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An exploration: from the history of science for geo-philosophical studies (by Martin Bohle, Germany)

Martin Bohle (IAPG Board of Experts)

(A) Introduction

This essay has an educational objective: the tools for geo-philosophical enquiries, i.e., studies in geoethics.

In the first instance, geoethics emerged as an intra-disciplinary endeavour in responsible geosciences. During the last few years, geoethics’ scope expanded [1] [2]. Therefore, my study programme is aggregating insights from other disciplines, iteratively reconstructing geo-philosophical enquiries, and continuously consolidating philosophical foundations.

How the practice and theory of ‘comparative Justice’ (see note 1) emerged in geoethical studies illustrates this learning programme:

  • From early on [3], the practice of ‘comparative Justice’ characterised geoethical thinking. For example, the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’ (2106) stressed that ethically sound operational practices depend on the respective environmental, social and cultural settings [4], or worded differently, “a strong awareness of the technical, environmental, economic, cultural and political limits existing in different socio-ecological contexts” (see note 2).

  • The Indian Economist, Philosopher, and Nobelist Armatya Sen investigated the Rawlsian theory of ‘Justice as Fairness’ in the book ‘The Idea of Justice’ [5], published in 2010, showing why ethically just choices “taken in a specific social and cultural setting, that respect the ethical norms of this setting, may appear unethical elsewhere”, to quote scholars in geoethics [6] (p.30).

Hence, from the onset, geoethics advocated pluralism of ethically sound choices (i.e., comparative Justice). However, essential philosophical studies supporting this approach were only recently noticed by those (the author included) who pursue developing geoethical thinking.

This experience illustrates that interdisciplinary and comparative study could further geo-philosophical enquiries, including geoethics. In the following, this exploration is extended, venturing into the field of the theory of the history of science.

(B) Problem Statement – Part One

In recent years, it became clear (for me) that geoethics is a notion in plural that could be schematised like this:

{geoscientific topic; philosophical insight} = {geo-philosophical enquiry} = geoethics


written as a mathematical ‘set’

{GT i; PI j} = {GE i,j}

The number of geo-philosophical enquiries (GE i,j) is vast because geoscientific topics (GT i) are numerous and the applicable (philosophical) insights (PI j) into moral, epistemic or social features of human practices are many. The spectrum of geoethical studies in the literature illustrates this feature, which, in turn, drives the quest for a systemic description of geo-philosophical enquiries.

To illustrate why to pursue this quest:

The Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) of the Ediacaran period (see note 3) is a unique geoscientific feature (Fig. 1). How to rule sampling this site for research purposes?

This question is a specific geo-philosophical enquiry (i.e., geoethical issue). It first includes a geoscientific topic, “GT sampling the Ecardian GSSP for research”, and second, a philosophical insight about applicable norms (“PI j”), for example, a specific set of deontological rules (see note 4) [7].

Although the outcome of the given geo-philosophical enquiry will depend on the chosen deontological rules, the entire set of these geo-philosophical enquiries can be described as {GE sampling the Ecardian GSSP for research, various deontological rules}.

The 'golden spike' (bronze disk in the lower section of the image) or 'type section' of the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the base of Ediacaran period (Ediacara, South Australia) (source: Wikipedia)

This set might be pretty vast, although not as vast as the set of geo-philosophical enquiries into the sampling of geoheritage sites [8] [9] [10] for research, training or education.

As these examples show, no end is visible to the diversity of geo-philosophical enquiries. Hence, the issue arises: What systemic description of geo-philosophical enquiries is possible?

(C) Problem Statement – Part Two

In the first instance, a conceptual description of all geo-philosophical enquiries “GE i,j” may appear of little practical value for responsible geosciences. However, the recent development of geoethical thinking raises the stakes:

  • Initially, professional experiences led geoscientists to put together epistemic-moral hybrids [11], e.g. The Cape Town Statement on Geoethics [4], a relatively regular program of responsible sciences [12].

  • Then, combining geosciences and political philosophies more comprehensively, geo-philosophical assessments of human practices as part of the Earth System emerged [1] [2].

Hence, geoethical thinking addresses more general subjects than the responsible conduct of geoscience professionals [9] [10]. The respective geo-philosophical enquiries assess the Human-Earth Nexus by amalgamating insights into (a) the dynamics of the Earth System; (b) socio-historical features of human societies; (c) philosophical appraisals of socio-political choices.

Given such a complex geo-societal application context of geoethical thinking, understanding the general nature of geo-philosophical enquiries “{GS i; PI j} = {GE i;j}” is needed.

Again, the issue arises: What systemic description of geo-philosophical enquiries is possible?

(D) A partial Remedy – An Exploration

Drawing on the experience made with the concept of ‘comparative Justice’, a systemic approach to describe geo-philosophical enquiries are likely found outside geosciences. I discovered an approach in J. Renn’s book “The Evolution of Knowledge – Rethinking Science for the Anthropocene” [13].

Scholars of the History of Science recently developed a theory of the Evolution of Knowledge [13] [14] [15]. When applying this theory to societies experiencing anthropogenic global change, they discern the concept of an ergosphere to depict the essence of the Human-Earth Nexus:

With their rapidly evolving culture, humans have introduced an “ergosphere” (a sphere of work, as well as of technological and energetic transformations) as a new global component of the Earth system, in addition to the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere, thus changing the overall dynamics of the system.” [15] [p. 7].

When studying the theory of the Evolution of Knowledge from a Geoethics perspective, it results that the respective study subjects overlap, and subsequently, there is potential to transfer concepts and notions.

In the following, the interest is in transfer from the History of Science to enrich geo-philosophical enquiries, i.e., geoethical studies. Several concepts/notions seem applicable for a systemic description of geo-philosophical enquiries “{GS i; PI j} = {GE i,j}” because they offer general concepts/notions for assessing human practices. In particular, the three following concepts/notions ‘borderline problem’, ‘economy of knowledge’, and ‘external representation’ are of interest because [13]:

  • (i) a “borderline problem” is defined as “problems that belong to multiple distinct systems of knowledge. Borderline problems put these systems into contact… (and sometimes into direct conflict) with each other, potentially triggering their integration and reorganisation” [p.427];

  • (ii) an “economy of knowledge” is defined as “societal processes pertaining to the production, preservation, accumulation, circulation, and appropriation of knowledge mediated by its external representation” [p.429];

  • (iii) an “external representation” is defined as “any aspect of the material culture or environment of a society that may serve as an encoding of knowledge” [p.224].

I like to argue:

  • A given geo-philosophical enquiry, “GE i,j” describes a specific borderline problem that links a geoscientific topic and a philosophical insight.

  • The subsequent enquiry shall be into (a) the economy of knowledge associated with the borderline problem, looking into (b) societal processes and (c) external representations mediating the knowledge.

The geoethical issues of hydrology [16], including recent events (see note 5) ‘encoding’ the associated knowledge [17], illustrate the power of these generic concepts/notions (borderline problem, economy of knowledge, and external representation) from the History of Science. Although the notions are pretty general, the concepts are intuitive and provide structure to geo-philosophical enquiries. The least intuitive notion might relate to the concept ‘external representation’, because it englobes anything with a material side shaping how society ‘records’ knowledge for use and practices. In this sense, and as examples, the Cape Town Statement on Geoethics [4] and the geoethics sessions at the EGU General Assembly are external representations of geoethics.

(E) Conclusion

Taking a geo-philosophical perspective means, per se, specifying a borderline problem, an economy of knowledge, and an external representation. Subsequently, J. Renn’s (and co-workers) theory of the Evolution of Knowledge [13] offers a methodology to standardise geo-philosophical enquiries, namely studying:

  • What is the given Borderline Problem?

  • What is the given Economy of Knowledge?

  • What is the given External Representation?

To illustrate the application of this study programme:

When studying GSSP sites, Finney and Hilario conclude [10]: “These international geostandards [GSSPs] are an essential part of the geological heritage of the world and therefore they should be included whenever possible in national or regional geosite or natural monument inventories to ensure their protection. They also represent a great educational and even touristic resource for local communities, as exemplified by the Basque Coast UNESCO Global Geopark”.

The authors sketch in these two phrases the geoethical borderline problem (GSSP as protected sites), the economy of knowledge (scientific, educational and touristic resources), and external representation (national inventories, UNESCO Global Geopark). Using the initial ‘schematic’ notation, the Finney and Hilario geo-philosophical enquiry can be specified as “{GE GSSP, rules for protection national heritage}”. Further research will show how practical the notions/concepts borderline problem, economy of knowledge, and external representation will be for geo-philosophical enquiries.


This text is an extended abstract of the accepted contribution EGU23-1024 to the EGU General Assembly 2023 (Vienna).


  1. Bohle M, Marone E (2022) Phronesis at the Human-Earth Nexus: Managed Retreat. Front Polit Sci 4:1–13.

  2. Peppoloni S, Di Capua G (2022) Geoethics: Manifesto for an Ethics of Responsibility Towards the Earth. Springer International Publishing, Cham.

  3. Peppoloni S, Di Capua G (2012) Geoethics and geological culture: Awareness, responsibility and challenges. Ann Geophys 55:335–341.

  4. Di Capua G, Peppoloni S, Bobrowsky P (2017) The Cape Town Statement on Geoethics. Ann Geophys 60:1–6.

  5. Sen A (2010) The idea of Justice. Penguin Books, London, UK.

  6. Peppoloni S, Bilham N, Di Capua G (2019) Contemporary Geoethics Within the Geosciences. In: Exploring Geoethics. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp 25–70.

  7. Butler R (2015) Destructive sampling ethics. Nat Geosci 8:817–818.

  8. Druguet E, Passchier CWCW, Pennacchioni G, Carreras J (2013) Geoethical education: A critical issue for geoconservation. Episodes 36:11–18.

  9. Migoń P, Pijet-Migoń E (2023) The role of geodiversity and geoheritage in tourism and local development. Geol Soc London, Spec Publ 530:.

  10. Finney SC, Hilario A (2018) GSSPs as International Geostandards and as Global Geoheritage. In: Geoheritage. Elsevier, pp 179–189.

  11. Potthast T (2015) Toward an Inclusive Geoethics—Commonalities of Ethics in Technology, Science, Business, and Environment. In: Peppoloni MW (ed) Geoethics. Elsevier, pp 49–56.

  12. United Nations (2013) World Social Science Report 2013. OECD Publishing.

  13. Renn J (2020) The Evolution of Knowledge - Rethinking Science for the Anthropocene. Princeton University Press, Oxford, UK.

  14. Rosol C, Nelson S, Renn J (2017) Introduction: In the machine room of the Anthropocene. Anthr Rev 4:2–8.

  15. Renn J (2018) The Evolution of Knowledge: Rethinking Science in the Anthropocene. HoST - J Hist Sci Technol 12:1–22.

  16. Di Baldassarre G, Sivapalan M, Rusca M, et al (2019) Socio‐hydrology: Scientific Challenges in Addressing a Societal Grand Challenge. Water Resour Res 2018WR023901.

  17. Abrunhosa M, Chambel A, Peppoloni S, Chaminé HI (2021) Advances in Geoethics and Groundwater Management : Theory and Practice for a Sustainable Development. Springer International Publishing, Cham.




  3. The bronze disk in the lower section of the picture, Ediacara, South Australia. Ediacaran Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point - Wikipedia; By Peter Neaum at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

  4. Examples for destructive sampling:

  5. See, for example, the 1st Congress on Geoethics and Groundwater Management (GEOETH&GWM'20), Porto - Portugal 2020:


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