Geoscientists and the Pandemocene

I am a geoscientist by training and a science manager by practice. In recent years, as I watched global change rise, I became increasingly interested in the ethical implications of geosciences. We call it geoethics.

What does it mean to steward Earth systems? How do we, as individuals and societies, can even assume stewardship on systems apparently so much larger, and definitely so much older than ourselves? In the extreme, how is our ongoing practice of de-facto geo-engineering ethical? In which circumstances, and why?

This year, like everyone else, I stayed at home and watched the rising tide of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it occurred to me that pandemics, too, call on us to put together an ethical frame of reference at a much larger scale than that of the individual. With infectious diseases, my health is not just my own: it becomes a factor in yours, too. This gave me new, interesting questions: what does geoethics have to say about ethical behavior in a pandemic? Vice versa, how do actual decisions made (ethically) during the actual COVD-19 pandemic reflect on the work of geoethicists?

With these questions in mind, I have started working on a new subject, drafting my thoughts and discussing with friends, peers and strangers.

What follows below sketches some elements of my thinking so far. *If you have feedback or ideas to contribute, I will be duly grateful.

TrailerGeoPandemic_V.2_20Jun01.pdf (303.6 KB)

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Very interesting, @martin. You seem to be saying:

  • Geo-engineering is already here – in fact, it is thousands of years old. We cannot not change our planetary environment.
  • However, humans are bad at thinking at the planetary space- and time scale.
  • Result: unethical behavior, as that thinking does not get done and humans break things for other humans and everyone’s support ecosystems.
  • This Pandemocene idea comes from considering homo sapiens and its eco-vandalism as a kind of infection. A global one, because sapiens is now in every corner of the home world, so a pan-demic. I find this one a bit unnecessary – geoethics is interesting in itself, no need to latch on to COVID-19 and its ilk – but OK.

My question to you: how do geoethicists make their recommendations? Is there any rule of thumb, like the “consider the implications of what you do for the next seven generations”, like some indigenous peoples do? If I wanted to build a geothical airport, or a geoethical company, what would I need to check for?

Hello @alberto
your are opening a sequence of building sites.

(1) Describing what is a geoethicist?
a. You, who has created this neo-logism, and I can work on that question.
(2) The notion pandemic does not have negative meaning, per se – its current application case, yes.
(3) Understanding humans as pandemic because they commit ‘eco-vandalism’ is “thinking too short”.
a. Our sheer number and our ‘needs per capita’ (even when eco-friendly) require that we mobilise resources at a planetary scale.
b. How we ‘mobilise resources’ that concerns ‘all’ ‘people’.
i. Hence, it renders humans a pandemic.
(4) The COVID-19 (health) pandemic, brings into focus our pandemic mode of operation.
a. See below: [*]
b. Linking to definition of ‘geoethics’ (that some like): “Geoethics consists of research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system. Geoethics 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.” (source: Peppoloni and Di Capua 2015a p. 4-5, Peppoloni and Di Capua 2017a p. 2)
i. Punch terms in “b”:

  1. appropriate behaviours and practices,
  2. wherever human activities interact with the Earth system
  3. ethical, social and cultural implications
  4. social role and responsibility
  5. conducting their activities
    (5) Instead of as rule of thump I offer (my best for the time being) ‘five fingers’ (see picture) – I call it ‘normative preferences’ of the ‘geoethical rationale’
    A rule of thump like ‘care next seven generations’ can be guidance only in societies with very slow innovation. Seven generation passed, means (in Europe) the French Revolution did just occur.

Best regards
Martin

[*] Quote from a (longer) draft:
During prehistoric and historical periods, humankind modified natural environments to appropriate resources for living and wellbeing (Ellis 2015; Fuentes 2016; Ruddiman 2018). Contemporary societies apply geosciences extensively for their economic, societal and cultural activities (Bohle 2017; Gill and Bullough 2017; Krausmann et al. 2013, 2017; Rosol, Nelson, and Renn 2017). These activities bind, through global supply chains, the entire globe into one social-ecological system (Reyers et al. 2018) that intersects deeply with the physical and biological systems of the Earth. Crafts-persons, technicians, architects and engineers apply geoscience knowledge, at least implicitly, when altering natural environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying the foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. Artists, poets or philosophers of any time or culture refer to the Earth for co-shaping human identity. Possibly the most early (known) reference is the Gilgamesh Epos of the thried millennium BC(George 2000). Contemporary geoscience knowledge seeps into modern thinking and dealings (Moores 1997; Peppoloni and Di Capua 2012), often without being identified as such (Bohle 2015; Bohle, Sibilla, and Casals I Graells 2017), and rarely put forward so openly as in the metaphorical title of the book by the geochemists Langmuir and Broecker (Langmuir and Broecker 2012), ‘How to build a habitable planet’. Large-scale infrastructures like shore defences, hydropower plants or urban dwellings visibly interact with the geosphere and are a physical expression of how people situate themselves on Earth; views that alter through history (Ellis 2011; Fressoz 2012; Purdy 2015). Whatever the philosophical concepts are that frame the construction of these infrastructures, they could not have been built without a profound geoscience culture (Brown et al. 2017; Häusler 2018; Ruddiman et al. 2015; Wysession et al. 2012) that includes scientific understanding, technological know-how and societal justifications. Likewise, purposefully designed global production systems or consumption patterns couple human activity with the geosphere at a planetary scale. The coupling happens through cycles of matter, energy and information (Haff 2014b; Rosol et al. 2018; Zalasiewicz et al. 2016) that are mostly invisible. Greenhouse gas emissions are well-known as the most prominent example, although a similar case could be made for nitrogen or the global agriculture system (Campbell et al. 2017; Morseletto 2019; Zhang et al. 2015).

That’s easy: anyone who knows enough to see the issue, and cares enough to step up to it. That, my friend, would be you. :slight_smile:

Uhm… they are nice, but I am missing the geo in geoethics. If I hear you right, geoethics is harder core than plain ethics, because of the difference of scale between the decision maker and the decision object (Gea).

Well, the thinking gathered under the lable ‘geoethics’ takes the ‘geo’ from the origin of the related works. That is, geo-scientists thought about what does it imply to execute their professions in an ethically sound manner. What is gathered under ‘geosciences’, any study of Earth (and related practical activities) that have as key- subject its non-living parts. You name it, mainly, rocks, water, air and anything that is made of these constituents. You name it, mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, groundwater, storms, earthquakes, landslides,… …all that what makes the household-environment of earthlings; humans and other living beings, viruses included.

Well, the ‘geo’ in the ‘geoethical rationale’? Treating appropriately human-geosphere intersections you need these six ‘normative preferences’. To recall, talking ‘ethics’ means describing human behaviour; hence, little space for ‘geo’ (in the wording). What makes ‘human-geosphere intersections’ so difficult involves, among other particularities, an issue of scale (time, space, complexity).