Saturday, July 11, 2015

Geoethics, the Anthropocene and the Pope

by Gábor Paál

Gábor Paál
Geographer and Journalist
SWR2 Bildung und Wissenschaft
Southwest Broadcasting
Baden-Baden (Germany)


Disclaimer: the views expressed in this paper solemnly engage the author

Until some years ago, only a few people used the term geoethics – mostly those who wanted to express that there is something new to think about. 
Fun fact: In Germany, many people are reading "Goethik" instead of "Geoethik", thinking it's about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Geoethics is still far from being a established buzz word, but it's spreading. Earth Scientists talk about it. Academic Associations have been founded. It's in the media now and then, but still without any broader political impact. Yet, there is no uniform definition. From the beginning of the 1990's, when the term appeared in several essays you can find essentially two different interpretations, which you can summarize as "Ethics of Earth Scientists" and "(Extended version of) Environmental ethics", respectively. It is not really clear to me if these two concepts are competing or rather completing each other, although I am inclined to think, they can be integrated.
There are many situations in which scientists have to take ethical deliberations into account, as stressed by the work of the IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics ( as well in the first geoethics textbook of Max Wyss and Silvia Peppoloni (2015). This is a first approach to geoethics.

But geoethics is much more and covers all the moral questions that are involved with the global human impacts on the Earth System. Climate change, ocean acidification, shifts in the the geochemical cycles, human-induced earthquakes, exploitation of land and natural resources. In a word, geoethics would be the ethics of – or for – the Anthropocene. It's striking that more and more essays are stressing this connection. "The reason why we need it [geoethics] is the anthropocene", said David Mogk recently in an Austrian radio documentary. Martin Bohle shares the same view in his recent essay. This approach to geoethics would also deal with the problems arising with fracking and geoengineering, but it would go far beyond engineering issues.

I also had this concept in mind, when I tried to introduce the word geoethics in Germany in 2010. If you introduce a new ethical "subdiscipline" you have to argue why "normal" ethics is not sufficient. That's why Bioethics emerged. Our ancestors didn't have to answer questions like: "From which moment has a fertilized egg cell to be regarded as a 'human subject'? Is the cloning of organisms right or wrong?" You need new criteria to answer these questions. Similarly you can point out that geoethics is concerned with problems that earlier societies didn't see as problems. That man's behaviour is changing the planet. That our consumption pattern in Europe does have an impact on people on the other side of the world. Geoethics also deals with ethical dilemmas which are based on probabilistic and "big number" effects. It's not about the "bad morality" of the thief causing an immediate damage on a certain victim, but about decisions and behaviours that – multiplied by billions of people – are increasing the risk of damages for future generations.

Both approaches have their advantages: The first – narrow – view makes it easier to handle geoethics, to come to specific conclusions and to develop learning modules for students. The second is more consistent with the logic of other "applied ethics" as it tackles the problems of concern and does not address only a specific academic discipline. This seems reasonable, as nobody would define "Bioethics" as the ethics of biologists and doctors. Bioethics is concerned with new dilemmas arising due to certain new technologies and scientific knowledge. Yet, the search for solutions of these dilemmas is not just a technical but a political issue. In the same way, geoethics, if taken seriously, must address all societal groups and lead to political decisions – not just to a professional code of conduct.

You might argue, that this notion of geoethics – covering questions from engineering to the management of global commons - is too broad to be regarded as one cohesive concept. But, to stress the analogy once more, neither can Bioethics be seen as one cohesive concept. It is a collection of many different questions, just somehow "having to do with life sciences".

There is another reason, why connecting geoethics with the anthropocene would be helpful. Recently, I had a controversy with Reinhold Leinfelder. He is member of the Anthropocene Working Group in the International Commission on Stratigraphy and a scientist who is more than others promoting the idea of the anthropocene in the German public. Our discussion was about the question: Should the notion of the anthropocene include a specific attitude towards the problems we all know about? In other words, does it make sense to promote something like "Anthropocenism" as a world view and a specific approach the global environmental changes? While Reinhold Leinfelder is in favour of such an idea and calls himself an "Anthropozäniker" I argued that the meaning of the term anthropocene should be in a consistent line with all the other "-cenes" in earth history. Thus, it should be restricted to its scientific value and not be overloaded with eco-political ideas, may they be ever so likable. From this point of view, the recent discussion about an exact starting date of the anthropocene (did it begin in 1790? or only in 1945?) seems pointless. In this discussion felt a bit like in the looking-glass world with me, the journalist, criticizing the scientist for overpopularization.

Anyway, connecting geoethics with the anthropocene could help to solve this conflict. The conception of man changing the geosphere does not per se imply any specific attitude: you might find it horrifying and take it as a stimulus to change your own behavior – or you just find it intellectually interesting, but come on, the world has always changed, and if there is some trouble, somehow the engineers will find a way out.

Pope Francis
Therefore it is not reasonable to postulate something like "anthropocenic ethics". But it would be fairly appropriate to say: Geoethics goes along with the anthropocene.

Recently, Pope Francis published his Encyclical "Laudato si’". The news is not that the Catholic Church acknowledges a need for action due to environmental problems. But contrary to the clerical positions so far, Francis doesn't refer to it just as "conservation of the creation" (leaving it to us to imagine what "the creation" is). He as he connects climate change or the uneven distribution of water to questions of poverty reduction, he points out, that the "environment" is not something "out there", but it's the foundation for the living of future generations. This is to say, he is now the most popular representative of geoethics in the world. But does he know it?

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