Norton & Company New York, 2014.
[9] Latour, Bruno. 2015. “Fifty Shades of Green.” Environmental Humanities 7: 219–225. doi:10.1126/science.269.5220.31.
[10] Hamilton, Clive, Christophe Bonneuil, and Francois Gemenne. 2015. The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis. Routledge.
[11] Hulme, Mike. 2011. “Meet the Humanities.” Nature Climate Change 1 (4) (June 26): 177–179. doi:10.1038/nclimate1150.
[12] Fressoz, J.-B. L’Apocalypse joyeuse - Une histoire du risque technologique; Le Seuil, 2012.
[13] Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, Ch. Gemenne, F. “Thinking the Anthropocene.” in Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, Ch. Gemenne (eds.) The Anthropocene and the Environmental Crisi 2015, Routledge, ISBN:978-1-138-82123-8
[14] Bai, Xuemei, Sander van der Leeuw, Karen O’Brien, Frans Berkhout, Frank Biermann, Eduardo S. Brondizio, Christophe Cudennec, et al. 2015. “Plausible and Desirable Futures in the Anthropocene: A New Research Agenda.” Global Environmental Change (October). doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.09.017.
[15] Brondizio, Eduardo S., Karen O’Brien, Xuemei Bai, Frank Biermann, Will Steffen, Frans Berkhout, Christophe Cudennec, et al. 2016. “Re-Conceptualizing the Anthropocene: A Call for Collaboration.” Global Environmental Change (March). doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.02.006.
[16] Bohle, Martin. “Handling of Human-Geosphere Intersections.” Geosciences 6 (1): doi:10.3390/geosciences6010003.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Humans are a kind of an 'engineering species'...

 …[*] and 'People consist of abstract information, including the distinctive ideas, theories, intentions, feelings and other states of mind that characterize [them]" [1, p.130].

Humans have built an 'anthropogenic biosphere' [2,3] through engineering production systems, patterns of consumption of resources, and use of environments. Throughout their biological and cultural evolution, humans extended what they know to engineer with the purpose is to sustain human existence and reproduction. Embedded in this process, anthropogenic global change is a historical process [4,5] that relates features of the planetary bio-geosphere with matters of social, cultural and political nature, i.e. the 'noosphere' of people interactions. The views about 'what engineering works shall endeavor, how and why' are part of the noosphere framed by scientific-technological means. 

Philosophically, engineering works relate human activities, i.e. economic and the natural planetary systems to build an 'anthropogenic biosphere', and thus are applied geoscience [6,7]. To that end, engineering shapes the intersection of the noosphere and the bio-geosphere and the societal paradigms that frame engineering works are an essential feature of how that intersection is operated [8] . 

It is obvious that mankind is altering Earth with an accelerated pace [9,10]. So far, this “terra-engineering” or “applied geoscience” was collateral of the human activities; nowadays it is intentional. To describe underpinning concepts, four paradigms to engineer anthropogenic global change are presented here that emphasize in different manners how humans intersect the bio-geosphere. They are labelled "adjustment", "dovetailing", "decoupling" and "modulating" to distinguish conceptually four manners how production systems and consumption patterns could be organized.. Although conceptually disjunctive, their application is interwoven, e.g. tangled by the particularity to apply them on a planetary scale what needs both, sound professional ethics and robust ethical considerations about purposes.

Four Paradigms to Engineer at a Planetary Scale

The first paradigm is labelled "adjustment". People adjust to collateral effects of how production systems and consumption patterns are engineered. E.g., increased mean temperatures or modified precipitation patterns, which are driven by emissions of anthropogenic systems, is perceived as an external factor that is impinging on production systems and consumption patterns. Therefore efforts focus on adjusting these systems and patterns to these external factors by modifying the engineered environments of humans. The purpose of the “adjustment paradigm” is to stick to the intrinsic development paths of societies, and preferably keeping unchanged the production systems and consumption patterns. An example of an application of that paradigm is the Dutch plan to heighten their sea-dikes to cope with sea-level rise. 

The second paradigm is labelled "dovetailing". People alter incrementally production/consumption patterns so that anthropogenic fluxes of matter and energy dovetail with the respective natural fluxes. The Montreal Protocol that is regulating the abatement of ozone depleting substances provides an illustration, i.e. a particular production/consumption pattern is modified by international agreement. The “dovetailing paradigm” applies political and economic practices, which were developed successfully to reduce a regional impact of pollution. 

The third paradigm is labelled "decoupling". It is proposed, under the notion "eco-modernism", to segregate the human production/consumption patterns from the bio/geosphere. Evidently, to decouple human activities from the environment (bio/geosphere) reflects the common purpose of civil engineering; e.g. shore defences or setting up an economy with circular matter fluxes. Under the "decoupling" paradigm more of such kind of engineering is proposed. I.e. eco-modernists envisage intensively urbanized societies of a stable global population using nuclear power and closed fluxes of matter.

The fourth paradigm is labelled "modulating". It is proposed, under the notion geoengineering, to modulate processes in the bio-geosphere in such a manner that they counteract the side-effects of human activities. Its protagonists advocated another classical human view, namely that "nature" is to be adapted to fit to "culture"; i.e. to render the environment suitable for human appropriation. Evidently, engineering environments reflects what people did since prehistoric times, be it "slash and burn agriculture" or irrigation agriculture in demi-deserts e.g. Central Valley in California nowadays. Under this "modulating" paradigm more of such kind of engineering is proposed, to be undertaken with the intention to change processes a global scale; e.g. ocean fertilization to capture excess carbon dioxide.

The Camaraderie of Paradigms

Taking as metric the growth of the number of people, "terra-engineering" – applied geosciences - qualifies as a prosperous activity of the human species. However, the times have passed that anthropogenic global change could be perceived as an incidental collateral of humankind's activity. Instead, the intentional engineering of the anthropogenic bio-geosphere is the ongoing endeavour of humankind, which may apply different scenarios and their respective paradims.

The "adjustment paradigm" advocated a conservative scenario, regarding preserving past investments (economic, social, cultural). In comparison, the current mainstream scenario is much about an incremental modification of the present societal development paths for production systems and consumption patterns; thus applying more a "dovetailing paradigm". That possibly is a pragmatic choice, because of the insight that costs of adjustment are high. Consequently, some depreciation of past investments is accepted and a 'local end-of-the-pipe adjustment engineering approach' is replaced incrementally by a 'global start-of-the-pipe dovetailing engineering approach'.

The alternative paradigms "decoupling" (eco-modernism) and "modulating" (geo-engineering) stand for engineering approaches that currently are advocated by some. Both paradigms have in common that the traditional development paths of industrialized societies are emphasized. However, the choice what to emphasis is different, namely 'engineering noosphere through eco-modernism' or 'engineering bio-geosphere through geoengineering'. Thus, the paradigms differ in the aspect which part of Earth systems should be altered.

Whatever paradigm will be retained to frame the decisions to engineer anthropogenic global change, it will depend much more on people's preferences and world-views and than on scientific-technical know-how. Therefore, protagonists argue why choices represent sound science and engineering, are economically feasible, and are ethically (philosophically) "right"; e.g. the "Eomodernist Manifesto" [11] or the "Oxford Principles" [12] in support of geoengineering. Thus much of the argument is on the level of paradigms. The public policies that are regulating production systems and consumption patterns apply a mix of "adjustment" and "dovetailing" paradigms depending on the opportunity to preserve past investments or the expected cost-effectiveness.


Applying any of these these paradigms involves particular ethical issues, such as to assess whether the scientific-technical approaches are professionally "sound". However these issues seem minor and confined when compared to the overarching social-cultural and political-historical issues. This second set of issues is loaded with major ethical concerns, e.g. responsibility for past emissions, distribution of poverty and wealth, access to resources, or opportunity for sustainable development. Notwithstanding that these ethical issues are of universal nature, nevertheless, the complexity to address them for handling anthropogenic global change has little precedence. In that context a conceptual frame of paradigms to orientate terra-engineering choices , i.e. applied geosciences may be helpful.
  1. Deutsch D. The Beginning of Infinity – Explanations that Transform the World; Allen Lane 2012. ISBN: 978-0-141-96969-5
  2. Monastersky, R. The Human Age. Nature 519(7542) 2015, DOI: 10.1038/519144a.
  3. Ellis, Erle C. “Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere.” Ecological Monographs 85 (3) 2015.: 287–331. doi:10.1890/14-2274.1.
  4. Braje, T. J. Erlandson, J. M. “Looking forward, looking back: Humans, anthropogenic change, and the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene 2013, 4, 116–121 DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2014.05.002.
  5. Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, Ch. Gemenne, F. “Thinking the Anthropocene.” in Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, Ch. Gemenne (eds.) The Anthropocene and the Environmental Crisi 2015, Routledge, ISBN:978-1-138-82123-8
  6. Morton, O. The Planet Remade: How geoengineering could change the world; Princeton University Press, 2012.
  7. Bracmort, K.; Lattanzio, R. K. Geoengineering: Governance and Technological Policy; 2013.
    v=onepage&q=Geoengineering%3A%20Governance%20and%20Technological%20Policy&f=false (accessed on 12 November 2015).
  8. Bohle, Martin. “Handling of Human-Geosphere Intersections.” Geosciences 6 (1): doi:10.3390/geosciences6010003.
  9. Schwägerl, C. The Anthropocene - The human era and how it shapes our planet; Synergetic Press, 2014.
  10. Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Galuszka, A., Cearreta, A., Edgeworth, M., Ellis, E. C., Ellis, M., et al. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene.” Science (80) 2016, 351 (6269), aad2622–1 – aad2622–10 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622.
  11. Asafu-Adjaye, J., Blomquist, L., Brand, S., Brook, B., DeFries, R., Ellis, E., Foremann, C., Keith, D., Lewis, M., Lynas, M., et al. An Ecomodernist Manifesto (accessed on 10th November 2015).
  12. Rayner, S., Heyward, C., Kruger, T., Pidgeon, N., Redgwell, C. Savulescu, J. The Oxford Principles. Clim. Change 2013, 121, 499–512 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0675-2.

[*] Summary of my presentation “Engineering Paradigms and Anthropogenic Global Change” (poster 1235) at EGU General Assembly (Vienna 17-22 April 2016), session: Geoethics: theoretical and practical aspects from research integrity to relationships between geosciences and society