The story of making “Geo-societal Narratives – Contextualising geosciences”

By Ronin Research Scholar Martin Bohle

The drafting of the book Geo-societal Narratives – contextualising Geosciences was a unique experience. The group of twenty authors were assembled in late 2019 by correspondence. The outlay of the book was agreed upon in early 2020 by correspondence. The book was also drafted by correspondence. No meetings, not even by video! Although the book’s essays relate little to the COVID-19 pandemic, the turmoil of 2020/2021 facilitated cooperation because it called for cooperation. This experience recalls what in the past was named ‘Republic of Letters’. The ‘Republic of Letters’ was a community among intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the Americas, who communicated over long distances by letter.

An intellectual community transcending space and time, [but] recognizing as such differences in respect to the diversity of languages, sects, and countries.

Goodman, Dena (1994), The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Cornell University Press, p. 15.

What is the idea of this book?

So far, geoscientists have engaged on their own with the implications of ‘responsible science’ for their disciplines. However, studying the societal relevance of geosciences requires the interaction of Earth/geosciences and people-sciences, that is, the social sciences, political sciences, and humanities. Therefore, this book gathers scholars from the people-sciences (e.g. social sciences, humanities, political science) to join Earth/geoscientists in studying the societal contexts of the geosciences. In that sense, this book offers an antithesis to simplistic views of societal geo-dynamics, as H. von Storch wrote in the Foreword “…how to avoid a Western-centred and thus postcolonial determination of ‘ethical, social and cultural implications’, and how to overcome simplistic and naïve views of natural scientists about societal dynamics.” (p. X)

What is the background to this book?

Contemporary societies use geoscientific expertise in business, public undertakings, and cultural activities. In times of anthropogenic global change (e.g. climate change, biodiversity loss, or global supply chains), geoscientific  expertise enables people to take care of seven-billion-plus fellow human beings. Therefore, geoscientific expertise needs a comprehensive understanding of the social and political facets of the ‘human condition’ and a ‘human planet’ (see references below for further reading). Till now, and like scientists from other disciplines, professional geoscientists have engaged ‘on their own’ with the concept of ‘responsible science’. This is too narrow a foundation.

Therefore, geoscientific expertise needs a comprehensive understanding of the social and political facets of the ‘human condition’ and a ‘human planet’… professional geoscientists have engaged ‘on their own’ with the concept of ‘responsible science’. This is too narrow a foundation.

Expanding on the above: 

  • Humans operate a planetary technosphere to secure their daily living. Nowadays, the technosphere is part of the Earth System. That feature is at the origin of the Anthropocene. 
  • Geoscientific knowledge is a corpus of insights about the functioning of the abiotic systems of planet Earth. It enables contemporary technologies and cultures; hence, it co-shapes the technosphere.
  • Likewise, geoscience knowledge enables people to evaluate anthropogenic changes in societal contexts, even as mere consumers of resources.
  • Furthermore, citizens need insight into how the Earth System works to make informed decisions. Therefore, the societal responsibility of geoscientists is central because geoscientific expertise is crucial for making anthropogenic change occur. 

Hence, geoscientists help achieve anthropogenic change (e.g. environmental change caused by human activity) and make the change global. Subsequently, geoscientists should assume the responsibility that comes with their role as agents of technology-driven change. In this context, this book is a cross-disciplinary exchange of narratives of various philosophical, applied, or political subjects to strengthen interdisciplinary inquiry. 

What is the methodology of this book?

We editors, Eduardo Marone and myself, together created an intellectual environment ready for receiving novel ideas. We gathered a diverse group of authors who, till then, had not yet cooperated. Ideas and opinions were juxtaposed, e.g. how to approach anthropocentrism in the Anthropocene. The emphasis of the book was on breaking new ground in a common quest for ‘societal geosciences’. No final answers were given. We editors fought for quality, not for ‘our’ ideas. In due course of drafting the book we opted to strengthen the first chapter, so that it offers a more robust scaffolding for all contributions. 

Attempting to address that caveat (‘people-sciences’ and ‘Earth/geosciences’), essays about various philosophical, applied or political subjects were gathered for this book… They are multifaceted.

Summarising, contemporary societies massively apply geoscientific expertise in business, public undertakings, and cultural activities; when cumulated it results in engineering local, regional and global change. Therefore, scholars in ‘people-sciences’ (humanities, social, political sciences) and ‘Earth/geosciences’ should cooperate to understand the societal contexts of the Earth/geosciences for the benefit of society, in general, and their scientific disciplines. However, currently, both research communities do not interact much. Attempting to address that caveat, essays about various philosophical, applied or political subjects were gathered for this book. They outline an interdisciplinary inquiry undertaken by authors from diverse backgrounds. Our  narratives of insights and reflections stem from our respective fields of study when considering World and Nature. They are multifaceted. 

What made this book possible?

All contributors cooperated, although we never met face-to-face and most had never met in the past. The contributors’ scientific networks were unconnected before the publication project. More than half of our connections went through the editors’ mutual links on (scientific) social media platforms such as ResearchGate and Twitter. A simple analysis indicates fewer than two bilateral links between authors by just counting (yes/no) whether the contributors did work together previously. The number drops below one when the editors are excluded from the analysis. Hence, this book was created by the cooperation of strangers. The willingness of all contributors to cooperate with unknown peers as well as the trust of the publisher’s editors in this untested partnership was paramount for the making of the book. 

Narrative of events:

To build this partnership I drafted an initial sketch of the book. Hence, I wrote a note outlining the idea of the book, how it relates to other publications, and how I would situate the publication project. The final publication resembles the initial project in purpose but not in detail. These initial steps and all consecutive were coordinated with Eduardo Marone, my co-editor, who advised me as well as individual contributors, bringing a second tune to the play. 

Consecutively: 

  • In late summer 2019 I scanned (my) professional links and found names of about sixty possible contributors. I contacted them one by one by Email to present the concept of the book, ask for their comments, and invite them to outline their possible contributions. Those who were interested I assembled in an Email group. We, the editors, shared with them updates about the development of the partnership and design of the publication project (~20 purposefully written Emails in letter-style). 
  • We then drafted and compiled the formal proposal to the publisher (Palgrave macmillan (UK) of Springer Nature (CH)). It was ready in March 2020 after an exchange with the contributors. The proposal was reviewed (anonymously) and got ‘mixed feedback’; a mix of praise (novelty) and criticism (scientific quality because of the spread of subjects). In response I took the lead to revise the proposal in depth. Specific issues of content were revised in direct cooperation with the respective contributors. However, in my capacity as lead-editor I set some boundary conditions such as time-windows, citation style, and length of chapters. After signing the book contract (‘consent to publish’ signed by all contributors) the drafting of the book began. 
  • The drafting of the chapters lasted from June  2020 to January 2021. Each contributor was working at her/his own pace – some finished rapidly, others took their time. I informed the group – by using soft peer pressure – of the progress. Together with Eduardo we ‘trimmed’ contributions that overran the word limits by too much in bilateral exchanges. Professional help – thank you Elise H. – was also organised to advise on language and style – communicated only in bilateral communication. 
  • February to April 2021 were spent on reviewing (again) all draft chapters, adjusting the introduction, writing front matters, streamlining the citation style and bibliography of each chapter, and building the index. The most challenging task was framing the ‘combative’ style of a very determined contributor, who’s language was a bit too abrasive for others.

Hence, this book was created by the cooperation of strangers. The willingness of all contributors to cooperate with unknown peers as well as the trust of the publisher’s editors in this untested partnership was paramount for the making of the book.

Overall, the planned schedule to draft the book overran by about two weeks. Spared resources in terms of time or length of text, which I kept initially aside as ‘reserves’, have been assigned step by step to contributions benefitting most of them. In autumn 2020, the total length of the book was renegotiated with the publisher’s office, who got regular updates on the progress of drafting. The number of figures and tables was reduced in favour of longer texts. We made a fair deal. The final stage, which consisted of processing and proofreading went smoothly. Although it felt long, the publisher abided by the planned date of publication. 

Hence, transparent communication with the group of contributors was essential. Email was the option to communicate in an asynchronous manner. It enabled all contributors to contribute at their own pace. Confidential bilateral communication completed the pattern of communication whenever appropriate.

Regarding ways of working, the drafting process and final proofreading were managed by messages to the Email group and bilateral exchange of Emails. About thirty purposefully written Emails, formally phrased, hence, “in letter-style” were sent to the group. A shared space (on Dropbox) was made available where final drafts of chapters were accessible to all contributors who could read and check materials in other chapters, also for cross-referencing their work with other parts of the book. Detailed annotations to drafts of each individual chapter were sent only to the respective author(s). Information about reserves was the editors’ prerogative. The group was informed when reserves were released (and to whom).  Hence, transparent communication with the group of contributors was essential. Email was the option to communicate in an asynchronous  manner. It enabled all contributors to contribute at their own pace. Confidential bilateral communication completed the pattern of communication whenever appropriate.

Summarising, what did we learn?

This book initiates a direct exchange between scholars in ‘Earth/geosciences’ and ‘People sciences’ in the spirit of the philosopher and physicist Mario Bunge (1919-2020) and his imperative Enjoy life and help live’

‘A philosophy without ontology is invertebrate; it is acephalous without epistemology, confused without semantics, and limbless with axiology, praxeology, and ethics.’

Bunge, Mario (2016) Between Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Philosopher-Scientist. Springer Biographies, Springer, p. 406.

Mario Bunge is inspiring us because he taught (1) the rebellious character of philosophy that it must be linked with the best of up-to-date science, (2) to give society something in exchange for the education we got, (3) be tolerant with regards to all authentic philosophies and rational debates among them. 

In this spirit, this book applies the understanding that philosophy is about engineering the thinking, hence ‘A philosophy without ontology is invertebrate; it is acephalous without epistemology, confused without semantics, and limbless without axiology, praxeology, and ethics.’  Bunge, M. (2016) Between Two Worlds: Memoirs of a Philosopher-Scientist. Springer Biographies, Springer, 496 p. (p 406).

Book Title:  Geo-societal Narratives

Book Subtitle: Contextualising Geosciences

Editors: Martin Bohle, Eduardo Marone

Publisher Palgrave Macmillan (2021)

Number of Pages  XXV, 221

eBook ISBN: 978-3-030-79028-8

DOI 10.1007/978-3-030-79028-8

References for further reading

Bohle, M. (2021). ‘Citizen, Geoscientist and Associated Terra-former’, in Global Threats in the Anthropocene: From COVID-19 to the Future, eds. L. Mercantanti and S. Montes (Il Sileno Edizioni), 169–186.

Castree, N. (2017). Speaking for the ‘people disciplines’: Global change science and its human dimensions. Anthr. Rev. 4, 160–182. doi:10.1177/2053019617734249.

Hamilton, C. (2017). Defiant Earth – The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Cambridge: Wiley, Polity Press.

Lewis, S. L., and Maslin, M. A. (2018). The Human Planet – How We Created the Anthropocene. London: Penguin Random House.

Mokyr, J. (2016). Institutions and the Origins of the Great Enrichment. Atl. Econ. J. 44, 243–259. doi:10.1007/s11293-016-9496-4.

+ more Ronin Institute blog posts

Martin Bohle is a Ronin Research Scholar who considers himself to be a self-motivated 3rd-age researcher. Dr. Bohle was formerly an EU science program manager and recently published Geo-societal Narratives – contextualising Geosciences.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.