« Global approach to geoethics: a first attempt »


Within the framework of a global view of this new discipline, some basis should be provided for ranking the questions raised by geosciences for an ethical approach in a supposedly « modern » world (far removed from the Neolithic age of gathering and plundering). A first attempt is proposed, combining geo-scientific issues (such as geographic disparity of resources, mineral depletion, natural and industrial risks, links with territories, nature biodiversity and landscapes…) with major ethical concerns (intra- and inter-generational equity, rights and justice, governance, religious prominence in the secular society…), and taking into consideration the availability of practical screening tools (local and global knowledge, modelling skills, scientific expertise and consensus, citizen participation, foresight…) for reaching this objective. II We describe here a first attempt to reach this objective by combining geo-scientific issues (such as geographic disparity of resources, mineral depletion, natural and industrial risks, links with territories, nature biodiversity and landscapes…) and major ethical concerns (intra- and inter-generational equity, rights and justice, governance, religious prominence in the secular society…), and taking into consideration the availability of practical screening tools (local and global knowledge, modelling skills, scientific expertise and consensus, citizen participation, foresight…).

Using this approach, we arrive at an initial ranking of geoethical issues and messages:

  • The geographic disparity of mineral resources requires a global approach (multilateral governance) using appropriate management tools: strong legal framework, public R&D, sharing of public information…
  • Mineral depletion, especially of fossil fuels, raises questions of both intra-generational equity regarding access, and inter-generational equity (what is left to future generations?). National or even regional (e.g. European) solutions alone are not sufficient, tending to become sources or wars. An international panel is needed to increase public awareness and develop and promote international regulation tools (e.g., IPCC for UNFCCC).
  • Sustainable development implies exploiting renewable resources as a priority when available. The geography of world development should depend on resource availability and not only on local differences in social or environmental conditions. Plundering the resources of the poorest nations(cf. Congo) should be banned.
  • Knowledge and prevention of natural and technological risks is necessary. Infrastructure development must be controlled or appropriate risk-resistant measures taken in areas of high risk. A precautionary approach (with an « enlightened catastrophism » attitude) must be developed.
  • Considering real environmental, energy and transportation costs is a priority for sustainable development of natural resources at the planetary scale (proper taxation of fuels for international transport…).
  • Nature, landscape and biodiversity must not only to be preserved in mining areas but also valued for their own heritage value (species in extreme biota, minerals, fossils…).
  • Public awareness, responsiveness, initiative and participation must be increased by education (geological curricula) and information (using modern tools: TIC, GIS, virtual imagery…), citizen organisations and associations must be facilitated, public debates and discussions held, foresight and prospective studies developed, governance improved

The main challenge for our generation is to develop tools and organisations that will enable mankind to cease its current predatory approach to the Earth’s natural resources, and create a climate of stewardship. This requires that ethical work use both fundamental (providing resources for thoughts and beliefs concerning what represents true happiness, real wealth, actual value–to be afraid not of but for…) and applied approaches. All sectors must be mobilized, both secular-to develop information, education, justice, public debate, combining both responsibility and « interrogativity », and religious -not for evasive, apocalyptic or sectarian approaches but for their message of love of the world. The need for a paradigm shift (of opinions, habits, perception, etc.) is such that, in addition to a ‘scientific revolution » (cf. Kuhn, i.e. radical science and technology changes, combined with education), a new spiritual work – religious or artistic – is necessary in order to shake up the social imaginary and provide answers at the level of the global questions raised.

While the anthropocentrism of today’s western culture is rooted in the Age of Enlightenment and the Christian Reformation, we might also find in Franciscan frugality and Calvinist sobriety a regeneration of modernity based on a renewed solidarity, a fraternal sharing of the earth’s goods and burdens, a redistribution of knowledge, duty and pleasure. We should seek an affirmation of transcendence that generates a ‘course of recognition » (Ricoeur), thanksgiving for natural and human resources, respect for the plurality of the world’s inhabitants, and an ethical anthropocentrism capable of taking steps to look after and saving our fragile world.



Geoethics is a new approach, not yet a scientific discipline. Therefore the authors, a professor of ethics and a geologist, are taking this opportunity to attempt to work together, a rather rare occurrence to our knowledge, at least in France. This paper presents the results of this collaboration. It is noticeable that, while bioethics has developed both as a fundamental field of research and as an applied field of expertise, as a response to both national public needs and the requests of private firms, geoethics – in spite of remarkable efforts of a few (V.Nemec, 1992, 2007) – has not encountered the same success. This may be due to a lack of demand from society, but might also result from a lack of basic research. Whatever the cause, it appears necessary at this early stage of development of this emerging discipline, to try to develop a systematic approach with two objectives. One would be to enable a better organisation of future research work (symposia, papers, web chats…). The other would be to attempt to establish a hierarchy of geoethical problems in order to set priorities answering as well as possible the needs of society. In case of success, this could help for a try to promote a joint message from concerned circles which would be audible for the society. As a feedback, the expression of the societal demand could better emerge.

The authors have therefore developed a matrix on which each has contributed one of the dimensions-ethical and geological. We have attempted to jointly fill in each quadrangle determined by cross tabulating two short lists of 10 items, one of ethical and the other of geological issues. Before we elaborate on this scheme, let’s verify the reality as well as the relevance of the question.

Why is Geo-ethics the current issue?

Energy and mineral resources account as major building blocks for the wealth of most nations, and they are essential for modern society to function. Access to and development of these resources influence – and in some cases determine – economic, social, cultural, environmental, diplomatic and defence policies (GSA, 2007). With the development of the general population and the improvement of the standards of living in many countries, we find ourselves caught between physical constraints, such as the depletion of resources, climate destabilization and technological evolution, that entail risks of accidents and catastrophes that are more or less acceptable, and ethical and political constraints that draw our attention to injustices that are more or less acceptable, creating not only famine, envy, war, but also upheaval in our way of life. Instead of dogmatically pitting ecological constraints against social constraints, ecological intelligence against democratic freedoms, we should bring them to terms. How can we ensure that the technical solutions to problems such as resource depletion or greenhouse gas emissions do not lead to wars or even greater injustice? Faced with these challenges, how can we create a fairer society, where the most disadvantaged people are not sacrificed on all fronts, hopelessly condemned to becoming aggressive towards others and towards themselves? We would like here to discuss a few elements of possible conflict and conditions for « sustainable » peace.

Let’s examine more closely the problems in these two dimensions: physical constraints we will call them « major geoscientific issues »- first, and then ethical and political constraints.

1. Identifying the issues

a. Major relevant geoscientific issues

Geoscientific issues can be considered independently of mankind. Geology shows that the planet earth had a long history, and that for most of the geological times (several billion years), homo sapiens did not interact with the planet because he simply did not yet exist (homo species appeared only a few million years ago), or because there was not a large enough population or level of development to weight heavily on earth driving phenomenathis has only been the case during the two last centuries. Therefore major geological issues, for our purposes, only concern us as life-supporting system (BRGM, 2003). This is not generally the case. Major issues like core mantle boundaries, mantle plumes or even plate tectonics have little direct incidence on our behaviour, and furthermore, human choices have little incidence on telluric phenomena. The part of the earth’s crust to which we have a direct access is of greater concern, although this was long considered simply as a resource to be exploited when useful to mankind.

Only within the last few years have geoscientists begun to realize that the interference of human activities with natural geological phenomena has become increasingly significant since the industrial revolution. In other words, in many cases, human actions should now be considered to be geological phenomena and it is, therefore, important that we try to list geoscientific issues that concern us as human beings, either because they weight on our future, or because mankind weight on their capability, effects or even existence.

In our study, the following geoscientific issues of concern for mankind were identified as being highly important. They are listed in the order of decreasing importance (in our opinion, for the sake of discussion and validation), from a global planetary point of view. Arbitrarily, we have limited the list to ten.

1. Geographic disparity of ground resources around the planet (minerals, fossil fuels, water…). This is well known by earth scientists: geological provinces are of various size and extension in continental zones and oceanic margins (Fig. 1), and no country has within its borders all of the mineral and energy resources necessary for its development. Several key mineral resources are found only in a very limited number of geological environments, and hence in only a few countries. This emphasizes the need for international information sharing and governance.

geological map showing the disparity of mineral resources

Fig. 1: Example of disparity of natural resources: geological map showing the disparity of mineral resources in Africa en Mediterranean basin. Mineral resources – as well as telluric risks – vary considerably from country to country (CGGM, geological map of the world).

2. Resource abundance is another major issue, notably concerning fossil fuels. Here we mean the entire planetary resource for a given metal, mineral, type of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal, lignite…) or groundwater (taking into consideration quality). Global geodynamic concepts, and more generally, the improvement of geological knowledge, now enables us to evaluate resources. The Hubbert (1972) curve and peak are now wellknown, and there is ongoing discussion of peak oil, as well as that of other fossil fuels (Fig. 2). These calculations need to be done for other key mineral resources, as well. We need to understand what resources the earth holds for possible future use, and to understand the impact on the environment and economy. An initiative is presently being undertaken by UNEP in relation with EU (ref. 2007). Here we would need, in addition to non governmental organisations (such as ASPO), an expert panel of the kind that exists for climate change issues with the IPCC.

curves of production of fossil fuels

Fig. 2 : curves of production of fossil fuels and of resulting atmospheric concentrations of C02 (J.Varet, 2005)

3. For geoscientists, the impact on climate change of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions became the first issue on the international agenda when the Climate Convention (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992. The international panel of experts (IPCC) has shown, in their successive reports, that global warming resulting from human emissions of GHG and induced climate change are major current issues. IPCC has also worked on mitigation scenarios as well as on technology and adaptation issues. A simple conclusion emerges: regardless of which end we look at it from-resources or emissions-humanity must radically revise its present path of development based on fossil fuel combustion and direct atmospheric discharge (Fig. 3).

Variation of the earth surface temperature 

Fig. 3: Variation of the earth surface temperature, from year 1000 to year 2100 (IPCC)

4. We see that a few human generations have been able to profoundly modify natural cycles (in which the solid earth interacts with the atmosphere and the biosphere), and this has drawn our attention to other modifications of major earth cycles. The water cycle, as concerns not only water itself, but also erosion and sedimentation, is of particular concern (Fig.4). The solid issue is to be considered in itself, as the impact of human activities on water quantity has become just as important as natural phenomena. Major sedimentation phenomena have been stopped by river sediment extraction for construction and other equipment purposes, as well as by the building of dams for agricultural or energy purposes. Sedimentation has become a very rare phenomenon, both in alluvial plains and along the coast (notably in deltas…). With a forward-looking view, keeping in mind precaution principles, we should pay attention to these major cycles which are significantly influenced by human activity.

major vital terrestrial cycles

Fig. 4: major vital terrestrial cycles (BRGM, 2003)

5. Increases in human population and urban development, and, in general, the development of infrastructures, cause recurrent land-use conflicts between mineral extraction and other human activities (Fig. 6). In western countries, the NIMBY syndrome has developed to such an extent that in many countries and regions, it has become almost impossible to open a mine or a quarry, or even to proceed with exploration drilling. If, in the short term, solutions can be found by increasing distances between sources and consumption, exploiting submarine resources or developing recycling, in the long term, consequences of such major changes have generally not been considered, and the issue should be a matter of concern to geoscientists. Geoscientist need to find a way to increase acceptance of extraction activities, based on good practices, forward-looking approaches, available information and education.

Constraints of space for mineral extraction in France

Fig. 5: Constraints of space for mineral extraction in France

6. In addition to the climate change issue described above, risks induced by mineral extraction should be considered (Fg.7): chemical, physical, emissions and wastes, noise …. These should be considered in the short term as well as in the long term. Experience feedback from former coal mines in Europe (BRGM, 2006) – as well as that of other mineral extraction sites – illustrates unsustainable models of development, with remediation costs left for future generations. A similar problem is also encountered in urban areas where rawmaterials (construction stones, gypsum, chalk and clay for plaster and cement) were extracted underneath towns and present construction sites. Current technologies (e.g. « green mining ») enable us to solve these problems, but are not necessarily well known, adapted to local conditions, or implemented due to a lack of regulations or practices (ESRE = environmental & social responsibility of enterprises) in the concerned industry.

cycle of mineral resources exploited by humanity 

Fig. 6.: cycle of mineral resources exploited by humanity

7. Natural hazards, like mineral resources, are unevenly distributed on the earth. But although our knowledge of these phenomena has improved considerably, enabling us to map hazards, and develop regulations and appropriate means to reduce the vulnerability of hazardous sites, the losses regularly increase (fig.7) . Prevention measures include a variety of actions, including information, education, land use planning and building codes. Surveying and prediction of forthcoming events involves technologies (notably in-site measurement and data transmission in real time), expertise, and crisis preparation (simulation, experience feedback…). In several cases, protection measures can be undertaken (e.g. against flooding or coastal erosion). But the social sciences must also be involved in risk significance (« Act of God » versus human responsibility) and acceptance (see H. Jonas, 1990; J.P. Dupuy, 2002).

natural hazards : increase of events 

Fig. 7 : natural hazards : increase of events (flood and storm due to climate change) and economic losses. Source: Munich de Ré, 2000.

8. Transport and energy issues are crucial in the necessarily global approach to mineral resource management. They are frequently dissociated when, in fact, they need to be considered together. Just as distance from home to work has increased in recent years in western suburban areas, similarly, distances from extraction to transformation sites, and then to consumption centres has increased throughout the world without any consideration of energy consumption or impacts on emissions. There is a need for reconsidering local integrated development in a now global economy, considering not only the cost of manpower, but also energy as a major issue.

9. In the long run, extraction policy issues should themselves be reconsidered. At present, the mining industry will first – and sometimes only – extract the richest ore, leaving the lesser grades. This is not necessarily an optimized way of exploiting a resource in the long term, as future extractions – after all the best sites have been exploited worldwide – will entail even higher costs. Energy & costs increase worldwide due to mine « creaming » or even pirating. New approaches should link ore extraction and treatment as technologies emerge that enable more friendly processes such as biohydrometallurgy to replace pyrometallurgy, or bio-treatment of fossil fuels. New approaches to mining technologies should be developed to consider this question. But radical modification of economic constraints of extraction cannot be avoided.

10. Impacts of mineral extraction on landscapes and biodiversity are now generally taken into account in new mining projects throughout the world. Note that biodiversity is not limited to the surface but also developed underground. But such approaches should be developed over the long term and for the entire process, including waste and emission management. Therefore, diagnosis must not be limited to the initial extraction permit, but should cover the whole chain « from cradle to grave », as for the life-cycle analysis of products. The fact that specific ecosystems and rare species develop on natural geochemical anomalies should also be considered in site management and remediation. There is a need for more integrated approaches for natural and man-influenced ecosystems including biodiversity as well as geological issues.

b. Major ethical and political issues

For a long time now, various authors (e.g. Walras, 1896; Ellul, 1937, 1947) have drawn attention to the lack of any ethical approach in the modern industrialized world. Mankind is confronted with many ethical issues, and it is not our objective here to list them all. We have limited our investigation to the few which are – or could be – linked with the history and future of the solid earth, and might result from human actions affecting the planet.

Ethics helps to distinguish the problems and values involved in a given field: What are we doing, and what do we really do? Does it fit with what we want? And do we want what we believe? Ethics should help us formulate possible and preferable solutions. Sometimes it may help only by pinpointing a dilemma. As a rationale approach, ethical analysis should help us identify issues as systematically as possible, provide a basis for reflection, and prepare for and enable responsible decision making. Therefore, the identification phase, in which the crucial questions are raised, is in itself essential.

Ethical analysis, besides leading to responsible decisions and correct acts, may also lead to a more profound examination of the meaning of life and the significance of being human. Ethics here touches on anthropology. In our quest for good behaviour, we are seeking to « do justice to humans » (A. Rich, 1994). Our acts commit us, and reveal underlying dynamics. Our acts translate our attitudes, attentions, attempts… Therefore, ethics touches on spirituality in a broad sense, because our inner life and our « outer » life are in resonance and permanent interference. Of course, this is not easy, as we must constantly distinguish between anthropologic, ethical and spiritual approaches, while avoiding compartmentalization, as if they had no effect on each another. We will try to place them in perspective, and describe how they articulate with each other.

Aesthetics should also be taken into consideration, as there are driving forces characteristic of mankind that are relevant to our study, concerning the relationship between human life and the planet Earth. These are present in our perception and behaviour at a « pre-moral » (before ethics) stage, and include the pursuit of health, happiness, « the courage to be », of consolation given or received, relational impulses, be they of solidarity, erotic or friendship or of various intuitions (M. Huppenbauer, 2000).

In the West, some ethical principles, or « fundamental values », are widely shared in a common cultural ground. These are the result of ancient mixing of Greco-roman philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology, reactivated and up-dated during various periods, notably the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment and the Reformation. Ten of them have been selected as relevant to our study.

1. Intra-generational equity is the principal dimension, i.e. the social « pillar » of the sustainable development concept. It is certainly also the least applied, as economic and social disparity have tended to increase worldwide since this concept was first selected as a principle by the United Nation Conference on Environment and Development (World Summit in Rio, 1992), as observed by the Johannesburg Summit (2002). In our case, this concerns the disparity in the availability of natural resources, both worldwide and locally, and in access to technology (this might include geological knowledge, mining extraction and processing, clean technologies and recycling). This is exemplified by the disparity of access to energy or water worldwide (Figs. 6 and 7). The Kyoto protocol is a first attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions to an acceptable level, to converge in terms of emissions per head worldwide. Within the framework of the UNCCC, it entails, for developed countries, reducing emissions by a factor of 4 before the second half of the century. Such a multilateral approach should be developed for mineral wealth as well.

2. Inter-generational equity is also a major sustainability issue (Bruntland, 1987). This entails making the present generation put themselves in the place of the next generation and consider the validity of choices on their behalf. The first men appeared on the Earth a few million years ago and Homo Sapiens a few hundred thousand years ago. We should seek to maintain a planet that supports human life, life in general, and, more generally, physical resource availability (minerals, fuels, groundwater…) for another few thousand generations. Proponents of « hard durability » consider that the natural capital should be kept constant, and have elaborated a rule, the CNCR = the constant natural capital rule. Geological sciences and social sciences should develop joint research agendas as they differ, in addition to their specific expertises, in their views on the significance of time.

3. Freedom, both individual and collective, includes both recovering from past servitude and opening of future options. Freedom is within the scope of social behaviour and also in the long term, in the human condition of engagements and projects. Freedom is hence conditioned by others liberty and being true to oneself. Freedom and responsibility nourish each other (see H. Jonas « principle responsibility », 1979, 1990)). The respect of others is part of selffreedom. We measure here the limits of individual initiative with respect to the common good. Freedom of research, innovation and change with respect to previous habits is also essential, when consequences are properly estimated. Here we encounter the application of the principle of precaution (foreseeing the worst in order to prevent it) as part of a regulated society of freedom of enterprise. We also recognise the need for predictive studies that include various options and documented scenarios, to explore various possible future paths in order to help make choices for the present.

4. More generally, human rights are part of this « common ground », and should be applied at various levels, whether for individuals, states, or multinational companies… Justice (both local and global) is the first condition of human rights. Justice guaranties the application of the law, notably when regulating human relation to earth. Mining and environment laws and regulations are essential for the free enterprise to comply with the general interest. Police is also necessary, in addition to open information, to real implementation of laws. Justice should not be limited to the application of instantaneous rights, but should also include the ability to prevent from erroneous past decisions, i.e. being jailed by former choices. The important point is to display a strong legal frame, as a cadre for initiatives, preserving capacities to make real choices concerning our long-term relationship with the earth (notably concerning resources).

5. Participation has been identified as one of the key conditions for the success of sustainable development issues. A good management of the participation of all stakeholders is one of the major aspects of Agenda 21. This applies at all levels of society-local, regional, national and global. Good participation is linked with the right and expression of association (NGO5). In organising these various levels, the subsidiary principle should prevail. However, concerning planetary issues, the multilateral issue remains, of course, a key point, and is certainly the most difficult and possibly the most unsuccessful aspect of governance in recent years.

6. Peace is associated with harmony, orderly conduct, a relationship of trust, serenity and even happiness. Peace determines both subjective attitudes and the objective framework of relationships. It is our responsibility as humans to achieve peace and therefore to either prevent potential conflicts from emerging or promote reconciliation. This implies forgiving and being forgiven, restoring the image of the other in each other’s eyes, memory work and reparation. Peace is not given, but emerges from an active process of permanent, discrete restitution in the face of what troubles or defeats its progress. Peace is linked to right and justice, which offer the necessary protective framework. This is also shown by the direct links between peace and safety. But the significance of peace is wider, as shown by the Hebraic word « Shalom », which implies the association of peace with justice, health, well-being, with respect for the integrity of creation.

7. Access for all to knowledge, science, memory, history, and culture is also a key issue. The inequity in knowledge is certainly the major cause of social and economic inequity, and eventually the source of conflicts and wars. This deeply implies both information and educational issues. Freedom of information and freedom of access to information are key points for all geoscientific issues, e.g. concerning resources or risks. Education is just as important, as a common background of knowledge is necessary to enable development (not necessarily economic growth alone, but true human development, see below). Geology is an essential part of science and culture and should be included in all educational curricula, with an emphasis on how it affects our well-being.

8. There is a need for more profound work, at all levels of society, on values such as the meaning of wealth, or the meaning of « development » (see J. Ellul, 1974; P. Viveret, 2006). As many authors have shown, (Walras, 1896, Keynes, 1930, Rich, 1994, R.Passet, Méda, 1999) there is a need to reconsider the economy, in order to develop new approaches to a shared view of richness and possibly establish a future vision. Besides giving value to environment, we need to better define the respective importance of (and develop methods for measuring) immaterial versus material values. A first attempt was made by UNDP with the proposed Index of Human Development to complement the Gross National Product (GDP). The current situation (climate change issues, failure of development policies…) compels us to intensify this approach. Are we moving towards a dematerialized society? Is this a myth or false view?

9. Answering such questions leads to the question of the influence and expression of religious beliefs in modern societies. The western world – this is particularly the case in France, and possibly in Europe in general – has developed a concept of « secularity » in which religions express themselves only within their own circles, with little or no interaction with the society at large. In other societies, a given religion may directly control all political and social activity. While maintaining and promoting the separation of church (or religion) and state, there is an obvious need for creating areas of interchange and mutual inquiry. On their side, theologians should develop means to adapt their message to modern world notably scientific knowledge. The first role of political states is to allow and even promote the freedom of thought, which implies a constant dialogue.

10. We are now entering a new era in which human day-to-day choices and development models need to be revised. After several centuries, some long-hidden or even forgotten questions, such as salvation, need to be up-dated and reviewed. The revival of notions such as sin or forgiveness – or even mourning – should be considered. Faced with the extent of responsibility involved at the individual and collective level by climate change issues (attested to by people’s reactions to Al Gore’s film « An Inconvenient Truth ») there is a need to develop such specific psychosocial work in civil society in conjunction with theologians and philosophers.

2. Identifying geo-ethical issue

a. Risk approach: unsustainable issues, growing conflicts and potential tensions

The disparity of both the world’s resources and people’s ability to exploit them-due to differences in culture and imagination-has created different, and now competing, forms of capitalism. Increased wealth does not produce the same patterns of consumption or models of an ideal life in different cultures. Some capitalisms focus primarily on increasing productivity while others are devoted to relentlessly pillaging resources extracted by others, and we don’t know which of these capitalisms, conveying which ideal of « wealth », will prevail.

It hardly matters, however, since a modification of agriculture and water needs alone is capable of bringing any global capitalism that thinks itself to be too « off-soil » to its knees. In the likely event that we will soon be faced with both climate change and increased energy and transportation costs, we might well be confronted with a collapse of economic globalization: Economic deglobalization, relocation, decline will strike not only large delocalized companies but also oversized political entities and overland communications networks (primarily airfreight and motorized road truck transports).

Faced with this risk, some countries are trying to « go it alone ». If the United States and France are frantically attempting to guarantee for their citizens or keep for themselves their own energy supply, it is because they think that in the next few decades their technological choices (such as nuclear fusion or nanotechnologies) will enable them to come out ahead in the post-oil world. The wager in « blindly forging ahead’ is that technological solutions are more conceivable, more rapidly applicable than any change in life style.

But we cannot save ourselves while leaving a large part of the planet devastated. This option will only reap war and terrorism. Indeed, in order to keep poor societies from invading rich societies, a wall is being built, increasingly technical and military, apolitical. But aren’t we then headed straight towards those massive migrations into the hereafter called wars? Especially if, in order to produce our substitute biofuels, we starve the poor in less developed countries? On one side waste, throwing away and excessive spending, and on the other shortages and a scarcity of the most « collective » resources (water, soil, minerals, food, the possibility to « live » in the world), all of which will lead to massive and catastrophic readjustments.

What we are setting ourselves up for, before even climate change and the end of oil, but along with them, is war, inexpiable war, every man for himself. This is no longer traditional war, nor civil war, nor is it one of those simmering wars that we call terrorism, but new lawless forms that combine all of these and of which generalized pillaging is the basic form.

Although we know that the cost of solving the climate change issue would be of a smaller order of magnitude than current military spending, we observe that strategic defence options in northern and western countries now consider climate change as a serious option (e.g. climateinduced migrations, water scarcity as a source of conflicts, etc…). We have too chose to spend on arms or on geo-problems solving.

b. Cross tabulating geological and ethical questions

In order to move towards establishing a recognized hierarchy of geoscience problems relevant to ethics – with the aim of contributing to a shared geoethics agenda – we have developed a table that enables us to cross tabulate these two dimensions (Fig.8). Along the bottom we have placed the ten major geoscientific questions identified above, in decreasing order of priority (as determined by the authors) from left to right. Likewise, along the left side, we have placed the ten ethical questions, also by order of decreasing importance, from bottom to top. Recall that both lists have been arbitrarily limited to ten and are presented simply as a basis for discussion.

Matrix for ranking geoethical issues

Figure 8. Matrix for ranking geoethical issues by cross tabulating geological questions (left to right) and ethical approaches (bottom to top) Link, pertinence : strong (red); moderate (yellow), weak (blue)

As a first step, the following areas of concern appear to be the most significant at present. They are discussed below and need to be validated by a panel of experts such as one made up of the participants in the 2007 Pribram symposium of Geoethics. Using this approach, we arrive at the following initial ranking of geo-ethical issues and messages:

1. Establish sound mining and environmental laws and regulations is essential to geoethics. It should be thought not in a short term economic view only, but in a multigenerational, or even geological perspective. Providing means to really implement the law (i.e.: public open information, police) is also essential.

2. The geographic disparity of mineral resources requires a global approach using appropriate management tools: public R&D, the sharing of public information.., and also a new multilateral governance approach, particularly concerning public-private relationships.

3. Mineral resource depletion, especially of fossil fuels, raises questions of both intragenerational equity regarding access, and inter-generational equity (what is left to future generations?). Solely national or even regional (e.g. European) solutions are insufficient, as they tend to lead to wars. An international panel is needed to increase public awareness and develop and promote international regulation tools (e.g., IPCC for UNFCCC, as being now attempted by UNEP).

4. The geography of world development should depend on resource availability and not only on local differences in social or environmental conditions. Mining development should benefit societies of concerned third world countries. Plundering the resources of the poorest nations (e.g. Congo) should be banned.

5. Sustainable development implies exploiting renewable resources as a priority when available. This is valid for energy as well as for mineral resources (e.g. plugging active hydrothermal systems generating metals).

6. Knowledge and prevention of natural and technological risks is needed. Infrastructure development must be controlled or appropriate risk-resistant measures taken in areas of high risk. A precautionary approach (with an « enlightened catastrophism » attitude) must be developed.

7. Considering real environmental, energy transportation and human costs is a priority for sustainable development of natural resources at the planetary scale (proper taxation of fuels for international transport, ensuring social security and fair retirement for all workers…).

8. Nature, landscape and biodiversity must not only to be preserved in mining areas but also valued for their own heritage value (species in extreme biota, minerals, fossils…). Geobiological systems should be better studied (life in deep seated, extreme conditions).

9. Public awareness, responsiveness, initiative and participation must be increased by education and information (using modern tools: TIC, GIS, virtual imagery…), free citizen organisations and associations must be facilitated, public debates and discussions held,

10. Foresight and prospective studies should be developed, application of precaution and prevention principles for enlighten governance improved

We will now look for another approach to the question, leaving aside growing conflicts and potential tension, i.e. « prophetic » (prophecy of doom, in an effort to prevent it).

3. Deliberation

a. Geoethics and democratic fragility

We have seen that injustice can also apply to relationships between different generations. Our present total freedom of choice and movement requires that we sacrifice that of future generations. After us-the Flood! (or the Drought). It’s like a conflict where one of the contestants is able to attack the other without the latter’s being able to fight back; a conflict where the loser can never again encounter the winner. A conflict that is, therefore, unresolvable and without any possible peace. To prevent and police these conflicts, we need longterm, highly-intelligent governance, governments capable of making sustainable decisions and mobilizing entire societies who then must demonstrate intelligence and courage.

The only way out, therefore, is massive investment in raising the collective level of knowledge and searching for new paths, such as new energy sources, or new « energy saving measures ». That presupposes not only a redistribution of energy extraction, storage, and transfer methods, but also a redistribution of knowledge production, organization and dissemination methods. There is an urgent need, at the international level, for a cognitive watch institute in charge of preventing major risks at the global scale and, at the same time, capable of influencing the composition of major economic choices and economic regulationsan institute capable of both ecological and technological vigilance in the face of risks and political vigilance in the face of injustices.

However, this fragile edifice might further accentuate the very great instability, both technical and psychological, of our societies, and particularly our democracies who are sensible to the versatility of the opinion, and may become ungovernable by excess of demagogy, manipulation of the fear for safety, or technocratic convoitises, As, the greater the interdependence and technical complexity, the greater the risk that an accident or assault will result in a disastrous chain of events. The more intelligence and cognitive and moral integration we need to confront this complexity, and more exhausting or even unbearable this psychological flexibility will become. And our democracies, so soft from inside, could become feroce for outsiders, in their capacity to externalise their problems and to « shut the curtain » (baisser le Rideau) that separates them from the rest of the world

If we consider for a moment the prerequisite conditions for arriving, little by little, at this fragile way out, we find not only scientific and technical solutions, but also a profound modification of both our moral ideals and our concrete lifestyle. We can distinguish two principal sources of ethics.

One of these is debate, argumentation, information and discussion. The consciousnessraising or « conscientization’ that creates responsible world citizens and governments requires emphasizing not only ethics of responsibility, but also ethics of « interrogativity » where we seek to understand questions rather than seeking « solutions ». This is the heart of the radical democracy that we need.

b. The other source of ethics

Our corporal and cultural habits are, however, deep-seated and harder to change than our technical installations or our ideas. For example, we are addicted to moving- we have to be always on the go, everywhere at once, and no longer know how to simply be where we are. What is hardest is not so much changing our opinions as changing our habits-some of which have been ingrained for a long time ago in our bodies and our everyday objects and behaviour. There is no task more urgent, more difficult, today, than changing our idea of what constitutes a « good life ». However, the fundamental presuppositions of our ethical principles, our precomprehension of what is good and right, are not readily accessible to argument-all argumentation being done within a range of established presuppositions.

In order to shake up the social imagination, jolt our prejudices enough to literally convert us and change the general direction of our lives, religion and the arts, in the broad sense, inevitably come into play. Using ecological emotion as a motive of political action is transposed into a different register in France, Germany or Russia, in the United States, Arabia, India or China because people’s relationships with « nature » are as varied as their cultures. In different contexts-some too nonchalant, some too worried or guilt-ridden-we must, therefore, adopt different discourses.

In order to understand this point, identified by authors as different as Hans Jonas and Jacques El I ul, we must measure the importance of the religious foundations of all of our cultures, their latent influence, and the religious dimension of what the modern world has substituted for it, notably technical progress. The technical optimism behind the myth that solutions can always be found, as well as the apocalyptic pessimism that believes that our world is already done for, burned out, irremediably polluted and condemned to war, are both only variations of a religion that is both ancient and ultra-modern, a religion that never ceases to rework our planet, our societies, and our bodies for its own benefit. In a secularized form, we are dealing with a « gnosis », a religion that preaches salvation by knowledge, knowledge being precisely understood here as that which saves us, that which enables us to escape from a ruined world, a world surrendered to evil. Extra-terrestrial exodus is the project, the way out of a human conditions that is too limited, the attempt to freely recondition ourselves. And just as theologians were needed of the size of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in order to pinpoint the level of « religious corruption » that represented Nazism, similarly there is a need to fight this religion, half-Gnostic, half-Apocalyptic that gangrene from inside all traditional religions.

The world’s major religions vacillate between fearful and wishful figures. But the gnostic dualism that disturbs all of the major religions and splits them on the inside, dissociates the two trends and exacerbates them-fear for the fragility of life turns into apocalyptic resignation and cynicism, whereas joyful confidence in living resources turns into sacrificial pantheism of Life as a process that knows neither the death, nor the birth (and of course even less the resurrection).

c. Modern religion and its bifurcation

Coming back to Western modernity, modern religion, notably its Christian and Protestant branch, by radicalizing monotheist logic, deeply perturbed the paradigm of the balance, more or less delayed, of resources and consumption by introducing the idea of accumulation for growth. Its anthropocentricity of Man-God, Lord of Creation is, therefore, largely responsible for the disasters of physical and human geography that are looming over us. Would the roman catholic
accounting for salvation – through indulgences (to pay he bill for our faults) – help to mobilize for the necessary changes we will need to pay for?

Yet all this isn’t inevitable. There is a possible bifurcation, a « road less taken », stemming not only from Franciscan frugality, but also from Calvinist sobriety. We should imagine a modern Western world that could generate a certain solidarity, a fraternal sharing of the planet’s goods and burdens, a redistribution of knowledge, duties and pleasures. In short, we might imagine an affirmation of the transcendence that generates thanksgiving for natural and human resources, a respect for the plurality of the world’s inhabitants. We might imagine a solely ethical anthropocentrism that places humanity as an ethical subject of a central responsibility, not concerned about being saved by some « gnosis », but capable, rather, of turning around to save and watch humbly over this fragile world. What’s the use in finding technical or even political solutions if the ethical dynamics of our culture and our evaluations remains the same? It is these resources of our traditions and inventions that we must stimulate and mobilize.


In this attempt to contribute to the identification of major subjects of concern for geoethics, we propose several elements from the fields of geosciences and ethics for further thought, consider several major concerns and suggest possible pathways for seeking solutions. This implies intensifying interdisciplinary work between the earth and social sciences in a necess arily international approach integrating the Earth’s numerous geographic disparities, both in resource allocation and cultural traditions. In order to move forward, we have identified as a potentially fertile path, the need to decompartimentalize thinking between secular and materialistic society, on the one hand, and religious or artistic approaches, on the other. This would entail increased research and knowledge sharing with the general public for all parties concerned, and particularly earth scientists, politicians and theologians.

For this it would be useful for us to consider one of the deepest motives to act that has mobilized the Western world, which it still vibrant and promising-gratitude, the response to the belief that we are only by grace If recognition is such a powerful driving force, it is because we can give back in turn for having already received so much. As Ricoeur observed in The Course of Recognition (2005), continuing the idea that we are doomed to be infinitely and mutually indebted to one another, « gratitude lightens the burden of obligation to give back and turns it into a generosity equal to that which gave rise to the initial donation. » Faced with the conflict between generations, gratitude reminds us that we are the beneficiaries of an endless dissymmetry, and faced with the conflict between the Earth’s co-inhabitants, it reminds us that without sharing or mutuality (joint possession), the world would fall apart. It is not a question of personal salvation, but of shifting our concern to the planet that has been given to us to inhabit, to co-habit.

The crisis our civilisation is facing is a challenge for thought, as it is in fact the result of a lack of thought, being considered to be along with knowledge and power (that is to say along with science and technology) the question of the end of knowledge and power. The economy, as the science of means cut off from the question of the end, is taken as an end in itself. One can say that this crisis announces what Thomas S. Kuhn (1970) has called a scientific revolution, that is a change of paradigm. (André Siegwald, 1996).


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Olivier Abel[2] & Jacques Varet[3]

Paper presented at the MINING PŘÍBRAM SYMPOSIUM 2007 :
(Příbram, Czech Republic), 4th plenary session on Geoethics; GD 5.


Notes :

[2]  Professor of Ethics, Protestant Institute of Theology, Paris, France

[3] Director for Strategic Planing, BRGM, Orléans, France