Initial Publication Date: November 3, 2014

What is GeoEthics?

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University and Monica Bruckner, SERC, Carleton College, based in part on material developed by participants at the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics Across the Curriculum workshop.

GeoEthics is an emerging field of scholarship that encompasses many dimensions of the relationship of geoscientists to society and the Earth. The International Association for Promoting Geoethics defines GeoEthics in their constitution:

"Geoethics consists of the research and reflection on those values upon which to base appropriate behaviours and practices where human activities intersect the Geosphere. Geoethics deals with the ethical, social and cultural implications of Earth Sciences research and practice, providing a point of intersection for Geosciences, Sociology and Philosophy. Geoethics represents an opportunity for Geoscientists to become more conscious of their social role and responsibilities in conducting their activities. Geoethics is a tool to influence the awareness of society regarding problems related to geo-resources and geo-environment."

Furthermore, as defined by the IAPG, GeoEthics:

  • provides a reference and guidelines for behaviour in addressing concrete problems of human life by trying to find socio-economic solutions compatible with the respect for the environment and the protection of Nature and land;
  • points out the social role and responsibilities of Geoscientists as well as the ethical, cultural and economic implications that their work may have on society;
  • encourages a critical analysis of the use and management of geo-resources like for example water and minerals, promoting their eco-friendly and socio-friendly development;
  • deals with problems related to the risk management and the mitigation of georisks;
  • fosters the proper and correct dissemination of the results of scientific studies and information on risks;
  • aims to improve the relationships between the scientific community, mass media and general public;
  • promotes the development of geoparks and of the geo-tourism, in order to create social awareness about the value of the geological heritage and geodiversity;
  • highlights the value and usefulness of geological and geophysical knowledge in daily life by promoting disciplines like Geo-medicine and Forensic Geosciences;
  • aims to organize effective teaching tools to develop awareness, values and responsibility, especially amongst young people.

IAPG has also developed the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics--"... an international effort to focus the attention of geoscientists on the development of shared policies, guidelines, strategies and tools, with the long-range goal of fostering the adoption of ethical practices in the geoscience community."

For more in-depth information, see the Keynote address from the 2014 Teaching GeoEthics workshop:The Foundations of Geoethics (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 2.2MB Jun24 14), by Silvia Peppoloni, Instituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia; IAPG-International Association for Promoting Geoethics.

The Facets of GeoEthics

GeoEthics has many important facets. This module explores four important dimensions of GeoEthics:

  • GeoEthics and self: what are the internal attributes of a geoscientist that establish the ethical values required to successfully prepare for and contribute to a career in the geosciences?
  • GeoEthics and the geoscience profession: what are the ethical standards expected of geoscientists if they are to contribute responsibly to the community of practice expected of the profession?
  • GeoEthics and society: what are the responsibilities of geoscientists to effectively and responsibly communicate the results of geoscience research to inform society about issues ranging from geohazards to natural resource utilization in order to protect the health, safety, and economic security of humanity?
  • GeoEthics and Earth: what are the responsibilities of geoscientists to provide good stewardship of Earth based on their knowledge of Earth's composition, architecture, history, dynamic processes, and complex systems?

Microethics vs Macroethics

Microethics deals with personal and professional ethics and can be tied to responsibilities at the personal and intra-professional level (e.g. an environmental consultant's ethical responsibility to providing their client with reliable data).

Macroethics deals with the ethics of a society or culture and can be tied to personal and professional responsibilities towards society (e.g. environmental consultants' responsibilities - as a profession - to ensure environmental stewardship in their professional conduct).

Definitions derived from (Herkert, 2004). A more in-depth explanation of micro and macroethics, in an engineering context, is available in this Engineering Ethics Blog post.

Understanding micro and macroethics and the interplays between them illuminates the roots of ethical thinking and behavior (why do we view things the way we do) and can help establish guidelines for ethical standards. Further, understanding the interplay can help shift thinking and behaviors by getting to the roots of why we think and act the way we do. For instance, taking action to reduce one's carbon footprint is tied to both microethics and macroethics -- at a microethical level, our beliefs about the impact of humans on climate will influence our perception of responsibilities and stewardship and will guide us on whether or not to take actions such as driving and consuming less to lessen our footprint. At a macroethical level, our professional responsibilities to be stewards to the Earth and abide by the high ethical standards set by society will influence how we conduct research and report data.

Bringing this into the classroom, if our students do not hold a particular personal belief, they will be less open (and may be actively resistant) to taking personal action, as they do not see the need to do so (e.g. if they believe humans are affecting climate, they may take action; if not, they may not see a need to take action). From a macro to micro-level, if society places priority on consumerism rather than conservation (e.g. the 'need' to have the newest gadgets), this will also affect individuals' actions. Teaching Controversial Topics, from On the Cutting Edge provides more guidance on identifying factors that influence behaviors and strategies for overcoming barriers.