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Terraforming Earth, Part III: Geoethical Principles

The pace and course of global warming-induced climate disruption is such that, even with an aggressive global effort to cut greenhouse gas output starting today, temperatures will continue to rise for two or three decades. If the effect of rising temperatures hits a "tipping point" resulting in far-more-radical changes to the Earth's ecosystems than one might otherwise expect, we may be forced into using riskier, planetary-scale engineering projects to mitigate the changes and return us to "Earth-like" conditions. In Terraforming Earth, I looked at some of the proposals for large-scale reversals of temperature increases and CO2 buildup; In Terraforming Earth, Part II, I looked at the complexities of bioengineered adjustment instead of geoengineered mitigation.

But whether we end up taking the mitigation or the adjustment course, we will want -- need -- clear guidelines to help us make the right choices. Such guidelines would, for some, seem like common sense; indeed, their use would not be to tell us what to do, but as a consistent metric against which to test proposals. These principles would not tell us whether a given strategy would succeed or fail, but whether the strategy would be the right course of action.

As an explicit parallel to bioethics, these guidelines would be known as "geoethics."

Bioethics are the guidelines against which biomedical researchers and practitioners measure their own difficult decisions. While the concept is by no means new, it was first formalized in 1979, in a book entitled Principles of Biomedical Ethicsby Tom Beuchamp and James Childress. Beuchamp and Childress conceived four core principles: autonomy, the personal responsibility over our own lives, and the ability to make decisions for ourselves; non-maleficence, essentially "first of all, do no harm" (a notion derived from Hippocrates, but not actually part of the Hippocratic Oath); beneficence, a positive obligation to advance the welfare of others; and justice, the allocation of healthcare resources according to a just standard. These have become widely-accepted core principles for many working in the medical practice and medical research fields.

Like bioethics, the term "geoethics" is not new; unlike its biological cousin, there is no consistent definition of what geoethics covers, let alone its core principles. The closest I've found comes, not altogether surprisingly, from a WorldChanging ally. Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology posted recently about the 1st Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology. Treder defined geoethics thusly:

"Geoethical" means widely agreed-upon principles for guiding the application of technologies that can have a general environmental (including people) impact, much like bioethical principles (autonomy, beneficence, nonfeasance, justice) guide the application of curative technologies that specifically impact one or more patients.

Suggestive, but still vague. How is "technology" defined -- would cars be included? Highways? Cities? Fire? What about practices that are not explicitly technological, but demonstrate an observable environmental impact (such as deforestation, agriculture, and mining)? How much of an environmental impact is enough to be covered? Subsequent literature searches (detailed below*) only muddied the waters further.

The upside of this lack of consistency is that we can define geoethics and geoethical principles for ourselves without too much worry about disagreement with an established definition.

I will propose a draft definition of geoethics, along with some suggested principles, but I'm looking for input (in the comments, preferably, but in email, too) from the larger WorldChanging community as to the phrasing and value of the concept.

Proposed phrasing:

Geoethics is the set of guidelines pertaining to human behaviors that can affect larger planetary geophysical systems, including atmospheric, oceanic, geological, and plant/animal ecosystems. These guidelines are most relevant when the behaviors can result in long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes in planetary systems, although even transient, local and superficial alterations can be considered through the prism of geoethics. Geoethical principles do not forbid long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes, but require a consideration of repercussions and so-called "second-order effects" (that is, the usually-unintended consequences arising from the interaction of the changed system and other connected systems).

Proposed core principles:

  • Interconnectedness -- planetary systems do not exist in isolation, and changes made to one system will have implications for other systems.
  • Diversity -- on balance, a diverse ecosystem is more resilient and flexible, better able to adapt to natural changes.
  • Foresight -- consideration of effects of changes should embrace the planetary pace, not the human pace.
  • Integration -- as human societies are part of the Earth's systems, changes made should take into consideration effects on human communities, and the needs of human communities should not be discounted or dismissed when considering overall impacts.
  • Expansion of Options -- on balance, choices made should increase the number of options and opportunities for future generations, not reduce them.
  • Reversibility -- changes made to planetary systems should be done in a way that allows for reconsideration if unintended and unexpected consequences arise.

    Going into a bit more detail:

    Interconnectedness is a recognition that the various planetary systems have deep and sometimes subtle cross-dependencies. Changes directly affecting a given system cannot be assumed to be neutral with regards to other systems; changes to (say) surface reflectivity, such as in the urban heat island effect, can in turn result in changes to rainfall patterns, influence the level of atmospheric ozone and particulate matter, and help determine the degree to which light from the Sun is absorbed.

    Diversity is an argument against monocultures arising directly from and as an unintended consequence of human activity. Direct monocultures include commercial forest stands; unintended monocultures include the proliferation of aggressive invasive organisms (e.g., "weeds") after environmental shifts open up new niches. Monocultures make ecosystems less able to survive shocks.

    Foresight is not a new concept at WorldChanging, even if expressed in somewhat different language. Ecological and geophysical changes tend to be slow, in human terms, and it's important when considering the implications of proposed actions to think in terms of the planet's pace, not just society's pace. An example would be the (as of now uncommon) recognition that global warming involves slow but relentless changes, such that quick shifts in human behavior will have no noticeable immediate effect.

    Integration is an explicit counter to the "die-off" line of thinking that places the needs of human societies below all other systems on the planet. Not only does the "die-off" argument result in ecological disaster as desperate societies try to grab remaining resources, its logic leads to the argument that (a) since human society is inherently unsustainable, and (b) since the planet, given sufficient time, can recover from any environmental burden we place on it before we die, there's no reason to be cautious, and we should do as we like with no concern for the future. Seeing human societies as part of the planet's systems, and as worthy of preservation and protection as any other part, allows for a longer-term perspective.

    Expansion of Options encompasses "sustainability," but is a larger concept. This means more than simply finding a sustainable balance of use and preservation; expansion of options means actively seeking behaviors that return more resources to the planet than they take, that emphasize renewal and reuse, and that provide a growing, diverse basis for future innovation.

    Reversibility is an attempt to capture the idea that, where possible, we should bias towards those choices that allow for reconsideration if unanticipated and undesirable consequences arise. Reversibility will not always be an option -- indeed, when matched with the Foresight principle, we may not recognize a problem until well after the option of reversal has passed. But when reversible options are available, they should be given special consideration.

    These principles and the statement of geoethics are obviously works-in-progress, and need greater refinement, elaboration and vision. I welcome and encourage suggestions and argument.

    Jamais Cascio, July 26, 02005

    * It turns out that a clear and consistent statement of geoethics is difficult to find. A USC seminar on Environment and Ethics defines it as "the idea of applying a range of moral principles according to the context of a given situation." In Peripheral Visions: Towards a Geoethics of Citizenship, authors Eve Walsh Stoddard and Grant H. Cornwell assert that "[by] a geoethics of citizenship we are suggesting a project of seeking understanding quite literally through the triangulation of different points of view." Ethicist Martine Rothblatt, in Your life or mine; how geoethics can resolve the conflict between public and private interests in xenotransplantation, looks at geoethics as a global set of rules to balance private and public interests in issues such as cross-species transplantation of tissues. Czech economists Vaclav Nemec and Lidmila Nemcová (DOC) propose geoethics as

    a new discipline (in both Earth sciences and applied ethics) in order to help in decision making whenever ethical dilemmas occur in problems connected with the sustainable use of non-renewable mineral resources (mainly in the fields of geology, mining activities and energy resources).

    As this variety suggests, although the term "geoethics" has been floating around for well over a decade (Nemc and Nemcová claim to have used it since 1991), there is no agreement as to what it means.

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    Comments (12)

    Daniel Johnston:

    Aaaargh! Opening such a fascinating topic as this on what are some of my pet obsessions (philosophy/anthropology student as I am)just as I go to India for 3 weeks! I will just have to hope the discussion still continues when I return. But it looks like you are on the right track - the most important being the focus on the earth as a whole system and other aspects being reinforcing subsystems. Deciding what constitutes the health of the main system is the hardest part. Good Luck. See you in a few weeks (unless I can find an internet cafe in Delhi!)

    Daniel Johnston:

    Aaaargh! Opening such a fascinating topic as this on what are some of my pet obsessions (philosophy/anthropology student as I am)just as I go to India for 3 weeks! I will just have to hope the discussion still continues when I return. But it looks like you are on the right track - the most important being the focus on the earth as a whole system and other aspects being reinforcing subsystems. Deciding what constitutes the health of the main system is the hardest part. Good Luck. See you in a few weeks (unless I can find an internet cafe in Delhi!)

    Jonathan Pfeiffer:

    I have a question and an observation. Question: What is the difference, if any, between geoethics and environmental ethics? Observation: Geoethics seems to have an inherent complication not present in biomedical ethics. Isn't biomedical ethics simpler in the fact that it mostly or exclusively involves balancing the rights of individual humans or groups of humans?
    This idea of geoethics suggests to me the possibility of non-human entities being considered to have rights. Here's an example: Let's assume a person decides the "geoethical" thing to do is to cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climatic change. Whose rights would that decision be intended to protect? The rights of the planet, or the rights of the *people* who would suffer or die because of higher temperatures and sea levels, etc? Could geoethics, depending on how it is defined, lead to an opinion that the planet needs to be protected for its own sake, for reasons beyond the benefit of mere humans? It seems to me that any "geoethicist" would need to decide which entities have rights, or alternatively, whose rights really matter. (I don't have any immediate answer.)

    Daniel Haran:

    Just trying to clarify here- seems we are addressing geoethics as a specialization of environmental ethics, applying it to efforts to address human intervention in the geo-climatic system.

    Jamais, if this is accurate, perhaps you could change "human behaviors that can affect larger planetary geophysical systems" to "human behaviors seeking to affect larger planetary geophysical systems."

    To me, the "Precautionary principle" is a reflection of our deep ignorance- there are so many interconnections that we can not know them all, so we must be careful intervening. The first principle of medicine should be "Do no harm." It's the first thing I think of when looking at any complex system- the less is done, the better I think we are.

    "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food" seems like an exhortation to practice prevention. Creating algae blooms to sequester CO2 while ignoring the nurturing of corporations focused on restorative business models is backwards. I also wonder if our interventions can be made self-correcting. I'll take the example of artificial reefs to sequester CO2- could we build them so that if CO2 concentrations keep rising they keep growing faster, but if the opposite happens they slow down? Adding a self-checking feedback loop to an already complex system seems like a safe bet, and the medicine (intervention to heal the system) becomes food (part of the normal climate cycle).

    Hmm... the more global warming, the more incentive to build artifical reefs. Seems to me like that's elegant- maybe we should be talking about geo-aesthetics? :)

    I understand environmental ethics to be concerned primarily with ecosystems and biology. If that's the case, I consider geoethics to be a superset of environmental ethics, not a specialization.

    To address a couple of points: assigning rights to non-humans is by not inherently a problem to me; but determining how those rights are assigned is, as you suggest, a challenge; the precautionary principle can be useful here, but it depends on how it's defined (there are versions that fit, and versions that end up translating into across-the-board inaction.

    I *really* like the idea of adding self-correction.

    Jonathan Pfeiffer raises a really interesting point. Once you start looking at ethics on a global level, ecosystems become more important than any one organism. The health of the planet over 10 millenia is of primary importance.

    How is this reconciled with humanist ethics, when there are collisions with geo-ethics?

    "How is this reconciled with humanist ethics, when there are collisions with geo-ethics?"

    I think they're reconciled by realizing you can't have one without the other.

    I would agree with many comments here.

    One observation about the precautionary principle: it works best in situations where *not* acting has few or no negative results. In regards to climate change, I think the choice of no responsive action is itself an action with profound negative results.

    I think that humanist values must absolutely be integrated into this sort of ethics, if only because to fail to address the profound human needs (or even perceived needs) around us is to fail, politically.

    We need an ethical system which guides us not only to planetary health, but to a human standard of living which is much better for the vast majority of people than we have now.

    Anything less, is, as I wrote in Winning the Great Wager, likely to lead to the failure of the whole project.

    Perhaps some recognition of that needs to be explicitly woven into the statement of values?

    This is where robust indicators could be very helpful. I'll stick my neck on the chopping block and propose the following:

    For a given population of people, there is some basic level of material comforts and decencies below which no one should be forced to live - measured how? (Infant mortality, literacy, kCal/capita, protein/capita, - ?)

    The total environmental footprint of this population must not exceed one planet Earth (leaving space colonization out of the discussion for now) - "Environmental Footprint" being an excellent indicator, developed by Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, although there are of course others.

    There is a functioning, healthy, planetary bio-geo-chemical system, unbelievably complex, with multiple feedback loops and surprising delays of information, stocks we can run down for a while, flows whose limits we need to live within. This can be thought of as "Natural Capital" and "Ecosystem Services". It's stupid to erode Natural Capital since that's what provides the Ecosystem Services. How to measure and monitor this is a whopping big discussion of its own.

    We haven't begun to fathom the ways in which Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services can help us; we're just scratching the surface of cradle-to-cradle resource use, biomimicry, renewable energy fluxes, etc. (Is there an indicator for how well our political economy matches that of nature?)

    We have no idea how "brittle" or "resilient" Natural Capital is; therefore, we have no idea how much pressure we can put upon it, or how much needs to be left as unaltered as possible for "insurance". (How are we doing with indicators of planetary "resilience?)

    Technology is useful when aimed at decent living standards, reducing ecological footprint and preserving natural capital and ecosystem services; it's not useful when it runs counter to those goals. Increasing "benign" technology helps people live within limits at a higher standard - and in some cases, can help provide the security, education and services people need to begin planning their families and limiting the number of children they have. Technology can also fuel its own growth, but it can't in and of itself decide its goals. (What's an "indicator" for a level of technological skill applied to useful purposes?)

    When natural capital is eroded enough to diminish ecosystem services, then living standards suffer, and human resources must be diverted to providing human substitutes for ecosystem services - assuming that's even possible. That's not progress. We face that now when confronting the very real prospect of "terraforming" Earth;

    Gross injustice of living standards and conflict over resources divert resources to military power, police and surveillance, rules and codes, interventions in markets, short-term palliatives, etc. That's (usually) not progress.

    For a given technological level, and a given amount of natural capital, population growth reduces available resources per capita. There is a maximum possible population on this planet. That, I think has to be one cornerstone of "geo-ethics".

    If there aren't too many of us, consuming too much of the Earth's Natural Capital, then we free resources to increasing human welfare instead of trying to keep our current system patched together a little longer. When we aim technology toward living decently within physical limits, we're on the right track. When we restore Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services, our long-term welfare increases. When we have to divert scarce resources from human needs to prop up unstable natural and social systems, we're impoverished.

    At this point in history, there's no longer a tradeoff between human and planetary health. To help one, we must see to the other. We are Nature.

    Well, there's some skeet for everyone to shoot at.

    Chris Maynard:

    Just for the record, "do no harm" is not part of the Hippocratic Oath. It's in "Epidemics", also by Hippocrates.
    Arguments haved a lot more weight when quotes are accurate.

    Chris, I suspect that lots of people think that "do no harm" is part of the Hippocratic Oath -- when I saw it referenced as such in one of the essays on bioethics linked to in the post, I had no reason to think otherwise.

    I'll confirm and edit appropriately.

    Confirmed and edited.

    Thanks, Chris. I wasn't aware that was a misconception, and am always happy to learn something new.


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