We need a geo-civics.

AMS 102nd Annual Meeting

Civics is the study of the rights and obligations of citizens in society. The term derives from the Latin word civicus, meaning “relating to a citizen”. The term relates to behavior affecting other citizens, particularly in the context of urban development.” – Wikipedia

A read of the Wikipedia piece will almost certainly take you back to course material at one or more points in your education where civics was the focus. The ideas originated in ancient Greece. We’re told Spartans achieved momentary but significant historical success by teaching their citizens just enough civics to make them aware of their rights and obligations, but not so much that they might fail to conform. Their discipline and coherence as a people made them a force to be reckoned with. By contrast, the Athenians preferred civics of the more brawling sort, with individual freedom as the starting point. (It’s not too hard to see a similar spectrum spanning today’s geopolitics.)

Dip into the subject of civics a bit, whether reading the link above or more original sources, and you might soon find yourself investigating natural law: “a system of law based on a close observation of human nature, and based on values intrinsic to human nature that can be deduced and applied independent of positive law (the enacted laws of a state or society). According to natural law theory, all people have inherent rights, conferred not by act of legislation but by “God, nature, or reason.” Natural law theory can also refer to “theories of ethics, theories of politics, theories of civil law, and theories of religious morality.” One big name in this arena is the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). (With oversimplification) Hobbes held that people might argue about what makes for happiness, but he saw nearly universal agreement on what people fear (violent death at the hand of another). Hobbes formulated nineteen (!)[1] such laws. An example: “The ninth law is that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature. The breach of this precept is pride.” We have all seen that notion highlighted in the American Declaration of Independence.

This intellectual material is profound. Moreover, there’s ample evidence in today’s world that all eight billion of us have lost sight of these basics in the heat and stress of the moment – growing awareness of and frustration and despair with the systemic inequities in our relationships with each other; wrestling with the pandemic, threats that Russia may invade the Ukraine; and other woes. We might do well to revisit and take to heart this foundational subject matter – do a better job of getting along.

But from at least one perspective, civics and natural law as currently framed are lacking. The topics show no explicit acknowledgement that we must work out our societal rights and obligations, and our relationships with each other, all while living on and constrained by a real-world Earth.

That Earth, though generous – is finite. It is also dangerous. It does much if not most of its business through extreme events – not just earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and violent storms, but also abrupt climate change, disease outbreaks and pestilence, ecosystem collapse, and more. And it’s not only generous and dangerous – it’s also fragile. The life-essential services it offers can be disrupted or forever lost if we human beings fail to meet our natural obligations with respect to planetary-stewardship.

The Spartans and the Athenians, even Thomas Hobbes, can be forgiven for not taking these realities into account. Throughout history to that point, Earth’s resources had been for all practical purposes infinite. And extreme events were viewed as interruptions of the natural order – acts of God, and therefore inherently unforeseeable.

Today we know differently. We know natural resources are finite. We have some ability to foresee nature’s risks. We have noticed our local, regional, and global effects on the environment, habitats, and ecosystems. Accordingly, we need a branch of study focused on the rights and obligations of some eight billion people riding at high speed through the universe on an open-air convertible that we call the Earth. And we need to extend natural law to include the nature of the planet we live on.

We need a geocivics.

What might that look like? To distill it to a few principles will take time. But the work is well underway. We see the start emerging in the geocsciences. In ecology. In the IPCC reports, and hundreds of other national, regional, and local conversations underway in and across governments, the private sector, and civil society. But here’s a candidate(first-draft) natural law to sharpen minds:

The first law is that humankind make it a priority to develop a predictive understanding of Earth’s life-giving resources and how they are trending; where, when, and how threats might arise; where vital ecosystem services are declining or risk compromise – in order to help guide and develop equitable and effective coping strategies.

We know a great deal about how the Earth system works. But we need to know more, and with great urgency if we hope to sustain let alone improve our current lifestyle.

Closer to home? That sounds like the American Meteorological Society’s mission: advancing the atmospheric and related sciences, technologies, applications, and services for the benefit of society.

By coincidence, the AMS 2022 Annual Meeting gets underway (hybrid: face-to-face and virtually) today.  The sessions and talks will touch on many aspects of geo-civics, though not by name. In fact, the meeting theme Environmental Security: Weather, water, and climate for a more secure world hits at the heart of the subject.

During the meeting, but also in the months that follow, let’s keep our geocivic responsibilities in mind. Let’s join the rest of the world in extending natural law to include our natural world.

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A closing note: eight billion people are accomplishing a lot while our backs are turned. One implication is that hardly any idea we have is “new.” For that reason most academics are obsessed with literature search – constantly exploring for prior investigations of any and every aspect of interest. That’s true here. Google “geocivics” and you find hits – to work at the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs campus) on gerrymandering, and other efforts exploring the influence of geography on civics. This LOTRW post is suggesting an expanded view of the term.


[1] For true scholars (or gluttons for punishment?) here is Hobbes’ full list:

  • The first law of nature is that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.
  • The second law of nature is that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.
  • The third law is that men perform their covenants made. In this law of nature consisteth the fountain and original of justice… when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust and the definition of injustice is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust is just.
  • The fourth law is that a man which receiveth benefit from another of mere grace, endeavour that he which giveth it, have no reasonable cause to repent him of his good will. Breach of this law is called ingratitude.
  • The fifth law is complaisance: that every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest. The observers of this law may be called sociable; the contrary, stubborn, insociable, forward, intractable.
  • The sixth law is that upon caution of the future time, a man ought to pardon the offences past of them that repenting, desire it.
  • The seventh law is that in revenges, men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.
  • The eighth law is that no man by deed, word, countenance, or gesture, declare hatred or contempt of another. The breach of which law is commonly called contumely.
  • The ninth law is that every man acknowledge another for his equal by nature. The breach of this precept is pride.
  • The tenth law is that at the entrance into the conditions of peace, no man require to reserve to himself any right, which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest. The breach of this precept is arrogance, and observers of the precept are called modest.
  • The eleventh law is that if a man be trusted to judge between man and man, that he deal equally between them.
  • The twelfth law is that such things as cannot be divided, be enjoyed in common, if it can be; and if the quantity of the thing permit, without stint; otherwise proportionably to the number of them that have right.
  • The thirteenth law is the entire right, or else…the first possession (in the case of alternating use), of a thing that can neither be divided nor enjoyed in common should be determined by lottery.
  • The fourteenth law is that those things which cannot be enjoyed in common, nor divided, ought to be adjudged to the first possessor; and in some cases to the first born, as acquired by lot.
  • The fifteenth law is that all men that mediate peace be allowed safe conduct.
  • The sixteenth law is that they that are at controversie, submit their Right to the judgement of an Arbitrator.
  • The seventeenth law is that no man is a fit Arbitrator in his own cause.
  • The eighteenth law is that no man should serve as a judge in a case if greater profit, or honour, or pleasure apparently ariseth [for him] out of the victory of one party, than of the other.
  • The nineteenth law is that in a disagreement of fact, the judge should not give more weight to the testimony of one party than another, and absent other evidence, should give credit to the testimony of other witnesses.
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