Geoethics: theory, principles, problems

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Geoethics: theory, principles, problems is the first monograph about Geoethics. The first edition was published in July 2012 and presented at a session dedicated to geoethics at the 34th International Geological Congress (Brisbane, Australia) in August 2012. [1]

The monograph contains the first systematic exposition of main provisions of the new scientific field of ethicsgeoethics, analysing its status and considering its place in the system of contemporary scientific knowledge. Particular attention is paid to the development of moral foundations of relations in the system of "human being - inanimate nature", arising from the scientific research of the Earth and its mineral resources, practical geological exploration, mining and utilization of mineral resources, as well as from the use of mineral resources while constructing and operating the underground facilities not related to mining.

Although the definition of geoethics has already been established in some dictionaries and encyclopedias, before 2012, as a science it only existed in the framework of separate reports and theses. There were no consolidated documents on this topic in Russian or other languages, and there were just very few scientists in the world, not more than 50 in total, specifically researching about geoethics.

The situation was changed significantly by 2016. The definition of geoethics has been specified and broadened. Independent national geoethical societies and departments for geoethics under national geological societies have been established in many countries on all continents except Antarctica. On an international level, these societies have been combined under the umbrella of two scientific associations: International Association for Geoethics – IAGETH (includes national organisations of 44 countries) and International Association for Promoting Geoethics – IAPG. Both organizations have been affiliated members of International Union of Geological Sciences – IUGS, since 2014.

The amount of accumulated knowledge has increased, geoethical situations, problems and dilemmas have been specified. New issues have been identified some of which are common for majority of countries, and others are specific to separate groups, communities and clusters of populations (NIMBY syndrome, feasibility of exploration of natural resources of the international seabed area, continental shelf, Arctic, Antarctic, other planets; fair distribution of profits from exploitation of natural resources, ethical dilemmas when predicting ever increasing catastrophic geological processes). When assessing effectiveness of geological projects, it is necessary to apply not only usual economic criteria, such as profitability, commercial viability and profit margins – but also consider deep moral essence of the terms “subsoil”, “earth”, “natural resources”.

More and more often in practice, when implementing any projects related to subsoil use, it is needed to take into consideration essential features of mineral resources and its useful qualities: natural and geographical uneven distribution, exhaustibility, non-replenish ability, scarcity and resource ownership by current and future generations.

The first edition of the monograph was published in relatively small run (of just 300 copies) and only in Russian language, which significantly limited access to accumulated and systematized geoethical knowledge. Exactly for this reason, in July 2016 the second modified and extended edition was published in English language (the book circulation is 1000 copies). [2] There are two new chapters in the second edition - Mineral Resources as a Root Cause of Global and Local Conflicts in the Modern World and Geoethics Based Resource Management.


The first section of the book includes the definition of geoethics, its history, scientific ideas formed its basis. Geoethics is an interdisciplinary field between Geosciences and Ethics which involves Earth and Planetary Sciences as well as applied ethics. It deals with the way of human thinking and acting in relation to the significance of the Earth as a system and as a model. Geoeducational, scientific, technological, methodological and social-cultural aspects are included (e.g. sustainability, development, geodiversity and geoheritage, prudent consumption of mineral resources, appropriate measures for predictability and mitigation of natural hazards, geoscience communication, museology, etc). In addition, the necessity of considering appropriate protocols, scientific integrity issues and a code of good practice – regarding the study of the abiotic world – is covered by this discipline. Studies on planetary geology (sensu lato) and astrobiology also require a geoethical approach).

The following scientific ideas formed the basis of geoethics:

- Ethics (V-IV BC, Socrates, Aristotle; moral bases of relationships between humans);

- Proposal on introduction of geochronology of anthropologic era – time of influence of humans on the system of the Earth (1873, A. Stopanni);

- Bioethics formed moral basics of relationships in the system of “human-animals” (1915, A. Schweitzer);

- Science on biogeocenose and biogeosphere of the Earth (1920, V.N. Sukachev);

- Theory of the noosphere (1923–1939, V.I. Vernadsky, E. Le Roy, P. Teilhard de Chardin; improvement of the role of intellect in development of civilization);

- Land Ethics (1937, A. Leopold);

- Deep ecology and Ecological ethics (1970’s; B. Callicotte, L. White; moral basics of relationships in the system of “humans-natural complexes”).

In early 1990’s, while enumerating the categories, which the moral approaches should be applied to, the philosophers to some extent mentioned such systems of the earth (geosphere) like biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and soil cover. In 1991 at the symposium in Krakow (Poland), dedicated to the 70th anniversary of professor Adam Trembetsky, well known Check scholar and organiser of science, doctor Vaclav Nemec made a speech with his report “Technical and ethical problems of computer modelling of open pit mining activities”, where he was first to declare the ideas of development of ethical principles of reproduction and use of mineral resources, which should have international nature, calling such scientific trend “Geoethics”. [3] Later his definition of a new discipline was assigned by the International Encyclopedic Dictionary. [4]

The mission of geoethics is in implementation of the values approach, values criteria in practice of mineral exploration and mining activities, use of mineral resources and preservation of objects of abiotic nature (geo-heritage) as opposed to self-interest and (individual, corporate, state) mercantilism.

The object of study of Geoethics is morals in the field of study of subsoil of the Earth and other planets that contain mineral-raw resources, in the field of reproduction of the mineral-raw base, mining and use of mineral-raw resources and useful properties of subsoil. The subject of study of geoethics includes geoethical situations, geoethical problems and geoethical dilemmas.

Essential features of mineral resources (deficiency (limitation), exhaustibility, non-renewability and their belonging not only to currently living but also to future generations), geoethical principles and geoethical imperative have been described in the second section. In moral geoethical system the main element is represented by the principles that determine the strategy of moral behaviour and its unconditional moral orientation in its general terms. The principles were formulated in different years by different authors mostly for allied sciences (ecological ethics, global ethics) and later introduced into geoethics, but all of these are based on the essential properties of mineral resources – deficiency (limitation), exhaustibility, non-renewability and belonging not only to currently living but also to future generations:

- the planet Earth is primarily considered to be the absolute value of life, and not as an object of industrial impact; [5]

- principle of sympathy: it is necessary to treat the problems of biotic and abiotic nature from the point of view of “its interests” – normal existence of the natural, including geological environment, and humans, by avoiding egoistic or lucrative approaches; [6, 7, 8]

- inter-relations principle: no geosystems, planetary or local, do exist in isolines, and any change in any of these will inevitably lead to changes in another system of the same or higher level; [9]

- principles of harmony and balance of interests: the necessity of liaising/harmonising interests of all social groups, related with use of mineral resources and useful properties of subsoil, by intruding into the geological environment, development of the mechanism of social accessibility of resources; [6]

- principle of geodiversity preservation; [10]

- principle of responsibility in front of future generations and increasing variability: any development should satisfy the needs of currently existing generation without any threat to the needs of other generations, and any taken decision for implementation of geoethical situations, dilemmas and problems should increase the possibilities/opportunities of currently living and future generations, and not degradation of such; [9]

- principle of forecasting: analysis of possible changes should take into account not only the velocity of the processes of development of human civilisation, but also the velocity of the processes of geological evolution; [9]

- precautionary principle: any threat from any possible danger of natural, including geological, catastrophes upon taking management decisions should be taken into account as a really existing danger, even if such risk is of a preliminary scientific hypothetic nature; [11, 12, 13]

- principle of reversibility: the changes in geosystems of all levels, in the process of their performance must leave a possibility for taking a different geoethical decision in case of occurrence of unforeseen consequences [9];

- principle of integration: the norms of ethical approach to inorganic nature should be introduced in laws, standards and rules of conduct of nations of the world;

- principle of moderateness (the principle of “do not damage”). [6]

Also the concept of the geoethical imperative is introduced: sustainable development in the threefold system of “abiotic nature-humans-society” should be based on the necessity of ensuring,

Human rights for healthy and productive life in harmony with the nature,

• Equality of possibilities of development and preservation of abiotic nature, including mineral resources, useful properties of subsoil, landscapes etc., for current and future generations,

• Social-economic development, oriented for improvement of the quality of life of people in admissible limits of economic capacity of geological systems and objects,

• Elimination of the causes of negative impacts, and not the consequences, to geological objects and geological systems of other levels,

• Formation of geoethical conscious and world view of humans, a geoethical system of upbringing and education.

In the third section, Nataliya Nikitina delves into ethical situations in which mineral resources become a cause of global and local conflicts. The uneven distribution and consumption of mineral resources are the main source of global and local conflicts. Throughout the history of human civilization the vast majority of wars, whether we take the Pelopponesian war or the US invasion into Iraq and the seizure of Libya after the killing of Muammar Kaddafi, was fought for resources: land, gold, silver, coal, oil, gas, surface and ground water.

Present-day conflicts in Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, the Ukraine, South Sudan, waters of the East China and the South China seas are due not only to pre-existing historical conflicts between neighbouring tribes, nations and religious groups but also due to aspiration to control oil and gas assets, which actually mean the control over main resources of sources of national income resource economies. The control over deposits is converted into geopolitical influence of some and economical vulnerability for others. Often the profit from selling of oil, diamonds and gold are used by terrorists for local wars.

In ХХI century underground water became as precious as oil and gas, especially if they were suitable for drinking. Though more than two thirds of our planet’s surface is covered with water, 97% of it is salt water, 3% is fresh water, including 1% suitable for drinking and 2% trapped in glaciers and ice. Nature managed this in such a way that the amount of water on the planet is fixed and the population is constantly growing. More than 40% world’s population - about 2.5 billion – lives in regions experiencing mild or severe lack of water. It is expected that by 2025 the number will grow up to 5.5 billion, 2/3 of planet’s inhabitants.

The UN experts called water crisis one of the most acute problems of the near future, and the period between 2005 and 2015 was declared the international decade for action "Water for life", encouraging public and private developments to assist the countries lacking fresh water.

Prior to the invasion into Iraq in 2003, CIA analysts reported on a prediction of wars aimed to establish control over water resources – «hydrological wars». Unfortunately these predictions are becoming real, beginning with recent wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

With each year, more and more attention is attracted by the Arctic shelf. Supposedly there are 30% of undiscovered natural gas and 13% of oil deposits under the Arctic ice. By now, mining in this region is extremely costly. But the melting of the ice is gradually making development of mineral resources in the Arctic more accessible.

Not only minerals, but also the transport routes can be referred to the wealth of the Arctic. Currently, the shipping route along the Northern coasts of Russia is difficult to consider as a rival to routes through the Panama and Suez canals, though they are much longer. But climate changes make the Northern sea route more navigable. Meanwhile, legal issues related to the region, are still not settled. How to take into account the interests of extra-regional states in the Arctic, without legitimating rights of the countries of the Arctic five (the USA, Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark)?

The latest agreements within the framework of the Arctic Council (on search and rescue at sea, oil spill response), as well as work on the Polar code regulating Arctic shipping, show the desire of Arctic States to develop norms of behaviour in the Arctic. There is no doubt that to "close" the Arctic once again is impossible, and economically impractical, but the rules of the game have to be offered exactly by those states, the coasts of which are actually washed by the Arctic ocean.

The Antarctic region (territories south to 60° of South latitude, including the South pool of the World ocean, usually called with a general term the Southern ocean), despite its remoteness and harsh climatic conditions for many of the States are of no less interest than the Arctic. In contrast to all other continents, since its opening in 1820, Antarctica remains essentially no man's land. More precisely, the rights to it were sued by seven countries at once, but their claims still remain largely unrecognized.

The core of the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 was the premise that Antarctica is declared a peaceful area where it is forbidden to place any military bases, conduct manoeuvres and testing weapons, including nuclear. Instead, the region should become a platform for large-scale scientific research, the results of which the parties were free to share. No less important was the political aspect of the document: according to its Sixth article, it actually froze all territorial claims on Antarctica. On the one hand, the contract was structured in such a way that attempts on its basis to challenge the claim of a party was simply impossible.

Eliminating the danger of a political conflict, the Treaty, however, left another equally important issue beyond: access to minerals. As suggested by geologists there are large deposits of resources of many minerals in Antarctica: coal, iron ore, copper, zinc, nickel, lead, and other minerals. However, the greatest interest for most of the countries is oil and gas reserves. The exact amounts are unknown, however, according to some, only one region of the Ross sea (Australian sector) contains about 50 billion barrels of oil and 100 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.

An attempt to discuss the possibility of mining the participants of the Antarctic made an agreement in 1988 by adopting the Convention. However, the document never entered into force, but instead in 1991 the parties signed the Madrid Protocol, which entered into force in 1998. According to this document, it is strictly prohibited any extraction of minerals in the territory of Antarctica. However, this ban is not indefinite: the text of the Protocol should be revised in 50 years after its entry into force - in the year 2048. At that, in some countries claiming territory in Antarctica, they do not exclude that in the end, the industrial development of the continent can be resolved. In addition, there is a possibility that someone among the parties to the Protocol will simply refuse to participate in it.

Obviously, such scenarios give rise to concern, especially to those countries that believe that Antarctica is theirs. In practice, this has led to the fact that during the execution of the provisions of the UN Convention on the law of the sea, which entered into force in 1994, a serious conflict arose because of the need to determine the boundaries of the continental shelves. On the Antarctic shelf, there have been applicants from among the "owners" of the continents. On the other hand, the Antarctic Treaty directly prohibits its participants to increase their holdings.

Representatives of Russia, USA, Japan, the Netherlands, India and other countries filed statements about the need to save "no man's" status of Antarctica. Yet few dare to conduct open conversations about mining in Antarctica. Meanwhile, around the icy continent, some nervousness is obviously growing: almost any gesture of any country in its direction is immediately perceived by contractors as an attempt to push the "legitimate" owners.

The fourth chapter “Geoethics based resources management” looks at “The Tragedy of the Commons”, social conflicts in subsoil use and suggests some alternative solutions that could prevent such conflicts at the stage of granting exploration and mining rights.

Problem of the social (non-)acceptance of the mining industry (particularly development projects) is relatively new, so more widely discussed for a relatively short time. In the book, extensive review of worldwide examples in this scope has been presented with special regard to specificity of the Russian Federation, where the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) phenomenon is one of key reasons of local communities’ opposition. The problem is recognized mainly from the perspective of the mineral industry, but also from the point of view of government, local communities, and animate nature.

For the first time, the mineral resource dilemma is formulated, and the matrix of possible solution to it is suggested. Typically the mineral resource dilemma looks as follows:

Sooner or later companies that hold exploration or mining rights need to obtain consent (formal or informal) of the local population for exploration and mining activities in the area. Both parties have to make a decision:

a. The local community does not argue against the government decision to grant the right to explore/mine/extract mineral resources in a certain area and in 8–10 years the local budget will receive additional income, the size of which will depend on revenues and costs of the mining business, especially environmental remediation expenditures, community-related expenditures. In this case the environment and sub-soil will suffer a certain degree of degradation;

b. The local community lobbies against exploration and production of mineral resources and a result the mining license is revoked by the government or forfeited by the mining company. In this case the local budget will obtain no additional revenue and no environmental damages will be suffered. Alternatively instead of forfeiting the license, the mining company can decide to substantially increase its environmental remediation expenditure (to the satisfaction of the local community) in which case the environmental and community related damages are minimized as well as the additional revenues of the local budget (table).

Table: Matrix of possible solution to the mineral resource dilemma and their consequences

Feasible Solutions Consequences
Local Community against the Proposed Mining Activity The Local Community is Indifferent to the Proposed Mining Activity
Mining business does not take into account protests or social needs of the local community Alternative # 1 Mining company has to cancel the project completely and suffers a direct loss Alternative # 2 Mining company obtains a maximum mining profit
Environment and abiotic nature completely preserved Environmental and subsoil degradation
Local budget does not receive any mining revenues Maximum mining revenues to the local budget
Mining business incurs substantial additional environmental remediation costs and community oriented expenses Alternative # 3 Minimal profit for mining business due to maximized environmental expenditures Alternative # 4 Due to obligatory environmental remediation and community related expenses
Minimal damage to the environment and abiotic nature Limited damage to the environment and abiotic nature
Moderate local budget revenues Moderate local budget revenues

A solution to the dilemma is determined to a certain extent by the goals and interaction strategies of parties involved. If each party considers its own goals only (profits maximization of a company or nature preservation at any cost), alternative # 1 will be the best for the local community and alternative # 2 for the mining company. But from a joint point of view, if the mining company and the local community are aware of limited uneven geographical distribution of mineral resources, growing consumption of mineral resources by society and need for economic development, while preserving (to the extent possible) the environment from the negative effects of mining, it would be the best to act together using alternative # 3 and # 4. In this case, the solution to the dilemma will be found depending on, firstly, demands of the local community, secondly, on the amount of environmental and social oriented expenditures that the mining business is prepared to bear.

At the same time any dilemma participants cannot be sure that the other side will meet its obligations during the agreed mining period. If the mining rights are revoked by authorities for certain reasons or in case of mining company deciding to forfeit the rights, any legal or moral obligations of the mining company regarding the environment or local community will fall away. Also there is no guarantee that the requirements of the local population will not change in the future.

From the geoethical point of view such decisions should be made based on the geoethical imperative of sustainable development being determined within the tripartite system of abiotic nature, man and society. In which case it is important to ensure:

• the human right to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature;

• equal opportunities for the development and preservation of abiotic nature for present and future generations, including mineral resources, useful properties of sub-soil, landscapes etc.;

• socio-economic development aimed at improving the quality of human existence within limits of the economic capacity of geological systems and sites;

• elimination of causes of negative mining impact and not is consequences;

• development of geoethical consciousness and mind set as well as geoethical education system.

In the fifth chapter the history of the origin and evolution of the term ‘geodiversity’ is described, its present definitions are given, and several types of values of geodiversity are considered. Moreover, a new type of value is defined: the information value of geodiversity, as developed from the ethical principles of geodiversity preservation.

Existing projects on the study and development of mineral resources of natural celestial bodies are analysed in the sixth chapter “Ethical Problems during Exploration of Mineral Resources on Extra-Terrestrial Objects”, and a set of economic, judicial and ethical problems that may occur during their implementation are considered. There are prospecting indicators for the discovery of helium-3, water ice, hydrocarbons, nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum group metals, gold, uranium, thorium deposits on planets and small bodies of the Solar System.

Technical progress leads to the fact that soon the natural resources of the planets and small bodies of the Solar system will be available for use. Mineral resources and useful properties of subsoil become the first objects to attract attention of Earthlings. But the pace of technological progress runs ahead of ethical understanding of the necessity, admissibility and the possibility of mining operations on other planets.

The helium-3 production on the Moon is the best potential project on development of mineral resources of celestial bodies because it would be used as an alternative energy source. According to consolidated feasibility analysis (TST) if annual productive capacity of the regolith is 1348.11 thousand tons (17.52 kg of helium-3), power generation on Earth is 3,066,000 kilowatt-hour per year, payback period will be 9 years.

Similar calculations allow us to remove the problem of developing mineral resources of natural celestial bodies from the realms of fancy into the search of real solutions. A long-term goal of space programs of all countries is the development of natural resources of celestial bodies to integrate them into earth's economy. And at least two companies - Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries - are openly planning to mine asteroids. It is necessary to get to grips with judicial and ethical problems that may occur during their implementation: to provide a legislative framework for individual provisions of international treaties and develop ethical principles for mining on planets and small bodies of the Solar System.

The Treaty on Principles of Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies and The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies explicitly forbids any government from claiming a celestial resource such as the Moon or a planet, that they are the common heritage of mankind and state that the exploration of outer space shall be done to benefit all countries and shall be free for exploration and use by all the States. But The Space Act of 2015 (USA) says that resources extracted from asteroids and other objects in space belong to the person or company who extracts them. This statement violates the Outer Space Treaty.

Mining will entail the colonization and terraforming of planets (the process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology to be similar to the environment of Earth to make it habitable by Earth-like life). Humanity believes that living exclusively on the Earth is too risky and given the natural and human-made risks in the universe that is simply not safe. The moral value of having a “backup Earth” should not be underestimated. In the absence of proof of life on a planet, this is a philosophical debate. But may we have the luxury of an exceedingly thorough search for life before humans start to contaminate the planet with Earth life?

Suggested geoethical principles comprise following aspects:

- The strong ethical basis for title to subsoil of celestial bodies and recovered mineral row materials;

- Equitable distribution of extraction benefiting;

- Social responsibility of space mining business;

- Valuing geodiversity; its preservation.

Key categories of geoethics - justice and responsibility are discussed in the seventh and eighth chapters of the monograph.

The possibilities of applying existing ethical concepts of justice in study and use of mineral resources and income from use of such in the country, between states and between generations are discussed. A special emphasis is given to analysis of the responsibility for preparation and taking management decisions in the subsoil use industry at three levels: the state, companies and professionals. Mechanisms of implementation of social responsibility of mining business for decisions in economy of subsoil use and its social-economic consequences have been developed.

The book contains two annexes: Spanish Official Association of Geologists (ICOG) Deontological Code (approved by the Ordinary General Assembly of ICOG, held on April 9, 2011) and Geological Mining Association of Mozambique Deontological and Ethical Code (approved in 2013).


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