Geoethics in the Years of Living Dangerously

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
James Schmitt, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, United States
The geosciences lag behind the ecologic and atmospheric sciences in addressing the major scientific and societal ethical issues facing the inhabitants of planet Earth. Regardless, major emerging ethical issues at the interface of the earth system with society demand geoscientist engagement. These include climate change, extinction and biodiversity decline, transformation of terrestrial landscapes and related impacts on ocean ecosystems, and the consequential resonance of these changes on human health, economic and environmental justice, and political stability. The societal factors driving these issues derive from a world view founded on speciesism (human dominion), utilitarian use of resources, unquestioned population and economic growth, and human difficulty in perceiving deep time and large spatial scale. Accommodation of the supernatural, mythical, and political realms with science has led to widespread conflation of scientific consensus with opinion, driving denial of both climate change and evolution.

Future success in rationally addressing these ethical conundrums requires geoscientist engagement across the social, political, economic, ethical, philosophical, and historical realms of inquiry. Geoscientists must be well-versed in earth system science principles and the major geologic concepts relevant to understanding anthropogenic change including deep time, the fossil record of evolution, and changes across multiple spatial and temporal scales that transcend human experience. They must also: 1) confront the global population issue, using the archaeological and historical record of its recent rapidly accelerated growth, especially as it impacts resource consumption and earth system function, 2) forcefully address the effects of agriculture on the atmosphere, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, disease, urbanization, and political instability, 3) apply the synthetic principles of conservation biology, including ecosystem science, geoecology, and major advances in understanding the cognitive abilities and social dimensions of non-human animals to address ethical issues involving humanity’s impact on the Earth’s biota, and 4) work to end the accommodation of belief systems with science that invariably leads to denialism and historical confabulation.