Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Earth seconds: Evolution did a great job!

Yes, evolution did a great job! 
No wonder it took its time; 4.7 billion years, plus minus some; 
Yes, 4.700.000.000 years.

How long is 4.7 billion years? 
 Is there any chance for us to feel that elapse of time? 
 None whatsoever!

Nevertheless, I would like to take the challenge. I fold that very long line of millions, billions of years into something that could mimic the human time-line.

How? I will count years of Earth's history as seconds of human life. Thus, each year of Earth, or the time needed that Earth circles once the Sun, I will count as one Earth-second. This different manner of counting shall put in perspective both the passing of time that we, humans, feel and the passing of time that describes the development of a planet.

When expending upon that way of counting from seconds to years, sixty Earth-seconds add up to one Earth-minute, three-thousand six-hundred Earth-seconds add up to one Earth-hour, eighty-six-thousand four-hundred Earth-seconds add up to one Earth-day, and thirty-one-million-five-hundred-thirty-six-thousand Earth-seconds add up to one Earth- year (1), and so on.

How does it all feel? 
A second feels like an elapse of time that we know. 
A year feels like an elapse of time that we know, too.

Now you:
How does the difference between the two feel? 

A year counts for many seconds, namely thirty-one-million-five-hundred-thirty-six-thousand; what sounds like a lot, indeed. That thirty-one-million… number does not feel like anything, although a year feels specific and a second feels specific, too. So, try hard to feel a second, or a year. Feeling the difference between both elapses of time should give you quite a particular sensation. That sensation is the thirty-one-million… something by which I like to fold the Earth’s timeline onto a human timeline.

A fairy tale?

Babylonian records of Venus
(from Wikipedia) 
Now imagine counting a year as a second of Earth's life-time. Next, a minute of Earth's life would make up for most of a human life-time; time for sixty circles of planet Earth around the Sun. An hour of Earth's life-time, or three-thousand six-hundred Earth-seconds, would cover most of the period of which we, humans, have some written records. 

It would go back to the 16th century B.C., when the Babylonian people kept astronomical records of the motion of planet Venus. Half an hour earlier, counted in Earth-seconds, the Egyptians would have built the big Pyramids of Giza. 

A day of Earth's life would go back to times when our human species had evolved in Africa, just more or less ready to conquer the globe and to replace other hominid species. 

And a year of Earth's life would go back before modern fauna evolved, before continents had drifted to their present positions, before rapidly cooling Antarctica had become more isolated, and before the Antarctic Circumpolar Current had started flowing. Within a year of Earth's time-line several biological, climatic and geological changes of the Earth system occur. Just like a year in human life may be marked by substantial change.

Earth has an age of 65 million times the span of a human life. This is an enormous number. However, counting Earth-years the count is only hundred-forty-nine. Happily, when counting a year as a second of Earth's life, then Earth’s history folds on a timespan that can be captured by human perception. 

The span of a human lifetime would be equivalent to 60 to 90 Earth-seconds. When counting the 4.7 billion years of Earth's existence, i.e. 4,700,000,000 Earth-seconds, then, the result adds up to hundred-forty-nine Earth-years or one and a half Earth-century. That kind of elapse of time our perception can capture. 

It means thinking back to times when your great-grandparents were young. We know them from pictures that were made when they were old.

Thus, when counting years as Earth-seconds, the time line of Earth's history is folded in such a manner, that Earth's history becomes imaginable for a human mind. It simply means mapping Earth's history on the combined lifespan of our great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, us and our children. Thus, four or five generations are needed to illustrate the painstakingly long period of time that has passed since Earth was formed out of stellar dust, since the very first forms of life have emerged, since more complex organisms have formed and, finally, since human beings have conquered the globe.

Fold one: how long is a billion or two?

Our planet, Earth evolves since about 4.7 billion years, since it had formed as ball melting old stellar dust and ice into something new. Ticking years as Earth-seconds Earth started to form nearly 150 Earth-years ago.

A billion Earth-seconds counts for little less than 32 Earth-years.

Thus, ticking years as Earth-seconds, Earth emerged from stellar dust as great-grandparents were born. During their childhood, Earth grew. More and more interstellar dust and ice aggregated by gravitation. Messengers from those very early times are iron-nickel meteorites that hit the Earth still today. When great-grandparents were youngsters, the surface layer of the Earth cooled so much that rocks formed. First heavy basalts emerged that got recycled and, then, lighter granites and gneiss consolidated that float on the basalts.

Acasta Gneiss
(from Wikipedia)
Some of the oldest rocks, Acasta Gneiss (4.3 billion years) can be found in the Canadian Northwest Territories. Since the time of their formation, the chemical evolution of Earth was been spinning-up; different kinds of minerals and rocks have formed. 

Just about when great-grandparents were grown ups and grandparents were toddlers, a billion years of chemical evolution had led to quite advanced living cells (cyanobacteria). They were releasing oxygen into the world and evolution of Earth was made to spin faster. New kinds of minerals appeared and never seen before rocks could form. Living slim started to cover the rocky shores of the ocean. Since that time, stromatolites (3) have been on Earth. 

Once a sufficient amount of oxygen had been produced and released into the atmosphere, iron got oxidised and large iron ore deposits formed on Earth. Grandparents were already old when the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere was approaching levels that we know today, and the deep ocean got oxidised. 

Thus, it took the life span of two generations - about half the history of the Earth or more than 2 billion years – to evolve from molten stellar dust to a planet with reddish land, blue oceans and slimy live along the shore.

Fold two: how long are some millions?

Fossil Stromatolith (Huy, Germany)
(from Wikipedia)
Modern terrestrial animals, mammals as we know them, exist since about 50 million years. The geological epoch when they emerged (Eocene) started after 99% of Earth’s history had passed already. It started warm, and wide oceans created a moist global environment. Apart from the driest deserts, forests were spreading from pole to pole. These forests would look reasonably familiar to our eyes. Dinosaurs had started off, lasted for more than 180 million years and had disappeared well before. Trilobites in the sea had started off half a billion years ago, lasted for 300 million years and disappeared before the Dinosaurs.

50 million Earth-seconds are close to one and a half Earth-year. 180 million Earth-seconds are little less than 6 Earth-years and 300 million Earth-seconds are little less than 10 Earth-years.

Thus, ticking years as Earth-seconds and thinking in generations, the Eocene is part of my very recent past; me being now 32 years old. Dinosaurs I saw a few Earth-years ago, as well as Trilobites when I was an adolescent. Grandparents, as they were young, have seen first stromatolites and other microbiological mats along the shore line of the sea. Forefathers mostly knew rocks only, and witnessed bio-molecules emerging from more simple chemistry, but my parents, me and my children saw and see life conquering Earth.

Fold three: how long is a million or two?

Early human beings (Homo erectus) evolved about one million years from earlier hominid species. These species evolved three to four million years ago, leaving apes well behind them.

Again, ticking years as Earth-seconds one million seconds are a little more than 11.5 Earth-days, and four million Earth-seconds are about one and a half Earth-months. 

Thus, folding time scales and counting years as Earth-seconds, human beings emerged on Earth a little earlier this month, agriculture started just three hours ago, steam engine’s puffing was heard three minutes ago, and the first atom bomb blow up a minute ago.

A fair story!

So, when counted in Earth-seconds, our human history is a story of a few minutes or hours. Counting Earth-seconds, living plants and animals populate the planet since some years, at best since two decades; first they lived in the sea and much later they lived on land as well. Using the same folded time scale, the beginning of microbiological life on our planet dates back hundred to hundred-twenty years from today or up to four billion Earth-seconds ago. That is a century of Earth-years before more developed forms of life could emerge on planet Earth.

Thus indeed, evolution took its time and seized its chances. We are witnessing the very recent bursts of life. However, the endless aeons of ancestor's times stay hidden. It took an enormous elapse of time for simple forms of life to emerge and develop before we could burst into being, as we know it. It is to us to preserve it!

p.s. If you like to read more about Earth's history over billions of years, then I recommend "The Story of Earth: The first 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet" by Robert M. Hazen. 

(1) Approximating the year to 365 days. The sidereal years has 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.54 seconds, or 31,558,149.54 seconds. (2) The contorted white bands in the Acasta gneiss consist of quartz and feldspar, two minerals common in granite. Their occurrence tells us the gneiss was metamorphosed from granitic rock contained in Earth's earliest continental crust. Most granite forms by melting of an older basaltic crust in the presence of water, rather than by direct melting of Earth's mantle. Thus, the Acasta gneiss provides indirect evidence of the presence of water on the early Earth, and for a basaltic crust that formed approximately 4.03 billion years ago. (3) Stromatolites are formed in tidal zones by colonies of cyanobacteria accumulating sand grains into layered structures.

Note: This text was published some years ago on this blog; it got re-edited for better reading. Thank you LL !
Pictures not credited to third parties are mine.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Human Niche & Citizen's Geoscience

Why "citizen geoscience" or "citizen earth scientists" should be a feature of modern geosciences? Why is opportune to encourage of citizens to participate at geoscience projects? How does "citizen geoscience" relate to geoethics? [*]

At the very conceptual roots, 'geoethics' and 'citizen science' have a clear relationship.

Namely, when 'geoethics' (i) "consists of research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system", and (ii) "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" (quote from IAPG's outline of "geoethics") then 'geoethics' is as much about citizens as it is about geoscientists, their various lifestyles and different professional conducts, respectively.

Geoethics & Human Niche

The relationship between geoethics and citizen science is enshrined in the generic application case of geoethics, namely "appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system." Interactions of human activities with the geosphere are ample, are very close to citizens' daily lives, and often do not involve a geoscientist acting in a professional capacity. Geoscience know-how is firmly knotted into many day-to-day activities of modern societies and the design of contemporary production systems and consumption patterns. To a considerable degree, the related engineering works are applied geosciences.

Let's recall; within the first decade of the 21st Century, it became evident also for the wider public, that humankind has built throughout its history an anthropogenic bio-geosphere, i.e. the 'Anthropocene' [1, 2]. This 'human niche' [3, 4] was constructed through more and more effective engineering of production systems, patterns of consumption of resources, which transformed the natural environments. The ongoing process of accelerated anthropogenic global change is a genuine part of a historical process of niche construction. People's activities systematically intersect the bio-geosphere for the purpose to maintain people's well-being, mutual care-taking, and reproduction.

Leptic Regosol (Calcaric) - credit: 
Antonio Jordan (Imaggeo)
Examples to illustrate this perspective of engineering a human niche are many, such as (i) Civil engineering is about building visible intersections of the geosphere and economic activities; e.g. dredging a waterway, building a bridge or constructing a hydropower plant; (ii) a less visible intersection is the design of production systems and consumption patterns, which couple human activity and the bio-geosphere through fluxes of matter and energy; (iii) urban dwellings may serve as a further example; they are a visible intersection with the bio-geosphere and on they are coupled with the bio-geosphere through massive fluxes of matter and energy; e.g. receiving drinking water and ejecting waste water, receiving electric power or fuels and ejecting heat, receiving food and ejecting manufactured goods that at the end of their life-cycle are discarded or recycled elsewhere on the globe; (iv) as more as technology evolved as more convoluted get the involvement of geosciences, such as renewable energy from the wind and solar, local weather forecast of thunderstorms, sea wave forecast for shipping, or global position systems shielded against solar storms.

Human Niche & Citizen Geoscience

The comfortable 'human niche' requires a well-functioning bio-geosphere. Such well-functioning may get disrupted to our disdain by natural hazards. Also, it may be threatened by people's acts when natural mechanisms, such as slope stability are ignored. In that sense, geoscience know-how is an intangible public good that is paramount for the well-being of citizens, at least in modern societies.

Retreat of the Morteratsch Glacier, Switzerland
Credit: Wolfgang Schwanghart (Imaggeo)
Against the backdrop that geosciences knowledge is paramount for the well-being of people, citizen geoscience is a very timely and appropriate undertaking of empowerment. Considering professional geosciences; citizen geoscience is complementary to i) the core of professional activities, ii) outreach and communication activities, and iii) commitment to "responsible science and research".

What science policy circles is debated under the label "responsible science and research" refers to a wider set of activities, which intend to put any research into its respective societal context, just as it is appropriate for a knowledge-based society. In that context, the very subject of geosciences and direct relevance of its professions for the functioning of society make the relationship between geosciences and citizen science evident and therefore makes geoethics essential for the daily life in the 'human niche'.

A specific example how the citizen science component evolves in contemporary geosciences is provided by the European Seismological Commission (ESC):  " networks have multiplied the direct interactions between individual seismologists and citizens. Observational seismology has entered schools where they can detect signals from large global earthquakes and do real science with real data. Doing real science is one of the goals of citizen science projects alongside augmenting data collection and crowdsourcing observations on earthquake phenomena... These developments change the way we, as scientists interact with society. They present significant opportunities to transfer the value of scientific research to citizens..." (ESC 35th General Assembly, September 2016) and thus to society.

History of Science & Citizens

Considering the history of science from a lay-public perspective, the modern European science endeavour started in the Renaissance. At those times, a minuscule fraction of the still tiny urban elite undertook research of natural phenomena.  At those times, new insights trickled only slowly into the daily dealings of citizens, although their effect can be traced [5].

Multi-functionality Port Wine Region Landscapes
Credit: Mónica Alexandra Rodrigues (Imaggeo)
It took about two centuries of further social, economic and political developments, wealthy sponsor, public prizes such as the 'longitude prize', and governments' investments into infrastructures (bridges, roads, and channels), mining technology, and means for power projection, and still research results, scientific findings and technological developments got used only slowly. Any modification of standard practices had to master a long-lasting process of trial and error before it was accepted by the citizens [6]. The lasting elapses of testing should be seen as positive because they served to make insights and discoveries 'fit for practice' within the realm of societal doings.

Since then, in the wake of emerging capitalistic production forms, the social basis of endeavour into research, science and technology did broaden much. This change can be measured as well by counting the number of scientists as also by the wider interest in applying discoveries and technological developments. However, only after the Second World War the number of researchers, scientists and engineers did explode; possibly 90% of all scientists that ever lived are living today. Nowadays in developed countries several percents of the population work as a researcher, scientist or engineer.

This very recent steep increase of 'scientific workforce' is the basis of the surge of scientific-technical knowledge of the late 20th century. Combined with the eagerness to apply the scientific-technical knowledge at a large scale and rapidly the world of the 21st Century (western counting) emerged.

Global Change & Citizen Spectator

Fed by the rapidly increasing knowledge, the ongoing scientific-technical revolution and its industrial-societal expression leaves huge parts of the societies and their governments in the simple role of a spectator; just as in the past with the difference that the spectator far more rapidly gets drawn into the game.

This passive role (i.e. spectator) is a substantial risk because of i) the speed, breadth and depths of the contemporary change processes and ii) the less-noticed interferences of these multiple change process in the daily societal doings. Notwithstanding, the challenge of the speed, breadth and depths and mutual interferences of ongoing change process may be a singular opportunity if faced, appropriately.

Isolated Thunderstorm
Credit: Peter Huber (Imaggeo)
A useful metric of the risk-taking, which is taken regarding the current change process in the material basis of the society, is the momentum of the anthropogenic global change process of the bio-geosphere, which we witness nowadays. This change, which got baptised "the great acceleration", possibly runs up to case that geologists like to re-name the current geological times 'Anthropocene'. Notwithstanding what the geologists decide for their professional use, the notion 'Anthropocene' is already a quite common intellectual staple that is driving debate in many scholarly circles, public audiences and has led to a fascinating rethinking of how to understand humankind in the world.

In retrospective, the ongoing societal and economic processes that change the dynamics of Earth systems could gain such a strong momentum because the early signals were not captured by the society and governments, although that research had identified them. The depletion of stratospheric ozone and its handling is possibly the exception [7]. As the climate change debates show, first signals got lost; and once signals were captured it took much work and time to agree on 'what to do', hopefully. The now unfolding anthropogenic global change will cause significant adjustments to people's living conditions in most parts of the globe. To tame these change processes, as far as possible, much geoscience know-how will have to be deployed in a socially sustainable manner.

Other dynamics of change of a comparative vigour than the anthropogenic global change process in the bio-geosphere are shown, for example, in fields like information technologies for 'artificial intelligence' or bio-technologies for 'synthetic biology'. Anyhow, to what degree dynamics of change are comparable; the vigour of change in knowledge-based societies requires better linkages between researching, scientific study, technological development and 'ordinary' societal activities. Research, study and development in cooperation with citizen scientists would provide additional linkages. Subsequently, it should limit societal risk-taking to miss early signals about changes that likely modify citizen's daily life.

Global Change & Citizen Scientist

Considering citizen scientists as a possible resource; many people initially take a scientific education for another profession than doing research, scientific study or developing technology. More people are experience-based practitioners in matters that are researched. Thus, the number of people (i.e. citizens) that could get involved with research, science or technological development is bigger as the core of active researchers, scientists and engineers. Given that situation, these citizens are both an ancillary workforce, i.e. a crowd of experienced partners, and sources of additional insights that are rooted in their work and life experiences. Citizen scientists can bring these other insights into the research-science-technology endeavour. Also, through such participation the interferences and aggregated impacts of various intersecting change processes should get witnessed more early.

When considering the contemporary situation (i.e. of a knowledge-based society), namely that research results, scientific findings and technological developments rapidly get applied citizen science may be a test-bed for new insights and discoveries. Obviously, nowadays much testing is done before discoveries get applied; this is part of the research and technological development, and wide-ranging regulations frame these tests. Nevertheless, little testing happens in a comprehensive societal context following lines of conducts that are similar to 'clinical trials' in medical research. Furthermore, a test of research results, scientific findings and technological developments through trial and error as part of the daily societal practice may not be practical or even unethical. The downside of that situation is that the daily dealings of citizens may get changed much, the changes may come with little involvement from their side, and particular involvement upstream to the choices that will drive these change may be missed. Such a situation is a perfect receipt for frustration, resistance and obstruction. Given that situation, more comprehensive insight into the application of science, research and technological development is needed, which does both, it relates to daily practice and involves the citizen actively. Citizen science is a means to gain such insights for the benefit of both, the research providers and the public.

Citizen Geosciences

An example of the possible benefits of citizen geoscience is offered by the change process that the global bio-economy likely will mean for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals as El-Chichakli and colleagues write [8; p.222]: "A global bio-economy must rebuild natural capital and improve the quality of life for a growing world population. It should balance managing common goods, such as air, water and soil, with the economic expectations of people. Three types of innovation will be needed …Also needed will be citizen-science evaluations [my underlining] of new houses, local wood-recycling and construction efforts. Sustainable food systems will require advances in plant breeding, food products, and farming and cultivation techniques ….Inclusiveness and knowledge transfer are important."

Beyond noticing the limited scope of citizen science in bio-economy, as expressed by the authors, what should be questioned, the link between bio-economy to geosciences it is noteworthy. The link is made evident through referring to "common goods, such as air, water and soil" or "farming and cultivation techniques" that are essential geo-features of the 'human niche'.

As for many features of contemporary production systems and consumption patterns, the quote above provides evidence that their link with geosciences is seen implicit, at the best. Possibly, for most, it passes unnoticed although global bio-economy designed to "rebuild natural capital and improve the quality of life" actually means engineering at planetary scale. What that could mean regarding anthropogenic global change is witnessed by the modification of the global nitrogen cycle that happens – somewhat unnoticed – since the beginning of the 20th Century [9]. More practice of citizen sciences in geoscience projects should be a means to counter such negligence of otherwise knowledgeable people.

Summary: Citizen Geoscience is applied Geoethics

Water and colleagues [2] in their paper "The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene" stresses the relevance of functional change. It is the behaviours and practices of people that are built into production systems and consumption patterns of our societies, which bring the interactions with the Earth system, which result in this functional change of Earth dynamics, in turn. Under this perspective, a perspective of an anthropocentric Anthropocene, i.e.; human niche for a global population of billion people, geoethics is a common good that needs citizen involvement.

Therefore, to mention "appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system" as the general application case of geoethics, is crucial. Subsequently, fostering citizen science may be part of the professional activities of any geoscientist. It is applied geoethics.

Ukko El'Hob

[*] The reader looking for an account how citizen science activities evolved and a definition of it, such as "scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions" may refer to the respective entry in Wikipedia or the principles of good practice in citizen science offered by the European Citizen Science Association.

[1] Foley, Stephen F., Detlef Gronenborn, Meinrat O. Andreae, Joachim W. Kadereit, Jan Esper, Denis Scholz, Ulrich Pöschl, et al. 2013. "The Palaeoanthropocene – The Beginnings of Anthropogenic Environmental Change." Anthropocene 3 (November): 83–88. doi:10.1016/j.ancene.2013.11.002.

[2] Waters, Colin N., Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Clément Poirier, A. Gauszka, Alejandro Cearreta, et al. 2016. "The Anthropocene Is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene." Science 351 (6269) (January 8): aad2622–aad2622. doi:10.1126/science.aad2622.

[3] Ellis, Erle C. 2015. "Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere." Ecological Monographs 85 (3): 287–331. doi:10.1890/14-2274.1.

[4] Fuentes, Agustin. 2016. "The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Ethnography, and the Human Niche: Toward an Integrated Anthropology." Current Anthropology 57 (April 4): S000–S000. doi:10.1086/685684.

[5] Mensing, Scott, Irene Tunno, Gabriele Cifani, Susanna Passigli, Paula Noble, Claire Archer, Gianluca Piovesan 2016. "Human and climatically induced environmental change in the Mediterranean during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and Little Ice Age: A case from central Italy." Anthropocene (January 25).

[6] Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste. 2012. L’Apocalypse Joyeuse - Une Histoire Du Risque Technologique. Le Seuil.

[7] Wu, Yutian, Lorenzo M. Polvani, and Richard Seager. 2013. “The Importance of the Montreal Protocol in Protecting Earth’s Hydroclimate.” Journal of Climate 26 (12): 4049–4068.

[8] Beate El-Chichakli, Beate, Joachim von Braun, Christine Lang, Daniel Barben, Jim Philp (2016) Policy: Five cornerstones of a global bio-economy, Nature 353 (7611), Nature Publishing Group, Jul 12, 2016

[9] Morton, Oliver. 2015. The Planet Remade - How Geoengineering Could Change the World. Princton University Press

The initial version of this essay was prepared for the blog of the IAPG. A extended version was written after the author got informed about the speech of the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation at ESOF 2016 (23-27 July 2016); - doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00675.1, from which this blog-post is derived. Pictures: (i) Imaggeo, (ii) Author 

Sunday, 22 May 2016

STEM facing Gaia, or what to make of Bruno?

The year 2016 may be the 'hottest on record', again, as forecasters say. These days, the heatwave in India broke national record, peak temperatures well exceeding 50°C. People are suffering. Somehow these news are getting routine. 

The news triggered memory of the notion "nouveau regime climatique", coined by Bruno Latour, philosopher and sociologist. For French, European citizen the notions "nouvelle regime" versus "ancien regime" mark the transition to the modern world, as it was driven by the French revolution. The reference is to that kind of dramatic change that Bruno Latour makes by "nouvelle regime climatique". It's about a completely different view on the world and peoples places in this world.
Scale model of Sant Michele
Beginning 2016 I crawled through the book 'Face à Gaia' by Bruno Latour; presenting in its first chapter the notion 'geohistory' to characterize the process to gear up the Anthropocene. The book is written in French, generalizing a series of conferences at the University of Edinburgh. I recall too the experience, that beyond benefiting from challenging thoughts, that that reading about the same subject in different languages, and such facing different cultures, provides particular insights. On top, the prose is well written, for an intellectual audience that's keeping the pencils ready. Very French, indeed.

At the outset, Bruno Latour envisages to dissect the notions that we use to describe the processes gearing up to the Anthropocene. Some quotes from the first pages: (1) '...nous sommes tous des contre-révolutionaires, essayant de minimiser les conséquences d'une révolution qui s'est faite sans nous, contre nous et, en meme temps, par nous...' (p.55) [...we are counter-revolutionaries, trying to minimize the consequences of a revolution that happens without us, against us, and in the same manner by us] (2) '...rapeller à quelle point nous sommes tous mal équipés - affectivement, interlectuellement, moralment, politiquement, culturellement - pour absorber de telles nouvelles [de la géohistoire]' (p.62) [... to recall that we are completely unprepared - affection-wise, intellectually, ethically, politically, culturally - to take up such news [of geo-history] ], (3) '...cette Nature au sein de laquelle tant de scientifiques croient enore devoir se réfugier pour se protéger du sale boulot de la politique...' (p.64). [...this Nature in which the scientists took shelter from the dirty political work].

Half-way through the book, struggling with difficult matters, Bruno discusses how concepts in humanities have to change, now entering the Anthropocene. The evidence for an geo-history of the Anthropocene (past, present, future) is made. The aeon-old dichotomy of culture and nature, the supposition (in humanities & science) of a guiding 'agency' replaced by a continuum of interchangeable actors, avoiding anthropomorphic concepts and keeping exchangeable subject/object... all is a challenging reading. 

Happily, the Möbius-strip gives a good metaphor for the continuum of nature an culture in the Anthropocene: discussing from different (related) angles how self-perception of "humans" should evolve because we 'made' the Anthropocene. Understanding the Anthropocene means to force us that we internalise 'nature' into our multiple cultural realms. Gaia to be understood as a 'force of historisation' (p.283) or as a secular aggregation of all possible 'agents' by bias of feedbacks (p. 363).

Old rock fall - Piemont
The general line of Bruno's arguments comes evident: The Anthropocene implies that humans lost (overcome) an external reference, the Nature. Nature is internalised into our various cultures. In consequence Nature is - as 'kind' and not as 'object of' - an intrinsic part of culture, history and politics, and thus offers options to 'tame' the Anthropocene as one can handle a/any wicked problem. And thus, we have to agree among us about the compromises, which we like to make (to survive). The agreement at COP21 in Paris in December 2015, possibly, is a good example.

Is it worth to study Bruno's book, even for a STEM educated person? Yes, evidently it only can be a start into more reading and thinking. 

Without having published end 2015 a paper [*] on matters relating remotely to matters discussed in Bruno's book, I possibly would no have finished reading his book. 

The reading experience was perplexing. It oscillated between fascination and being bored, intersected with impression: 'stupid', I cannot grasp the argument fully. I guess that will the (hard) bread of (future) Anthropocene, the "nouveau regime climatique". It will be much more that hot days, weeks, years; it is question our 'raison d'etre'.

[*] Handling of Human-Geosphere Intersections, Geosciences 2016, 6(1), 3; doi:10.3390/geosciences6010003

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Why Geo-Humanities ?


Throughout their history humans developed their skills to alter their environments and nowadays it is obvious that they are altering Earth. So far, this kind of ' human geo-biosphere intersections' was collateral to the human activities, which are undertaken to appropriate resources or to shape the environment in view of world-views and preferences. Thus anthropogenic global change is a composite societal and natural process at a planetary scale, which includes attributes of the geo-biosphere and artefacts of the noosphere [1 - 5]. 

The noosphere is understood to be the ensemble of shared mental concepts, such as social, cultural or political insights of people and their interactions [6:130]. Understanding the features of the noosphere belongs to scholarly disciplines summarized as "humanities". 
With the aim of describing the composite of human geo-biosphere intersections that characterize the Anthropocene, this essay proposes the notion ‘geo-humanities' and presents some aspects of its scope. In such a synthesis (‘geo-humanities'), the natural sciences contribute to understanding the abiotic and biotic processes, which determine earth-systems dynamics. The humanities contribute to understanding how people interact given their subjective characteristics, which are expressed as world-views, culture, values, preferences, etc. [7 -10].

Observations: Scope of geo-humanities

The scope of matters that could be gathered into a corpus of “of geo-humanities may be derived from the purpose that a respective scholarly subject should address [11 - 15]. We propose as outset, four goals: i) the particular knowledge about the functioning of the intersections of geosphere and noosphere, ii) the societal and individual intentions how to handle these intersections, and iii) the ethical choices how to intersect in a particular manner; [from 30]:

Managing Knowledge  

Many people may not recognize how geoscience know-how mediate the interaction of human activities and processes in the geosphere because that know-how is part of habitual experiences, common sense, general education or specific vocational training. Nevertheless, societies abundantly apply geosciences for their economic activities, e.g. the features of rock, soil, water and air is essential for the production of many goods. Craftsmen, technicians, architects, and engineers apply geoscience know-how when engineering environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. Geoscience know-how makes the engineering works (transport systems, energy systems, dwellings, agriculture, waste treatment, etc.) dovetailing the economic activities and geosphere. Likewise, maintaining living conditions and individual well-being requires geoscience know-how, e.g. ventilation, evacuation of excess water, controlling pollution from combustion engines, or maintaining radio connections when solar storms hit the Earth.
Among people's "works", engineering has the peculiarity to be the intended a value-driven change of environments with the purpose to facilitate production and reproduction. To that end, for example, engineering includes the building of infrastructures like shore defences, which visibly interact with the geosphere. Likewise, engineering includes designing production systems, urban dwellings and consumption patterns that firmly but invisibly couple human activity with the geosphere through cycles of matter and energy. Last but not least, engineering is about how people arrange the appropriation of living and non-living resources from the environment. Thus, intrinsically engineering is about value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles because it reflects the societal choices of people.
At present times, the production and consumption pattern of humankind causes fluxes of matter that modify Earth-system dynamics. The notion Anthropocene captures this feature and conveys the message that the development paths of humankind's history and natural earth-systems intersect. Therefore to understand global processes, know-how of social sciences, humanities and natural sciences have to be synthesized. The link from the noosphere to the geosphere is provided by insights on how people collectively pursue their economic activities with the purpose to maintain their well-being, mutual care-taking, reproduction, and interaction. Through their "works" people couple humankind's activities to the geosphere. The particular manner how these 'works' are conceived, designed, built and maintained depends on people's world-views, culture, values, and preferences.
Understanding anthropogenic global change is a demanding process that has to handle multifaceted content. Understanding and addressing the problem of stratospheric ozone depletion has taught a first lesson on this. The impact of increased UV-radiation because of a depleted ozone layer in the stratosphere was quite easy to conceptualize, as there were observed and reported effects ranging from increased mutation rates to abandoning sunbathing on Australian beaches. Likewise addressing a solution through some quite limited technological changes was relatively easy. As later experiences with climate change processes confirmed, the cause-effect relations of the human geosphere intersections are difficult to determine, even in hind-cast. The processes are non-linear, networked having positive and negative feedbacks. Such systems exhibit chaotic dynamics that show a behavior that is difficult to forecast. Notwithstanding this difficulty, when human geosphere intersections get altered, then some forecasting skills will be needed.

Shaping Intentions

The interactions of people in the noosphere are of diverse nature and form, e.g. of technical, economic, social, cultural, artistic nature, and of public, collective or individual form. Furthermore, these people-people interactions are both loaded with worldviews and preferences, and purposefully shape personal and shared views and coordinate actors. Thus, the making of the Anthropocene is as much a ‘mental' process in the noosphere, as it results from the ‘material' intersection of humankind's activities and the bio-geosphere. In that context, civil engineering and applied geosciences are the human activities that shape the “Commons” of the Anthropocene, and thus their implementation is prescribed by how these activities are intended in the noosphere. 
During the last centuries, the scholarly studies records show both, the appraisal of human works and concern of the state of flora and fauna impacted by these works. The scholarly study records includes tales how to master hostile conditions, description of processes (in the noosphere), how skills developed, and accounts of deplorable intersections of human activities with the biosphere. Following an extended period of admiration for human prowess to intervene into biosphere and geosphere, today anthropogenic global change is part of a widespread perception of ‘an endangered state of the globe'. That change of opinion began during the previous century with concerns about the state of the biosphere. It was perceived as endangered at the regional scale by industrial pollution, the inherent risk of chemical or nuclear technologies, or losses of species. Similar concerns about the biosphere were also voiced in the 18th and 19th century at local scale when industrialization started. Nowadays, people worry about the implications for their lifestyle and well-being, and also they wonder how 'to better design' human interventions into biosphere and geosphere.

Justifying Choices

The manner how the debate on climate change is evolving shows that this debate is about world-views. Specialists, decision makers, and people ponder what hypotheses, theories or facts are. It is discussed how to handle uncertainty or hazards or whether to consider benefits for other people, in the past or for future generations. 
When making choices people are driven by both, their world-views and preferences and their insights into societal, technical or natural processes. Within that context, the attitude of people towards risk, uncertainties, perception of facts and theories is very different. People's choices are subjective and vary with the context, e.g. whether the own person, the relatives, or the own group is concerned, or whether an action is immediate, has happened, or will happen in the future. Going beyond concerns like 'whether it is functioning', people intuitively tend to opt for what they consider as 'right' or 'worth' in the context of their individual world-view. When people are debating opportunities, changes or risks then much of the debate is about 'virtue' and what course of action is 'worthwhile' to take. 
Anthropogenic global change is loaded with implicit societal issues (ethical dilemmas) to an unprecedented level because of the impact on all people. Among these issues there will be conflicting values, uneven distribution of risks, impacts, losses, and benefits, or collateral impacts including exposure to unexpected side-effects. The side-effects may range from challenging individual lifestyles to compromising basic needs. Nowadays the altering of human geosphere intersections is an intentional act or an act of intended negligence. Thus ethics of risk-taking, managing uncertainties or revising options will be needed in a context of applied geoscience. 
People need insights into how the intersection of human activity and geosphere function to make these intersections work. The Anthropocene brings these insights to the centre of people's lifestyles. The degree of understanding "how to build a habitable planet" may vary depending on the paradigm. Notwithstanding the different degree or form of people's insight, they have to acknowledge both, the existence of human geosphere intersections and the challenges that their alteration at planetary scale implies.
The non-linearity of process at human geosphere intersections renders design, implementation, and operation of change processes challenging; Further, a non-intended and counter-intuitive system behaviour is likely to manifest, and with that the societies have to cope. In the past when societal or environmental problems could not have been tackled successfully then emigration was an option. Evidently, leaving Earth is not an option. However, 'internal migration' to avoid the regional impact of the anthropogenic global change is an option that already is depicted by some as an emerging feature of world-politics. That dimension of “non-escape” sharpens the issues of anthropogenic global change.


Our species has acquired the power to engineer planet Earth. However, even if many people may not take notice of the processes and phenomena that characterize the intersections of human activity and geosphere, the anthropogenic global change is subject to the human value-systems, which underpin people's world-views and preferences. People can tackle anthropogenic global change as part of their world-views and preferences only if insights into human geosphere intersections become integrated into their interactions in the noosphere; e.g. reflecting people's lifestyle, preferences, values, and world-views. To that end, the practitioners, professionals, and researchers who understand how intersections of human activity and geosphere function have to share their insights and have to show how value-loaded are the interventions into human geosphere intersections. For any 'culture', the particular issues of 'altering Planet Earth' require that people have insights into the functioning of the human geosphere intersections. Thus for 'altering planet Earth', reliable insights provided by humanities and social sciences are needed, which have to enlarge sound scientific, engineering, technical and economic knowledge that was accumulated during the last decades. Such an enlarged body of knowledge could settle under the notion of "geo-humanities".

*Summary of  our  (R. Casals i Graells, A. Sibilla, M. Bohle*) presentation “Why Geo-Humanities” (poster 1300) at EGU General Assembly (Vienna 17-22 April 2016), session: Geoethics: theoretical and practical aspects from research integrity to relationships between geosciences and society”; * European Commission, DG RTD / Corresponding Citizen Scientist – IAPG (Rome),, ResearchGate: D-4508-2014; Disclaimer: For the lawyers, this are my views and not of my employer.

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[2] Braje, T. J.; Erlandson, J. M. Looking forward, looking back: Humans, anthropogenic change, and the Anthropocene. Anthropocene 2013, 4, 116–121 DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2014.05.002.
[3] Ellis, Erle C. “Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere.” Ecological Monographs 85 (3) 2015.: 287–331. doi:10.1890/14-2274.1.
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[6] Deutsch D. The Beginning of Infinity – Explanations that Transform the World; Allen Lane 2012. ISBN: 978-0-141-96969-5 [page 130: “people consist of abstract information, including the distinctive ideas, theories, intentions, feelings and other state of mind that characterize an 'I' “]
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Sunday, 6 March 2016

Humans are a kind of an 'engineering species'...

 …[*] and 'People consist of abstract information, including the distinctive ideas, theories, intentions, feelings and other states of mind that characterize [them]" [1, p.130].

Humans have built an 'anthropogenic biosphere' [2,3] through engineering production systems, patterns of consumption of resources, and use of environments. Throughout their biological and cultural evolution, humans extended what they know to engineer with the purpose is to sustain human existence and reproduction. Embedded in this process, anthropogenic global change is a historical process [4,5] that relates features of the planetary bio-geosphere with matters of social, cultural and political nature, i.e. the 'noosphere' of people interactions. The views about 'what engineering works shall endeavor, how and why' are part of the noosphere framed by scientific-technological means. 

Philosophically, engineering works relate human activities, i.e. economic and the natural planetary systems to build an 'anthropogenic biosphere', and thus are applied geoscience [6,7]. To that end, engineering shapes the intersection of the noosphere and the bio-geosphere and the societal paradigms that frame engineering works are an essential feature of how that intersection is operated [8] . 

It is obvious that mankind is altering Earth with an accelerated pace [9,10]. So far, this “terra-engineering” or “applied geoscience” was collateral of the human activities; nowadays it is intentional. To describe underpinning concepts, four paradigms to engineer anthropogenic global change are presented here that emphasize in different manners how humans intersect the bio-geosphere. They are labelled "adjustment", "dovetailing", "decoupling" and "modulating" to distinguish conceptually four manners how production systems and consumption patterns could be organized.. Although conceptually disjunctive, their application is interwoven, e.g. tangled by the particularity to apply them on a planetary scale what needs both, sound professional ethics and robust ethical considerations about purposes.

Four Paradigms to Engineer at a Planetary Scale

The first paradigm is labelled "adjustment". People adjust to collateral effects of how production systems and consumption patterns are engineered. E.g., increased mean temperatures or modified precipitation patterns, which are driven by emissions of anthropogenic systems, is perceived as an external factor that is impinging on production systems and consumption patterns. Therefore efforts focus on adjusting these systems and patterns to these external factors by modifying the engineered environments of humans. The purpose of the “adjustment paradigm” is to stick to the intrinsic development paths of societies, and preferably keeping unchanged the production systems and consumption patterns. An example of an application of that paradigm is the Dutch plan to heighten their sea-dikes to cope with sea-level rise. 

The second paradigm is labelled "dovetailing". People alter incrementally production/consumption patterns so that anthropogenic fluxes of matter and energy dovetail with the respective natural fluxes. The Montreal Protocol that is regulating the abatement of ozone depleting substances provides an illustration, i.e. a particular production/consumption pattern is modified by international agreement. The “dovetailing paradigm” applies political and economic practices, which were developed successfully to reduce a regional impact of pollution. 

The third paradigm is labelled "decoupling". It is proposed, under the notion "eco-modernism", to segregate the human production/consumption patterns from the bio/geosphere. Evidently, to decouple human activities from the environment (bio/geosphere) reflects the common purpose of civil engineering; e.g. shore defences or setting up an economy with circular matter fluxes. Under the "decoupling" paradigm more of such kind of engineering is proposed. I.e. eco-modernists envisage intensively urbanized societies of a stable global population using nuclear power and closed fluxes of matter.

The fourth paradigm is labelled "modulating". It is proposed, under the notion geoengineering, to modulate processes in the bio-geosphere in such a manner that they counteract the side-effects of human activities. Its protagonists advocated another classical human view, namely that "nature" is to be adapted to fit to "culture"; i.e. to render the environment suitable for human appropriation. Evidently, engineering environments reflects what people did since prehistoric times, be it "slash and burn agriculture" or irrigation agriculture in demi-deserts e.g. Central Valley in California nowadays. Under this "modulating" paradigm more of such kind of engineering is proposed, to be undertaken with the intention to change processes a global scale; e.g. ocean fertilization to capture excess carbon dioxide.

The Camaraderie of Paradigms

Taking as metric the growth of the number of people, "terra-engineering" – applied geosciences - qualifies as a prosperous activity of the human species. However, the times have passed that anthropogenic global change could be perceived as an incidental collateral of humankind's activity. Instead, the intentional engineering of the anthropogenic bio-geosphere is the ongoing endeavour of humankind, which may apply different scenarios and their respective paradims.

The "adjustment paradigm" advocated a conservative scenario, regarding preserving past investments (economic, social, cultural). In comparison, the current mainstream scenario is much about an incremental modification of the present societal development paths for production systems and consumption patterns; thus applying more a "dovetailing paradigm". That possibly is a pragmatic choice, because of the insight that costs of adjustment are high. Consequently, some depreciation of past investments is accepted and a 'local end-of-the-pipe adjustment engineering approach' is replaced incrementally by a 'global start-of-the-pipe dovetailing engineering approach'.

The alternative paradigms "decoupling" (eco-modernism) and "modulating" (geo-engineering) stand for engineering approaches that currently are advocated by some. Both paradigms have in common that the traditional development paths of industrialized societies are emphasized. However, the choice what to emphasis is different, namely 'engineering noosphere through eco-modernism' or 'engineering bio-geosphere through geoengineering'. Thus, the paradigms differ in the aspect which part of Earth systems should be altered.

Whatever paradigm will be retained to frame the decisions to engineer anthropogenic global change, it will depend much more on people's preferences and world-views and than on scientific-technical know-how. Therefore, protagonists argue why choices represent sound science and engineering, are economically feasible, and are ethically (philosophically) "right"; e.g. the "Eomodernist Manifesto" [11] or the "Oxford Principles" [12] in support of geoengineering. Thus much of the argument is on the level of paradigms. The public policies that are regulating production systems and consumption patterns apply a mix of "adjustment" and "dovetailing" paradigms depending on the opportunity to preserve past investments or the expected cost-effectiveness.


Applying any of these these paradigms involves particular ethical issues, such as to assess whether the scientific-technical approaches are professionally "sound". However these issues seem minor and confined when compared to the overarching social-cultural and political-historical issues. This second set of issues is loaded with major ethical concerns, e.g. responsibility for past emissions, distribution of poverty and wealth, access to resources, or opportunity for sustainable development. Notwithstanding that these ethical issues are of universal nature, nevertheless, the complexity to address them for handling anthropogenic global change has little precedence. In that context a conceptual frame of paradigms to orientate terra-engineering choices , i.e. applied geosciences may be helpful.
  1. Deutsch D. The Beginning of Infinity – Explanations that Transform the World; Allen Lane 2012. ISBN: 978-0-141-96969-5
  2. Monastersky, R. The Human Age. Nature 519(7542) 2015, DOI: 10.1038/519144a.
  3. Ellis, Erle C. “Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere.” Ecological Monographs 85 (3) 2015.: 287–331. doi:10.1890/14-2274.1.
  4. Braje, T. J. Erlandson, J. M. “Looking forward, looking back: Humans, anthropogenic change, and the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene 2013, 4, 116–121 DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2014.05.002.
  5. Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, Ch. Gemenne, F. “Thinking the Anthropocene.” in Hamilton, C. Bonneuil, Ch. Gemenne (eds.) The Anthropocene and the Environmental Crisi 2015, Routledge, ISBN:978-1-138-82123-8
  6. Morton, O. The Planet Remade: How geoengineering could change the world; Princeton University Press, 2012.
  7. Bracmort, K.; Lattanzio, R. K. Geoengineering: Governance and Technological Policy; 2013.
    v=onepage&q=Geoengineering%3A%20Governance%20and%20Technological%20Policy&f=false (accessed on 12 November 2015).
  8. Bohle, Martin. “Handling of Human-Geosphere Intersections.” Geosciences 6 (1): doi:10.3390/geosciences6010003.
  9. Schwägerl, C. The Anthropocene - The human era and how it shapes our planet; Synergetic Press, 2014.
  10. Waters, C. N., Zalasiewicz, J., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A. D., Poirier, C., Galuszka, A., Cearreta, A., Edgeworth, M., Ellis, E. C., Ellis, M., et al. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene.” Science (80) 2016, 351 (6269), aad2622–1 – aad2622–10 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622.
  11. Asafu-Adjaye, J., Blomquist, L., Brand, S., Brook, B., DeFries, R., Ellis, E., Foremann, C., Keith, D., Lewis, M., Lynas, M., et al. An Ecomodernist Manifesto (accessed on 10th November 2015).
  12. Rayner, S., Heyward, C., Kruger, T., Pidgeon, N., Redgwell, C. Savulescu, J. The Oxford Principles. Clim. Change 2013, 121, 499–512 DOI: 10.1007/s10584-012-0675-2.

[*] Summary of my presentation “Engineering Paradigms and Anthropogenic Global Change” (poster 1235) at EGU General Assembly (Vienna 17-22 April 2016), session: Geoethics: theoretical and practical aspects from research integrity to relationships between geosciences and society