Natural Hazards, Environmental Degradation, and the Urbanization of Planet Earth

Perspectives on the Ethical Challenges Geoscientists Face in an Uncertain World

Alan L. Kafka, Amy E. Frappier*, and Noah P. Snyder, Department of Geology and Geophysics, Boston College. (Paper submitted to Proceedings of the International Conference on Ethics and Sustainability of the Earth, Boston College, February 26–28, 2009.)

Environmental degradation is no longer an issue that concerns only environmental activists. The concern has become a part of mainstream culture, across the political spectrum. But as if the environment itself isn’t enough for us to worry about, there is another aspect of how human activities are affecting our lives on planet Earth that receives less attention: the interaction among natural hazards, environmental degradation, and urbanization (Figure 1). This is an insidious problem because comprehending it requires thinking about processes occurring on geological time scales interacting with processes occurring on the human time scale, and humans are not typically wired to think in geological time.

Natural disasters are inevitable consequences of life on a dynamic planet. We cannot hold back nature from occasionally unleashing its powerful forces on a vulnerable human population. But human actions that cause environmental degradation, as well as the ever-increasing population and built environment in hazard-prone regions, are worsening the devastation wrought by nature.

Geoscientists can help the public and decision makers to address these issues because they are trained to think differently than the general population: “[Geoscientists] take a long view of time, and they expect low-frequency, high-impact events [and] have internalized the vastness of the age of the Earth and relative brevity of human history” (Kastens, et al., 2009). But they can only help if they transmit that perspective in a manner that gives the public an accurate picture of what we do and don’t know about these hazards.

Click on Figures for larger view.

Click here for PDF file of entire paper.

*Now at Department of Geosciences, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York

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