Education Editors' Vox

Sustaining Existence: A Geoethical Dilemma

Would communicating science be more effective if geoethics were included in the discussion?

By John W. Geissman

On August 5, 2015, Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally released over three million gallons of water, residing underground, from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado. The EPA estimates that some 403,000 kilograms of metals, mainly cadmium, copper, lead, and mercury, poured into the Animas River. The contamination reached past the confluence of the Animas and the San Juan—more than 300 miles. For well over a week following the spill, municipal and community water systems and irrigation ditches in San Juan County, including those of the Navajo reservation, were not allowed to draw water from the rivers.  Domestic well owners were warned against using their water, and livestock were not allowed near the rivers. This spring, there is a concern that the forecasted high runoff from the San Juan Mountains may redistribute the contaminants.

Since then, a great deal of criticism has been heaped on the EPA and other government agencies. However, the purpose of this introduction is not to voice displeasure with them, but rather to use the Gold King Mine disaster as a prime example of the kinds of concerns we face in trying to sustain ourselves on a habitable Earth.

Many nations struggle with the huge, unfinished efforts of dealing with thousands of “Gold King Mines” of one version or another. As Brian Palmer writes in onEarth, “We’ve created a situation where one bad call can contaminate 300 miles of river with toxic metals. That’s a systemic failure, not an individual failure.”

If we have already identified a problem, yet “systemic failures” result in inattention or indecision, what then is the proper course to take? How do we effect a more rapid course of action? Based on what we know about a situation, is it ethical to do nothing? On the other hand, making an effort to address a situation could create its own set of impacts. We know that we must solve problems; in doing so, can we avoid creating others?

The decisions that we make in addressing our many grand challenges will require informed and timely evaluation, rooted in the soundest science possible. But these decisions must also factor in ethics, and, in numerous cases, geoethics. The speed of our decision-making may meet with greater success if geoscientists, in our passion to act more responsibly, openly present the ethical issues we grapple with while assessing the body of scientific evidence.

Credit: Mor, CC BY-NC 2.0.
Polluted Animas River. Credit: Mor, CC BY-NC 2.0.

Working with my colleagues Professor David Mogk, University of Montana, and Monica Bruckner, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College, I recently had the opportunity to co-author a chapter on the teaching of geoethics for the upcoming AGU publication Scientific Integrity and Ethics in the Geosciences: A Handbook and History. In this chapter, we discuss why geoethics should be considered an important part of the educational experience of both undergraduate and graduate students in the geosciences, and we offer guidance as to how geoethics can be folded into the curriculum. One setting of great potential lies in introductory-type classes, such as Physical Geology, Earth History, or Earth Environment. In these courses, students of diverse backgrounds and interests would not only learn basic geoscience concepts and processes, but could also discover, through examples including case studies, how the geosciences have and will affect their lives. We hope that you will find our arguments very compelling!

In a recent Opinion in The New York Times Sunday Review, Edward O. Wilson writes, “The step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so.” I suspect that a suitably learned community in geoethics will enhance the needed global effort to sustain human existence and our environment on Earth.

—John W. Geissman, Editor in Chief, Tectonics; email: [email protected]

  • Kherbstrith

    For further information on Teaching GeoEthics Across the Geoscience Curriculum visit:

  • Richard Cronin

    The difficulty is “Who’s ethics ?” Who is teaching the “geoethics ?”. Who’s scripture ? Who’s interpretation of said scripture ? Science, like government, should stay out of the religious entanglements. Get to the science. And citing the work of others without checking or taking new observations is unacceptable science. “Peer review” suffers greatly for this reason.

  • davidlaing

    Thank you for including a quote from my teacher, Ed Wilson. I think he would be dismayed at much that is being done today in the name of “Geoethics,” The proper domain of scientists is to learn from Earth, our primary teacher. We MUST resist the temptation to interpret what we learn and to make policy on the basis of such interpretations. One such policy nightmare is the “decarbonization” of our society based on a flawed interpretation of global warming that was effectively disproven by the world’s leading atmospheric scientist of the time, Kunt Angstrom, in 1900, and never subjected to laboratory experiment since. Our role is to pay attention, not to make snap judgments on the basis of poorly understood science.

    • Richard Cronin

      Thank you, David Laing. Well spoken. Beyond Knut Angstrom in the year 1900, there was Robert W. Wood in 1909 and Nasif Nahle in 2011. As best as I can understand, John Tyndall (1859) irradiated a glass flask with his gas sample and had the pre-conceived notion that the gas “trapped the heat” , when it was really the glass that blocked radiative cooling. He had constructed a true greenhouse, complete with a glass enclosure.

      • davidlaing


    • Ben Winchester

      …a flawed interpretation of global warming that was effectively disproven by the world’s leading atmospheric scientist of the time, Kunt Angstrom, in 1900, and never subjected to laboratory experiment since.

      Not quite true. There were a couple problems with Angstrom’s measurements and conclusions, and his conclusions were disproved in the 1930s-1950s as a result. These problems were:

      1) They missed some important side bands in the CO2 radiative spectrum.
      2) The overlap with water vapor’s spectrum drops sharply as you ascend through the atmosphere – partly because the concentration of water vapor drops precipitously, and partly because the pressure drops and band become narrower.

      Major changes came with better measurements in the 1950s. As a result, the scientific stance started to shift. At the forefront, see this well-cited paper from Gilbert Plass in 1956:

      “In recent years the carbon dioxide theory has had relatively few adherents. Most authors have dismissed this theory with a remark similar to the following quotation from C. E. P. BROOKS (1951): the carbon dioxide theory was “abandoned when it was found that all the long-wave radiation absorbed by CO, is also absorbed by water vapour.” This often quoted conclusion is based on early, approximate calculations of the radiation flux in the atmosphere. The results of more accurate calculations of the radiation flux have recently become available. Thus it seems worthwhile to reappraise the CO, theory of climatic change. A preliminary report of these results has been given by PLASS (1953). “

      You can find many follow-up papers from the later 1950s and 1960s, showing similar results.