Geoscientists, concerned about the societal context of their professions, did conceive geoethics for their professional circumstances [*]. Contemporary geoethics is an epistemic, moral hybrid (Potthast 2015) to judge insights and deeds, mainly of geo-professionals when acting in professional capacity. Emerging less than a decade ago, geoethics is part of the ‘cultural substrates’ that support responsible conduct of science and research (Bernal 1939; United Nations 2013).
Conceptually distinct from geoethics, although overlapping or neighbouring it, are other ‘cultural substrates’ that nurture the skills of human agents to navigate the human niche and further the operational circumstances that they encounter there-in (Bohle and Marone 2019). They may be referred to, in their ensemble, as ‘Geosophy’. Any of such lines of thought, including ‘geoethics’ also may be referred to as ‘geoethical thinking’.
Humans apply geosciences to shape the human niche; geo-professionals are instrumental in this endeavour. The modern-day human niche is a planetary network of natural and cultural environments. These environments are tightly dovetailed by infrastructures, which people deploy to organise production and consumption for their well-being (Bohle 2016, 2017); finally, the making of the Anthropocene. To this end, geoethical thinking may guide insights and deeds of any citizen. Purposfully, geoethics is pertinent for applying geoscience knowledge by geoscientists, who are acting in a professional capacity, as well as by the ‘citizens of the Anthropocene’.
Still, the ‘citizens of the Anthropocene’ likely may need a more holistic approach than contemporary geoethics or geosophy seem to offer. They may need guidance that is overarching knowledge domains in a far more comprehensive manner. One may imagine a crisis discipline (Begon 2017), which may be named ‘political geosciences’, because anthropogenic global change is a planetary hegemonic cultural leitmotif. Coined like the notion ‘political economy’, ‘political geosciences’ would be the study of goods, trade, consumption and production, including natural processes that govern exchange of matter, energy and information, as well as their relations with culture, law, custom and government; and with the distribution of income and wealth.
Starting with Geoethics
Curious about the embedding of their professions into contemporary societies, geoscientists were inquiring into the societal contexts, ethical obligations and philosophical foundations of their activities. Curious to understand the natural dynamics of Earth, geoscientists were participating in research into local, regional and planetary social-ecological systems that encompass perplexing features like human behaviour. Curious to understand the philosophical, ethical and societal implications of their professions, geoscientists were questioning their education, professional experiences and responsibilities as citizens.
These processes promoted insights that recently were amalgamated into ‘Geoethics’ (Peppoloni, Bilham, and Di Capua 2019). That is, the recent development of ‘geoethics’ is a response of geo-professionals to wider societal concerns. Geoscientists wish to deepen their engagement with professional responsibilities and the broader societal relevance of the geosciences. The requirement to act responsibly urges geoscientists to question the ethical, cultural and societal significance of geoscience research and practice - for individuals, people or humanity – finally, exploring ‘how we should live ethically in the times of anthropogenic global change’. That is, geoethics was purposefully constructed within a professional sphere. However, joining professional functions and the understanding that geoscientists are citizens is stretching the initial notions of geoethics (Bohle and Di Capua 2019; Bohle, Di Capua, and Bilham 2019).
Currently, geoethics is defined as an applied actor-centric virtue-ethic that is founded on knowledge in geosciences and applies space, time and context dependent approaches; that is, ethically sound choices may differ for similar ethical dilemmas depending on the given context, time and location. The responsibility of the individual is the central pivot of geoethical thinking. At first instance the individual is the geoscientist acting in professional functions; although, more generally, geoethics puts the human agent at the centre of a reference system in which individual, interpersonal, professional, social and environmental values coexist [*]: “Values such as intellectual freedom, honesty, integrity, inclusivity, and equity, along with concepts such as geoheritage, geodiversity, geo-conservation, sustainability, prevention, adaptation and geo-education are proposed to society as references on which to base geoethical behaviours”.
Such a set of values and concepts resonate positively with geo-professionals, evidently. It also applies beyond geosciences in specified circumstances (Ferrero et al. 2012). However, it is unclear whether these values and concepts also can resonate with the public (Bohle, Sibilla, and Casals I Graells 2017; Magagna et al. 2013; Stewart, Ickert, and Lacassin 2017; Stewart and Lewis 2017). Perceiving geoethics as a public good beyond geosciences is an option, not a neccessity. Geoethics applied as an intra-geoscience line of thought with public outreach is a meaningful ‘cultural substrate’. Serving further societal needs may be done in a different manner.
Geoethics limited & unlimited
Living in times of anthropogenic global change, the subjects of geoscience research and practice are shifting. Therefore, the notion geoethics did evolve; although, so far, without any rupture of its foundations.
Philosophically, geoethics has a foundation in the material nature of the interactions of natural and cultural environments. Hence, it is implying a materialistic philosophical foundation. In turn, geoethics promotes norms such as intellectual freedom, honesty, integrity, inclusivity, and equity which situate it as an idealistic philosophy. Though, geoethics refers to space, time and context dependent approaches; that is, geoethics foresee that ethically sound choices may differ for similar ethical dilemmas. This stand may be interpreted that geoethics implicitly notices the material contexts of social interactions, which drive such dependencies. Hence, geoethics is implying a materialistic philosophy of society, at least to some degree; although it is not reflected in idealistic norm-settings like the ‘geoethical promise’ (Matteucci et al. 2014; Bohle and Ellis 2017; Di Capua, Peppoloni, and Bobrowsky 2017). Thus, geoethics is a philosophical hybrid; possibly not less as any contemporary environmental ethics, professional ethics or sustainability ethics; frameworks, which host geoethics at their intersection.
To consolidate geoethical thinking in times of anthropogenic global change, the societal relevance and purpose of geosciences have to be explored further (Bohle and Marone 2019), for the purposes:
- to offer geoscientists a framework for operationalising and exercising their societal responsibility whilst also orienting other professions and society towards responsible interactions with the Earth system;
- to explore how people should live ethically in times of anthropogenic global change;
- to understand the history and state of ‘human niche-building’, currently at a planetary scale, and conceiving Earth as a single system, ‘people included’;
- to argue for the social/societal value of geosophical, geoethical and geoscientific thinking in shaping public narratives about interactions of nature and culture, that is, the human condition of ‘care or neglect’ (Hamilton 2017, p.150) .
The ongoing anthropogenic global change raises societal issues that require more transverse studies involving natural-science and social-science disciplines (Bohle and Preiser 2019). Such studies intend to capture the foundations of the ongoing anthropogenic change of the Earth system in its main physical and hegemonic social or cultural systems. Geoethics, when it intendes to be more than societal-responsible geoscience-expertise, has to turn to such challenges, because:
- Physical sub-systems of Earth to regulate climate, nutrient-loads or water cycle are impacted. Phenomena like hypoxic areas in seas and lakes, over-exploitation of geo-resources or pollution of air, water and land pose challenges, such as how to shape production processes.
- Technological remedies to mitigate anthropogenic global change pose additional challenges such as the provision of resources, side-effects (on ecological and social systems) and governance.
- Causes, effects and remedies to local and global change have an impact on any human community. They pose, on one side, scientific and technological challenges. However, above all, they are economic, societal and cultural challenges about the design of the human niche. Hence, they need to be questioned given the individual perceptions, societal concerns, economic choices, ecological carrying capacity and philosophical conceptions of the world and human histories.
- Even before being a scientific theme of geosciences and Earth System Sciences, anthropogenic global change is a cultural theme to reflect on the choices, individual and collective, for our present, to shape our future.
Towards Political Geosciences
„We are inspired by such work that reveals a different sense of temporality, displaying continuity between the past and ongoing injustice (the present past) or futurities that require fundamental breaks with the present.“ (Gergan, Smith, and Vasudevan 2018, p. 14)
Furthering geoethics – that is, combining it with Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral adequacy (Kohlberg 1981) and Jonas’s imperative of inter-generational responsibility (Jonas 1984) – leads, in a first step, to formulating a ‘geoethical rationale’[**], namely, to act ‘actor-centric, virtue-ethics focused, responsibility focused, knowledge-based, all-actor-inclusive, and universal-rights based’ (Table 1).
Meaning of the Category
To apply a normative framework that invests (empowerment) an individual /group to act to their best understanding in the face of given circumstances, opportunities and purposes;
A corpus of personal traits (honesty, integrity, transparency, reliability, or spirit of sharing, cooperation, reciprocity) of an individual/group that furthers operational (handling of things) and social (handling of people) capabilities of the individual/group;
The outcome of a normative call (internal, external) upon an individual /group that frames decisions/acts in terms of accountability, as well for the intended effects as for unintended consequences and implications for future generations;
In the first and foremost instance, (geosciences / Earth system) knowledge acquired by scientific methods; experience-based (‘indigenous/traditional) knowledge is a secondary instance; reproducibility of knowledge by third parties supports any claim of trustworthiness instead of allusion to faith or ‘authorities’;
Achieve a practice of a ‘shared social licence to operate’ between various individuals/groups by mitigating differentials of power, voice etc. using participatory processes and capacity building;
Guide affective and rational sense-making of individuals/groups by universal human rights (life, liberty, justice) to strengthen secondary normative constructs such as utilitarian, sustainability or precautionary principles;
Uniting geoethical thinking with thinking about moral adequacy and the responsibility for future generations strengthens the general applicability of geoethical thinking. Also it broadens the foundations of geoethics in materialistic philosophy because the normative calls ‘to be actor-centric’ and ‘to be responsibility focused’ acquired a more robust shape; the acting individual is called to be concerned about any fellow-human including future people; that is, socio-economic features of relationships between people enter into perspective. In this sense, the geoethical rationale still is formulated at a normative meta-level keeping context-dependence that is an essential feature of the design of ‘geoethics’. The ‘geoethical rationale’ keeps this feature of geoethics because it secures applicability in any societal or scientific context for which geosciences are relevant and in which human agent (geoscientists, citizens or institutions) navigate the human niche; for example, by framing how to handle the diversity of cultural, social and scientific circumstances.
Thus, the geoethical rationale is a specific realisation of geoethical thinking. It does not go far beyond what contemporary geoethics could deliver. However, the additions to recurrent geoethical thinking that stem from Kohlberg’s and Jona’s classical works should lead to a more holistic ‘political geosciences’ when elaborating the following:
First, situated geoethics in the Anthropocene: Societies deploy infrastructures to interact with natural systems. Being human in times of anthropogenic global change is acknowledging that people and planetary geo-processes operate at pair; because of the number and technological prowess of the people that collectively build the global human niche, and the affluence of many.
Second, embrace the ethical dimensions of engineering: Any deployment of infrastructure is two-sided: installing engineered systems (technological hardware) plus narratives about their social, societal and economic purposes (technological software). Although a given deployment may require specific geoscience expertise because it poses geo-technological challenges, it is mainly an economic, societal and cultural endeavour in niche-building; also, about desirable opportunities for some and collateral damages for others. Given the ‘political spin’ of a given actor – stewardship or engineering of the human niche, for example – a peculiar geo-societal narrative explains how a given deployment shall support production and consumption as well as societal well-being, social change or environmental alteration.
Third, generalise the experiences of Earth System Science: Lead by climate research; contemporary Earth System Science illustrates that anthropogenic global change is as much a cultural than a geoscience leitmotif (Kowarsch et al. 2017; O’Neill et al. 2017; Schill et al. 2019). Experience demonstrates that building the human niche requires insights from natural-science and social sciences/humanities. Therefore, holistic assessments (of technology, infrastructure, deployment) are involving personal and societal concerns, economic and environmental choices as well as philosophical conceptions of the world, human histories and human futures. Examples of geoscience/technology-assessments are several; such as abatement of acid rain, mitigation of stratospheric ozone-depletion, regulation of mining at the seabed or integrated assessments of climate change pathways. Whether these assessments qualify as holistic and how to design holistic assessment requires study.
Fourth, embrace future studies: Swift geo-processes such as the rise of the global sea-level are a ‘geological present’. However, perceived at human time scales these geo-processes shape ‘a later future’ only, a perception which blurs people’s sense-making of the present. Therefore, inter-generational justice (Jonas’ imperative of responsibility) calls upon geoscientists to engage with explicit studies of probable future configurations of the Earth System; that is, geoscientist should study the networked geo-, bio-, techno- and societal-cultural systems holistically.
Furthering geoethics, as sketched above, may lead to shape ‘political geosciences’ for the Anthropocene. Suchlike ‘political geosciences’ would be the holistic study of societal-, techno- and geo-systems of the past, present and future. They would include geo-societal future-studies to explore, from various societal perspectives, how to continue building the human niche.
A notion like ‘political geosciences’ may supersede notions like ‘geoethics’ or ‘geosophy’, in a given future. Currently, both notions deem needed to focus thought and application, not at least within the professional corps of geoscientists. However, the ‘citizens of the Anthropocene’ may need a little more.
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