Human Impacts on the Global Carbon Cycle: Signs of Madness and Signs of Hope

David P. Turner / December 19, 2021

Earth System Science has come to a remarkably good understanding of the global carbon cycle in recent decades.  The various pools (stocks) of carbon have been quantified (e.g. vegetation, soil, and atmosphere), along with the annual fluxes from one pool to another.  A key revelation has been that the quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is increasing and that the increase is driven by anthropogenic factors (fossil fuel combustion and deforestation). 

Since the rising CO2 concentration is associated with a trajectory towards dangerous climate change, humanity has slowly moved towards commitments to reduce CO2 emissions.  Some types of emissions are more glaring than others, and this blog highlights four of the most egregious examples (signs of madness). 

Likewise, there are many technical and policy options for reducing CO2 emissions or speeding CO2 uptake, and this blog highlights four of the most promising (signs of hope).

Signs of Madness

1.  Oil from Tar Sands. Given the goal of reducing anthropogenic CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, an obvious candidate for termination is extraction of oil from tar sands (Figure 1).  The whole process of extracting hydrocarbons from the Earth and refining them has an energy cost, with related CO2 emission.  Unlike conventional oil, which comes out of the ground ready for the refinery, tar sands hydrocarbons must be mechanically extracted in a bulk form that includes many contaminants.  This material is then heated to isolate the oil component, a treatment requiring substantial energy usually provided by combustion of natural gas.  The net effect is a 15% higher overall emissions of CO2 per gallon of gasoline coming from tar sands compared to conventional oil. 

Human Impacts on the Global Carbon Cycle.  Open pit mine in the tar sands oil fields of Alberta, Canada
Figure 1. Aerial photograph of open pit mine in the tar sands oil fields of Alberta, Canada.  Image Credit: Dru Ojo Jay, Dominion

2.  Tropical Zone Deforestation.  About 10% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions comes from tropical zone deforestation.  The driving factors are primarily conversion to cattle ranching, industrial and subsistence agriculture, and tree plantations (Figure 2).  In 2021, the rate of deforestation in Brazil rose 22% and Indonesia cancelled a billion-dollar agreement with Norway to reduce deforestation.  Besides direct CO2 emissions from burning and decomposition of residues, the destruction of intact forests means removal of an on-going carbon sink since most forestland is now gaining carbon as part of normal growth or accelerated growth from CO2 fertilization

Human Impacts on the Global Carbon Cycle.  Deforestation.
Figure 2.  Deforestation in the area of the Caguan River, Brazil.  Image Credit: NASA

3.  Supersonic Passenger Jets.  United Air Lines has announced plans to operationalize a fleet of supersonic passenger jets around 2029.  Their virtue would be cutting flight times across oceans by about half (they generally aren’t used over land because of sonic booms).  Their downside is a factor of 2.5 to 7 increase in carbon emissions per passenger mile.  In theory, their engines could burn sustainable aviation fuel but there are many issues with scaling up production of this fuel if demand increased substantially.

4.  Bitcoin’s “proof-of-work” Mining Protocol.  Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that has a particularly energy intensive mode of operation.  New digital coins are mined (created) by a competitive process in which multiple computer processors race to solve a computationally intense problem.  Only one computer wins, meaning that 99.9% of energy use and associated carbon emissions are wasted.  Current Bitcoin electricity consumption is on the order of consumption by a small country.  Alternative “proof-of-stake” approaches used by other cryptocurrencies are much less energy intensive.

Signs of Hope

1.  Natural Climate Solutions (NCS).  The land surface is currently a net sink for carbon dioxide, even after accounting for effects of deforestation.  Most of that carbon accumulation is showing up in live wood (Figure 3), thus it is tracked by global forest inventories.  However, a significant amount may also be accumulating in global soils (in part because of CO2 fertilization of plant growth).  The aim of the NCS strategy is to maintain all existing land carbon sinks and foster new carbon sequestration by way of altered land management.  Besides stopping deforestation, and reforesting large tracts of previously deforested land, NCS (more broadly Nature-based Solutions) will operate in the agricultural sector, wetlands, and grasslands.  Scientists estimate that NCS could provide up to 30% of the reduction in CO2 emission needed to hit net zero emissions at the global scale by 2050.

Human Impacts on the Global Carbon Cycle.  Carbon accumulation.
Figure 3.  Old-growth forest at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River. Image Credit: Oregon State University.

2.  Product Certification.  World leaders made a commitment at COP26 to reduce deforestation and end it by 2030.  A major player in that effort will be nongovernmental organizations that certify forest products as being produced sustainably, notably not in association with deforestation.  Products driving deforestation – and covered to a greater or lesser degree by certification – include wood, beef, leather, soybeans, and palm oil.  The science of sourcing forest products is receiving a big boost from research in remote sensing (e.g. radar detection of land cover change) and genetic analyses.  Individuals as well as buyers for corporate supply chains are increasingly attentive to sourcing issues and now have better leverage to identify products associated with recent deforestation.

3.  Carbon taxes.  Economists have long argued that the fastest and more practical strategy for driving down anthropogenic carbon emissions is to establish taxes on fossil fuel carbon emissions.  That approach of course tends to arouse political opposition, but several case studies prove carbon taxation is possible and effective.  The province of British Columbia in Canada imposed a moderate tax on fossil fuel emission in 2008, which has reduced fuel emissions on the order of 5-15%.  Sweden has one of the oldest and highest taxes on fossil fuel emissions.  Again, follow-up studies suggest emissions have declined, while maintaining solid GPD growth.  Various strategies have been employed to insulate the most vulnerable energy consumers from price increases.

4.  Satellite-based Monitoring of Methane Leakage.  Methane is a strong greenhouse gas in its own right and is eventually oxidized in the atmosphere to CO2.  Unfortunately, methane emissions are on the rise in recent years, with leakage from expanding coal and natural gas mining and infrastructure a significant factor.  Because methane has a relatively short atmospheric lifetime (about 8 years) compared to carbon dioxide, a decrease in methane emissions would have an especially large influence on global warming in the next few decades.  Earth system scientists use satellite borne sensors to track atmospheric methane concentrations and infer regional patterns in methane emissions.  But a new generation of sensors, including one run by the Environmental Defense Fund, is transforming the attribution of leakage sources by increasing the spatial and temporal resolution of the coverage.  These sensors will contribute to monitoring the effectiveness of the Global Methane Pledge recently signed at COP26.

The world is at, or fast approaching, the year of peak carbon dioxide emissions.  The signs of madness identified here serve to push that year farther into the future.  The signs of hope will hasten its arrival and help sustain a multidecadal trajectory towards net zero emissions.

Differentiating the Concepts of Technosphere, Noosphere, and Global Brain

Computer generated image of world-wide internet connections.  Image credit: The OPTE Project

David P. Turner / November 14, 2021

The threat of anthropogenically-induced global environmental change imposes a challenge on humanity to reconceptualize its relationship to the other components of the Earth system.  Historically, Nature was the background for the human enterprise.  It provided unlimited sources of ecosystem services, such as ocean fish, clean air, and clean water.  However, as the human enterprise expanded  – especially after the “Great Acceleration” of technological development beginning about 1945 – real limits have become obvious. 

Because the sum of human impacts on the environment is now global, humanity as a collective must act to self-regulate.  Unfortunately, humanity is not at present a collective, and we are only beginning to construct a worldview that is consistent with living within the biophysical limits of the planet.  This post examines three concepts that may help move us towards those goals.

The Technosphere

The term technosphere has been used for decades in the field of Science and Technology Studies and is loosely construed as the sum of all technological artifacts on Earth.  Often it is credited with having a degree of autonomy in the sense of its growth having a direction and momentum outside of human control.  The current difficulty in reducing fossil fuel related emissions of greenhouse gases is indicative of that autonomy.

In the last decade, the technosphere concept has been more formally defined as:

the set of large-scale networked technologies that underlie and make possible rapid extraction from the Earth of large quantities of free energy and subsequent power generation, long distance, nearly instantaneous communication, rapid long-distance energy and mass transport, the existence and operation of modern governmental and other bureaucracies, high-intensity industrial and manufacturing operations including regional, continental and global distribution of food and other goods, and a myriad additional ‘artificial’ or ‘non-natural’ processes without which modern civilization and its present 7 × 109 human constituents could not exist.

Earth system scientists now make quantitative estimates of the properties of the technosphere such as total mass and annual energy throughput.  The juxtaposition of technosphere metrics like global fertilizer use, with biosphere metrics like global nitrogen fixation, reveals the growing dominance of the technosphere in the global biogeochemical cycles and points to the limits to technosphere growth.

The technosphere is in some ways analogous to the biosphere.  Both are globe girdling aggregations of quasi-independent subsystems.  In energetic terms, both the biosphere and the technosphere are dissipative structures, meaning they capture and use energy to maintain order.  The biosphere changes by way of biological evolution; the technosphere changes by way of cultural evolution.

Humans and their institutions are parts of the technosphere, and human thinking is required to organize the technosphere.  But the question about technosphere autonomy, and its possible danger to humanity, remains.  Notably, the capitalist economic system that underlies the technosphere thrives on growth.  Relentless technosphere growth is in effect consuming Earth system capital, such as biodiversity and fossil fuel, that has accumulated over millions of years.  Astrobiologists, who ponder evolution of intelligent life on other planets, suggest that an environmentally self-destructive technosphere may significantly limit (filter) how often sustainable high technology planetary civilizations arise in the universe.

A critical problem with Earth’s current technosphere is that due to its rapid and recent evolution, it does not have the kind of feedback loops (as found in the biosphere) needed for self-regulation.  Humans are programmed (biologically) to exploit all available resources, but we haven’t evolved culturally to understand limits.  Haff emphasizes that the lack of recycling within the technosphere (with the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion as an iconic example).  Life cycle analyses of all manufactured products, and better monitoring of input/recycling/output budgets (e.g., for aluminum) at the global scale is required for a sustainable technosphere. 

Limitations of the Technosphere Concept

The technosphere concept hints that its structure and function can be shaped by humanity, but there is little sense of economic, political, and legal obstacles to global sustainability.  The concept does not capture the reflexive capacity characteristic of human individuals and organizations.

The Noosphere

Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863 – 1945) was one of the first scientists to explicitly study Earth as a whole.  He understood that the biosphere (the sum of all living matter) added an unusual feature to the planet.  The biosphere uses the energy in solar radiation to maintain a new form of order (life) on the surface of the planet.  That layer of living matter is a major driver of the global biogeochemical cycling of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.  Vernadsky emphasized that the biosphere was a new kind of thing in the universe, i.e. a step forward in cosmic evolution

He also recognized that humanity, as a result of the industrial revolution, had become of geological significance.  Like the biosphere, humanity and its technology are a product of cosmic evolution – in this case relying upon an organism-based nervous system capable of consciousness and symbolic thinking.  By extension from the existing concepts of lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere, Vernadsky adopted the term noosphere for this new layer of thinking matter that could alter the global biogeochemical cycles. 

The noosphere as conceived by Vernadsky was just getting powered up in his lifetime.  He defined it more as a potential transformation of the biosphere – “a reconstruction of the biosphere in the interests of freely thinking humanity as a single entity”.

Vernadsky’s noosphere concept lay mostly dormant for much of the 20th century (although see Sampson and Pitt 1999).  Around the turn of the century, Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen evoked Vernadsky’s idea of transforming the biosphere into a noosphere.  But in this 21st century usage, the issue of dangerous human meddling with the Earth system had risen to prominence and the inevitability of a stabilized noosphere was less certain.  Similarly, Turner proposed that an updated meaning for noosphere would refer to a planetary system as a whole in which an intelligent life form had developed advanced technology but had learned to self-regulate so as to not degrade the planetary life support system.

In a slightly different take, noosphere is proposed as a paradigm for an era to follow the Great Acceleration.  In this case, the noosphere is still imagined as emerging from the biosphere, but here in response to the threats of anthropogenic global environmental change.  The maturation of the noosphere would mean the arrival of a global society that collaboratively self-regulates its impact on the Earth system.

Limitations of the Noosphere Concept

As noted, Vernadsky was writing before the scientific discovery that humanity was altering the atmosphere, e.g., by increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases.  Thus, he did not foresee humanity’s possible self-destructive tendencies.  His noosphere concept was more about Promethean management of the Earth system than about humanity learning how to self-regulate, which is what we need now. 

In most versions of the noosphere concept, the biosphere is “transformed” into a noosphere, hence in its fruition it would physically include the biosphere.  However, the biosphere (much of it microbial) will always be capable of functioning independent of human attempts to manage the Earth system.  The biosphere could be said to have agency relative to human impacts, which might be a more realistic basis on which to attempt to manage it.

Vernadsky’s noosphere was purely physical, but other users of the term have interpreted it more metaphysically, especially Teilhard de Chardin who referred to a purely spiritual endpoint of noosphere evolution.  This spirituality and teleology have made the noosphere concept aversive to many scientists (see Medawar in Sampson and Pitt 1999).

The Global Brain

About the same time (1920s) that the noosphere meme was fostered by Vernadsky, Teilhard de Chardin, and Le Roy, the concept (or metaphor) of the global brain also emerged.  Novelist and futurist H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) proposed that all knowledge be catalogued in a single place and be made available to anyone on the planet.  His hope was that this common knowledge base might lead to peace and rapid human progress.  Given that World War II was soon to erupt at the time of his “World Brain” proposal, Wells was clearly ahead of his time.

Like the noosphere concept, the World Brain concept was not much referred to in the decades following its origin in Well’s imagination.  However, the late 20th century Information Technology revolution has reinvigorated discussion about it.  With rapid build out of the global telecommunications infrastructure, the global brain has begun to be envisioned as something wired together by the Internet.  

Systems theorist Francis Heylighen and his collaborators at the Global Brain Institute have devoted considerable attention to building the analogy between the human brain and a proposed global brain, especially in relation to the process of thinking.

Heylighen sees the global brain as a necessary part of an emerging social superorganism – a densely networked global society.  His global society will coalesce because information technology now offers a growing proportion of the global population access to a wealth of information and an efficient way to organize production and consumption of goods and services.  Rather than totalitarianism, the high level of connectivity in Heylighen’s model of the social superorganism stimulates individuals to develop themselves (while still acknowledging membership in a global collective).  This model leads to more distributed, less hierarchical, power centers.

How the global brain will think is not well characterized at present.  Cultural evolution has always been a form of collective intelligence and the binding power of the Internet now provides a forum for a global collective to exchange ideas (memes).  Changes in the frequency distribution of search term or web page usage would be one means of monitoring global thinking. 

Collaborative development of the Community Earth System Model is an example of collective thinking on a limited scale.  Specialist scientists work to improve the many subsystems of the model, and periodically the computer code is updated based on a consensus decision.

One other intriguing analogy relates to a characteristic feature of the human brain in which it makes frequent (conscious or unconscious) predictions.  If they are not fulfilled, a motivation to act may be instigated.  With Earth system model scenarios now produced in the context of climate change assessment, the global brain might also be said to be constructing scenarios/predictions for itself.  Comparisons of scenarios, or detection of discrepancies between favorable scenarios and how reality is playing out, could inspire corrective action by the global collective.

Limitations of the Global Brain Concept

The analogy of global brain to individual brain is certainly a stimulant to conceptualizing new global scale structures and processes.  However, since we barely understand our own consciousness and decision-making processes, it is an analogy that still needs a lot of work, especially with respect to the executive function.  In the near-term, humanity needs research and models on how to integrate governance among 8-10 billion people (i.e. what form of institutions?) and how to convince billions of planetary citizens to cooperate in the effort that humanity must make to self-regulate.  The global brain concept does not facilitate the coupling of the human enterprise to the rest of the Earth system.

Conclusions

The technosphere, noosphere, and global brain concepts share a common concern with understanding the relationship of the burgeoning human enterprise, including its technology, to the entirety of the Earth system.  Anthropogenic global environmental change poses an existential threat to humanity and there is a clear need for a Great Transition involving massive changes in values as well as technology.  These three concepts serve as beacons pointing towards global sustainability.

The utility of the technosphere concept is that it refers to measurable entities, and formally meshes with the existing Earth system science paradigm.  Given that humans are only part of the technosphere, and a part does not control the whole, awareness of the technosphere argues against hubris.  However, the technosphere concept doesn’t engage the host of psychological and sociological issues that must be addressed to rapidly alter the Earth system trajectory.  It helps reveal the danger humanity faces but doesn’t foster a worldview that will ameliorate the danger.

The chief utility of the noosphere concept is its cosmic perspective and aspiration quality.  A weakness is ambiguity about what the noosphere includes and how it operates.

The utility of the global brain concept is that it confirms we have the technical means to actualize global collective intelligence, which will be required to deal with the overwhelming complexity of the Earth system.  A weakness is a limited model of global governance and a lack of attention to the rapid erosion of the human life support system (the biosphere) that must function well for the emerging global brain to flourish. The capacity of individuals to know themselves, i.e. to reflect on their own behavior and its consequences, can potentially be scaled up to the global human collective.  This process will depend on the communication possibilities opened up by the Internet.  The technosphere, noosphere, and global brain concepts will contribute to synthesizing a new model of the planetary future that includes a functioning global society and a technological support system that maintains a sustainable relationship to the rest of the Earth system. 

Is the Technosphere Underconnected?

Image of planet Earth with technosphere connections.
Figure 1.  Transparent Anthropocene.  Image Credit:  Globaia.  https://globaia.org/geophanies. Creative Commons License.  The image includes Global Roads, Global Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems, Global Urban Footprint, Open Flights, Open Street Map, and Submarine Cables.

David P. Turner / September 14, 2021

Think of the entire global human enterprise as a system − what Earth system scientists are beginning to call the technosphere.  It consists of all the material artifacts and energy flows associated with our global high technology civilization, as well as all the social bonds and institutions that tie us together.  A high degree of connectivity is evident in the technosphere (Figure 1), and it is worth asking if more connectivity (e.g., a stronger United Nations) or less connectivity (e.g., effects of anti-globalization) would help in the struggle for global sustainability.

Systems are often specified in terms of parts and wholes, and in terms of interactions between the parts that help maintain the whole.  The quantity and nature of these within-system connections have long been of interest to systems theorists because of their influence on system stability.  The connectivity concept offers a lens through which to view technosphere structure and function.

In the ecological literature, (eco)system connectivity has two aspects.  One is geographic (2-dimensional) – as in corridors across a landscape that allow movement of animals or dispersal of seeds.  High connectivity is important because, for instance, after a disturbance such as fire, early successional species must find their way to the disturbed patch.

The second aspect of ecosystem connectivity relates to the way processes are coupled.  In a highly connected forest ecosystem, the processes of decomposition (which releases nutrients) and net primary production (which requires nutrient uptake) are coupled by way of a network of fine roots or mycorrhizae.  In a weakly connected tree plantation, where a significant proportion of nutrients are provided by fertilizer, that coupling is missing.  High connectivity of processes usually means more effective system regulation.

In the technosphere, geographic connectivity is maintained by the transportation and telecommunications infrastructure.  Process-based connectivity relies on coupling between sources and sinks of energy, materials, information, and money. 

Technosphere connectivity has grown increasingly dense over time (Figure 1) with a corresponding rise in technosphere mass and energy throughput.  All that global connectivity has helped raise standards of living for billions of people.  But the technosphere is showing signs of self-destructiveness, and it is worth asking if it is in any sense underconnected or overconnected.

Ecologist C.S. Hollings has argued that late successional ecosystems become overconnected.  In his panarchy model for ecosystem development, a four-stage cycle (Figure 2) begins with a catastrophic disturbance (Release phase).  The disturbance stimulates decomposition of dead organic matter and frees up resources for colonizing species that seed in and rapidly accumulate biomass (Reorganization Phase).  As the ecosystem fills in (Exploitation or Growth Phase), the connectivity increases (note the x-axis).  In contrast to earlier theories of ecosystem dynamics, Hollings suggested that ever increasing ecosystem connectivity may ultimately be destabilizing because nutrients get locked up in biomass, and a high density of organisms means strong competition that stresses the organisms and makes them vulnerable to disturbance (Conservation Phase).  Eventually, the stressed condition of the biota allows another major disturbance, such as an insect outbreak (Release Phase), that sweeps across the ecosystem and restarts the panarchy cycle.  The Reorganization phase is a period of low connectivity, leaving the ecosystem susceptible to degradation.

The panarchy cycle.
Fig. 2.  The panarchy cycle. The symbols r and K refer to species that are adapted to early or late stages of succession (Pianka, 1970); α (first letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to a beginning; Ω (last letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to an ending. The tail labeled x refers to the potential for the system to undergo a regime shift (Gunderson and Holling, 2002). Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Reproduced in The Green Marble by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

The technosphere system is like an ecosystem in having a throughput of energy (mostly fossil fuel) and a turnover of its components.  It has certainly gone through a growth phase (often referred to as the Great Acceleration) and is now accumulating connections rapidly as it matures.  Let’s place it somewhere between the Exploration and Conservation phases in Figure 2.  It might be underconnected in the sense of weak links between different geographic areas (e.g., in the face of global scale problems like climate change) and limited coupling of critical processes (e.g.,   mobile phone manufacturing and mobile phone recycling).  The opposite concern is that it may at some point become overconnected and vulnerable to a major disturbance. 

Let’s examine ways in which the technosphere could be considered underconnected.

1.  An underconnected technosphere is one in which global scale coordination is unable to meet the challenges of Earth system maintenance.  Lack of connections allows global scale problems to escape technosphere control.  The situation with global climate change evokes this sort of underconnection.  In broad terms, we have inadequate institutions for global environmental governance (not to mention global economic governance).  The shambolic global response to COVID-19 is also indicative of underconnection; a better coordinated global vaccination program would have been in the best interest of everyone.

2.  The technosphere is causing massive disruption of the biosphere and Earth’s climate.  These impacts on the Earth system are associated with failure to fully recycle technosphere “waste products”, e.g., the production of carbon dioxide by fossil fuel combustion is not connected to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by some other industrial process.

3.  A renewable energy revolution is clearly needed to mitigate climate change, but the sources of renewable energy (e.g., wind and solar) may not be co-located with the demand for energy (urban areas).  Hence, a more robust grid (nationally and internationally) for distribution of electricity is required (along with other energy infrastructure upgrades).

4.  We think of the global Internet as foundational for global connectivity.  And, in fact, the Internet facilitates the kind of global coordination that is needed to address global environmental change issues that threaten the technosphere.  However, nations such as China and Russia have built national Internet firewalls that prevent their citizens from freely accessing the Internet.  That kind of fence raising promotes nationalism, but not the planetary citizenship we need to create a sustainable future.

The case for an overconnected technosphere is less compelling.  The rapid spread of the 2007-2008 financial crisis around the planet is suggestive of fragility in the global economy.  And the crush of 7.8 billion people striving for a high quality of life is contributing to widespread stress in the biosphere (upon which the technosphere depends).  Ironically, solving these problems may require greater international connectivity.

We are still in the early stages of technosphere evolution, and my sense is that greater global connectivity is desirable.  With regard to the global environment, we are in dire need of 1) a well-connected circular economy that recycles all manufactured products, and 2) new international institutions for global environmental governance that coordinate monitoring, assessments, adaptation, and mitigation of global environmental change problems.  The anti-globalization movement calls for less connectivity but the proliferation of global scale problems points to the need for more connectivity.

Recommended Reading:  Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization. Parag Khanna. 2016. Random House. My review.

Celebrating the Solstice

Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice. Image credit: //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_(sun).jpg

David P. Turner / June 13, 2021

Every human being on the planet will experience an astronomical event on June 20 (2021).  I refer of course to the June Solstice, the point in Earth’s orbit around the sun when daylength begins to shorten in the northern hemisphere and to lengthen in the southern hemisphere.  The astronomical orientation is reversed in the December Solstice.  Our ancestors were very attuned to these annual events, as evinced by the alignment of the megaliths at Stonehenge and at other ancient observatories.  Most Earth dwellers now live urban lives and may give little thought to the orientation of Earth to Sun.  I propose thinking about Solstice events in a new way – as a celebration of planetary citizenship.

Especially since the late 1980s, scientists have produced a drumbeat of reports documenting a range of global environmental change threats, notably climate change.  The sum of environmental impacts from 7.8 billion people is driving the Earth system towards a condition that will cause vast human misery, and perhaps imperil civilization itself.  Humanity clearly must begin to act collectively to mitigate our impacts on the environment.  But we live in a world that is highly polarized and seemingly getting more so.

Humans are social animals, and generally identify with a circumscribed social group.  However, because global scale problems require global scale solutions, we Earthlings must now begin identifying with humanity as a whole − quite a challenge for a species whose social instincts evolved when social groups were small bands of hunter gatherers.  A unifying feature of a society is its shared culture, including myths, beliefs, and rituals.  The new importance of the Solstice lies its contribution to an emerging global culture. 

Several features make the Solstice a unifying event.  One is that it is clearly a global phenomenon: everyone experiences it (albeit more strongly at high latitudes).  The celestial mechanics of the Solstice are fairly simple, and contemplating the event stimulates thinking about global scale structures and processes − something which we certainly need to be doing to address the environmental challenges ahead.  

A second relevant feature is that our understanding of the Solstice is science-based.  Whereas the early celebrants at Stonehenge knew from their long-term observations only that the sun had reached its northernmost circuit on Summer Solstice or was beginning its return from the south on Winter Solstice, we can chart Earth’s orbit around the sun and understand that our planet is tilted on its axis, hence the pattern of seasonality.  More broadly, we understand Earth’s climate system and how it is regulated by solar geometry, as well as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  For the purposes of a needed common belief system, the scientific worldview wonderfully fits the bill.  The advance of science now provides a growing intellectual heritage that all of humanity can share.

As to how the Solstice might be celebrated, most people on Earth can walk outdoors at sunrise or sunset on June 20th and note where on the horizon that the sun appears or disappears.  The time of day and angle on the horizon are different at every location on Earth, but we all know it is a special day for the planet. 

In a complimentary sense, this action would also help invigorate the local sense of place.  Every year at any location, the two Solstice events will repeat − kind of a comfort really. 

Traditional ways of celebrating the Solstice include decorating trees and lighting candles (Scandinavia).  Occasionally, the media take notice.  This year, wish everybody a happy solstice!  Perhaps we can eventually make it a global holiday.

In this era of growing nationalism and anti-globalization, when the gathering storm of global environmental change means that the society composed of all humanity should be strengthening rather than weakening, we must search for unifying experiences and beliefs.  Attending to the Solstice, be it the one in June or the one in December, is a way to relate to our planetary home and be reminded that we are all in this together.  

Recommended Audio: Seasons by the Steve Miller Band.

A Systems Theory View of the Emerging Planetary Socio-ecological System

David P. Turner / May 6, 2021

A Great Transition is hopefully underway − from humanity’s current chaotic rush towards environmental disaster, to a more ordered Earth system in which the global human enterprise (the technosphere) becomes sustainable.  However, achieving the necessary planetary scale organization of the human enterprise will be a challenge. 

The discipline of systems theory offers insights into how new forms of order emerge, and here I will introduce two of its concepts − holarchy and metasystem transition − as they relate to the process of creating a sustainable planetary civilization.

The technosphere is commonly presented as a whole.  I like to draw the analogy between the technosphere and the biosphere: both use a steady flow of energy to maintain and build order.  Just as the biosphere evolved by way of biological evolution from microbes to a verdant layer of high biodiversity ecosystems cloaking the planet, the technosphere is evolving by way of cultural evolution into a ubiquitous layer of machines, artifacts, cities, and communication networks that likewise straddles the planet.

This formulation of the technosphere as a global scale entity is a glossy overview that allows one to make the point that the growth of the technosphere has altered the Earth system in ways that are toxic to some components of the biosphere, and indeed to the technosphere itself.  Technosphere emissions of greenhouse gases leading to rapid climate change is the iconic example.

The view of the Earth system as composed of interacting spheres (geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, technosphere) is also useful for imagining and modeling the feedbacks that regulate Earth system dynamics, e.g., the positive feedback of the cryosphere to climate warming in the atmosphere, or the negative feedback to climate warming by way of the geosphere-based rock weathering thermostat.

But systems theory offers another lens through which to examine the technosphere and its relationship to the contemporary Earth system.  This view relies on further disaggregation.

Systems theory is a discipline that studies the origin and maintenance of order.  The objects of study are systems − functional entities that can be analyzed in terms of parts and wholes. 

Complex systems are often structured as holarchies , i.e., having multiple levels of organization.  Complexity in general refers to linkages among entities at a range of spatial and temporal scales, e.g., a city is more complex than a household. 

Like the more familiar hierarchy (e.g., a military organization), there are levels in a holarchy; lower levels are functional parts of the levels above.  The entities (holons) at each level are “wholes” relative to the level below but “parts” relative to the level above.  The difference between holarchy and hierarchy lies in representation of both upward and downward causation in a holarchy compared to primary concern with downward-oriented control in a hierarchy.

Let’s consider the environmental management aspect of the Earth system as a holarchy (Table 1). 

Table 1.  Levels in a planetary natural resources management holarchy.  The Integrating Factors refer to how the components within a holon interact.

The emphasis in this management-oriented holarchy is on holons that consist of coupled biophysical and sociotechnical components.  Environmental sociologists term a holon of this type a socio-ecological system (SES) (Figure 1).  In an SES, stakeholders coordinate amongst themselves in management of natural resources.   

Figure 1. A socio-ecological system holon.  Integration of the Biophysical Subsystem and the Sociotechnical Subsystem is achieved by management of natural resources and delivery of ecosystem services.  Adapted from Virapongse et al. 2016.  Image Credit: David Turner and Monica Whipple.

At the base of the Earth system SES holarchy (Figure 2) are managed properties, such as a farm or wildlife refuge, where humans and machines manipulate the biophysical environment to produce ecosystem services such as food production and biodiversity conservation.

Figure 2. The planetary socio-ecological system holarchy.  Arrows are indicators of interactions, with larger arrows suggestive of slower more powerful influences.  Adapted from Koestler 1967. Image Credit: David Turner and Monica Whipple.

A step up, at the landscape level, are mosaics of rural and urban lands.  A town with parks and an extensive greenbelt, or a national forest in the U.S., which is managed for wood production as well as water quality and other ecosystem services, are sample landscapes.  Disturbances within a landscape, such as wildfire on the Biophysical side or a change in ownership on the Sociotechnical side, can be absorbed and repaired by resources elsewhere in the landscape (e.g., reseeding a forest stand after a fire).

At the ecoregion level, there is a characteristic climate, topography, biota, and culture.  My own ecoregion, the Pacific Northwest in western North America, is oriented around the Cascades Mountains, coniferous forests, high winter precipitation, and an economy that includes forestry, fishing, and tourism.  These features help define optimal natural resources management practices.  A significant challenge at the ecoregion level is integration of management at the property and landscape scales with management of the ecoregion.  Ecoregions interact in the sense of providing goods and services to each other, as well as collaborating on management of larger scale resources such as river basin hydrology.

The national level is somewhat arbitrary as a biophysical unit, but the sociotechnical realm is significantly partitioned along national borders, so the nation is in effect a clear level in our SES holarchy.  Nations have, in principle, well organized regulatory and management authorities that aim for a sustainable biophysical environment as well as a stable and prosperous socioeconomic environment.

At the planetary level, the sociotechnical aim is to manage the global biophysical commons − the atmosphere and oceans − and coordinate across nations on transborder issues like conservation of biodiversity.  That would mean agreements on policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air and water pollution, and manage open ocean fisheries.

A strong global environmental governance infrastructure is needed at the planetary level to ensure a sustainable relationship of the technosphere to the rest of the Earth system.

But what we have now at the global scale is a weakly developed array of intergovernmental organizations (e.g., the United Nations Environmental Program), transnational corporations that heavily impact the global environment, and international nongovernmental organizations like Greenpeace.  We do not have a fully realized planetary level of environmental governance. 

The systems theory term for emergence of a new level in a holarchy is “metasystem transition”.  This process involves an increasing degree of interaction and interdependency among the constituent holons (nations in this case).  Eventually, positive and negative feedback relationships are established that promote coexistence and cooperation.  The origin of the European Union is a relevant case study of a metasystem transition in the geopolitical realm. 

Resistance to planetary scale management is understandable – notably because nations fear losing sovereignty.  Less developed nations worry about external imposition of constraints on their economic development that may be unjust considering the global history of natural resource use.  Working through these political issues is fraught with complications, thus the process would benefit from focused institutions.  Global environmental governance researchers have proposed creation of a United Nations-based World Environment Organization, which would coordinate building environmental management agreements with follow through monitoring and enforcement. 

A key driver for the success of planetary-level SES integration is that each nation is faced with environmental problems, like climate change, that it cannot address on its own.  Survival will require a new level of integration with its cohort of national-level holons.  Possibly, progress in collaboratively addressing global environmental threats like climate change could even lead to further progress in collaboratively addressing global geopolitical threats like the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Planetary Citizenship

David P. Turner / March 7, 2021

The developmental task of building a personal identity is becoming ever more complicated.  While some aspects of identity come with birth, others are adopted over the course of maturation.  Increasingly, each person has multiple identities that are managed in a complex psychological juggling act.

Citizenship − generally defined in terms of loyalty to the society within a specified area − is a key component of personal identity.  National citizenship most readily comes to mind, but the term is also used at other levels of organization.  Members of a tribe, residents concerned about watershed protection, and neighbors attending to local quality of life all qualify as citizens.

The concept of citizenship at the planetary scale is rather new, in part because our global governance infrastructure (environmental, geopolitical, and economic) is rudimentary.  However, if there is to be a purposeful (teleological) attempt to mitigate and adapt to global environmental change, we residents of Earth must become planetary citizens.

The impetus to identify as a planetary citizen typically comes from growing awareness of planetary scale environmental threats to human welfare.  The result is a commitment to rein in the human enterprise (the technosphere) and work towards global sustainability

Earth system scientists generally reject the Gaian notion that the planet is in some way self-regulating or purposeful.  But if humanity indeed manages to join together and intentionally reverse the trend of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and mass extinction, the Earth system as a whole (Gaia 2.0) would in a sense gain purpose.

Embrace of planetary citizenship is a pushback against unbridled individualism.  In the widely held neoliberal belief system, individuals are viewed most fundamentally as autonomous consumers who live in a biophysical environment that is a limitless source of materials and energy as well as a limitless sink for wastes.  In fact, the human impact on the global environment is a summation of the resource demands from the 7.8 billion people who now inhabit the planet.  The cumulative impact of humanity has clearly begun to induce changes in the Earth system that endanger both developing and developed nations. 

Rights and Responsibilities

Planetary citizens have rights, in principle.  As noted though, the global governance forums for establishing those rights are weak.  In the realm of environmental quality, a planetary citizen certainly should have a right to an unpolluted environment. 

Correspondingly, a planetary citizen’s responsibilities include understanding their own resource use footprint, and endeavoring to control it (e.g., having fewer children).  Understanding the environmental impacts of their society and advocating in support of conservation-oriented governmental policies and actions (e.g., by voting) is also essential.

Because global change is happening so quickly and persistently, a commitment to lifelong learning about local and global environmental change is a foundation of planetary citizenship.

Identifying with any collective evokes a tension between personal autonomy and obligations to the greater good.  Thus, the addition of planetary citizenship to personal identity creates psychological demands.  Mental health requires that those new demands (e.g., pressure for less consumerism and more altruism) be calibrated to individual circumstances and to the state of the world.

Collective Intelligence

Possibilities for the emergence of collective intelligence and agency among planetary citizens at various scales have grown rapidly as the Internet has evolved.  Besides the general sense of a global brain emerging from the mass of online communication, various online groups now specifically address global environmental change issues, e.g. the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence sponsors a crowdsourced web site aimed at finding solutions to climate change.  

Civil society organizations like 350.org, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, and Wikipedia are testaments to the power of collective intelligence among planetary citizens.  Participation of planetary citizens in self-organized groups of activists creates a sense of agency, which can be hard to find when a person confronts the enormity of global environmental change on their own.  What is glaringly missing is a planetary forum for global environmental governance, something like the proposed World Environment Organization.

Global Citizenship

It is worth making a distinction between planetary citizenship and global citizenship.  Both concepts are relevant to building global sustainability, with planetary citizenship more focused on the biophysical environment and global citizenship more concerned with human relationships. The global perspective is fundamentally political.

Global Citizenship is often discussed in the context of Global Citizenship Education (GCE).  GEC theory commonly calls for “recognizing the interconnectedness of life, respecting cultural diversity and human rights, advocating global social justice, empathizing with suffering people around the world, seeing the world as others see it and feeling a sense of moral responsibility for planet Earth”.

Traditional GCE theory may be oriented around experiential learning by way of immersive experiences in other cultures, often including volunteer work.  However, persistent concerns that the relationship of visitor to host replicates the colonial model of dominance have led to more critically oriented versions of GCE theory.  Here, the emphasis is on examining injustices and power differentials among social groups and evaluating effective means to foster greater equity. 

The thrust of the global citizenship concept tends towards differentiating the parts of humanity and fulfilling the obligation to address injustices of all kinds; the thrust of planetary citizenship is on humanity as a collective entity playing a role in Earth system dynamics.  A comprehensive approach to teaching global citizenship would emphasize both  aspects and even transcend them.

Pedagogy

Since identity as a planetary citizen is a choice, the question of how education can be designed to foster that choice is significant.

The idealized outcome of education for planetary citizenship is a human being who understands the impacts of the technosphere on the Earth system and has a willingness to engage in building global sustainability (Go Greta Thunberg!).  These individuals would share a sense of all humans having a common destiny.

Two disciplines are particularly relevant. 

The field of Big History covers the history of the universe leading to the current Earth system.  It juxtaposes cosmic evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution to give perspective on how humanity has become aware of itself and come to endanger itself.  A recently developed free online course in Big History aimed at middle school and high school students nicely introduces the subject.  My own text, The Green Marble, and my blog posts such as A Positive Narrative for the Anthropocene, examine Big History at a level suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.

The field of environmental sociology is likewise important.  It explores interactions of social systems with ecosystems at multiple spatial scales.  The concept of a socioecological system, composed of a specific ecosystem and all the relevant stakeholders, is a core object of study.  Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom helped elucidate the optimal structural and functional properties of socioecological systems at various scales.

Conclusion

Identifying as a planetary citizen means seeking to understand humanity’s environmental predicament and trying to do something about it.  An important benefit from this commitment is the acquisition of a sense of agency regarding global environmental change.  The aggregate effect of planetary citizenship across multiple levels of organization (individual, civil society, nation, global) will be purposeful change at the planetary scale.

The Technosphere is Melting the Cryosphere

Iceberg in Lilliehöökfjord, Svalbard.  Image credit: Hannes Grobe, CC BY-SA 4.0

David P. Turner / February 1, 2021

Earth system scientists think of planet Earth as composed of multiple interacting spheres.  The cryosphere is a term given to the totality of frozen water on Earth – including snow, ice, glaciers, polar ice caps, sea ice, and permafrost.

The cryosphere has a significant effect on the global climate because snow and ice largely reflect solar radiation, hence cooling the planet.

Unfortunately, the cryosphere is melting.  That loss of snow and ice is providing a significant positive (amplifying) feedback to anthropogenically induced global warming.

Over the course of Earth’s geological history, the cryosphere has existed as everything from nearly 100% coverage of the planetary surface around 700 Mya (million years ago) i.e. snowball Earth (Figure 1) to virtually disappearing during the Hothouse Earth period (about 50 Mya).

Figure 1. Snowball Earth.  The planet was nearly covered in snow and ice around 700 million years ago.  Image Credit: NASA.

The multiple glacial-interglacial cycles over the last several million years were initiated by changes in sun/earth geometry (the Milankovitch cycles), but strengthened by changes in snow/ice reflectance along with changes in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Figure 2.  Ice cover (black) shifted markedly between the glacial and interglacial periods over the last 3 million years.  Image credit:  Hannes Grobe CC Attribution 3.0

The culprit in the current melting of the cryosphere is something new to the Earth system – the technosphere.  This recently evolved sphere consists of the totality of the human enterprise on Earth, including its myriad physical objects and material flows.

By way of fossil fuel combustion, the technosphere is driving up the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and correspondingly, warming the global climate.  That new heat is causing reduced snow cover, receding glaciers, melting of ice caps, and loss of sea iceBy various anthropogenically driven mechanisms, the cryosphere is also said to be “darkening” and hence melting quicker because more solar radiation is absorbed.

Projections by Earth system models of cryosphere condition over the next decades, centuries, and millennia suggest it will significantly wane if not disappear.

Besides the positive feedback to climate change by way of reflectance effects (and release of greenhouse gases from permafrost melting), the diminishment of the cryosphere will have profound impacts on the technosphere.

  1.  The circulation of water through the hydrosphere on land is regulated in many cases by accumulation of snow and ice on mountains.  That water is subsequently released throughout the year, thus providing stable stream flows for downstream irrigated agriculture and urban use. 
  2. The melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps will drive up sea level.  If all such ice is melted (over the course of hundreds to thousands of years), sea level is projected to rise 68 m.  The magnitude of sea level rise projected over the next 100 years for intermediate emissions scenarios is on the order of one meter.
  3. It remains controversial, but reduction of snow and ice cover may alter the behavior of the jet stream and could induce more extreme weather events in mid- to high latitudes of the northern hemisphere.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will certainly slow the erosion of the cryosphere and should be made.  The precautionary principle suggests we avoid passing tipping points associated with melting of the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice cap.  However, the momentum of environmental change is strongly in that direction.

Once these ice caps are gone, there is a hysteresis effect such that the ice does not return with a simple reversion to the current climate (e.g. by an engineered drawdown of the CO2 concentration).

The planet is headed towards a warmer, largely ice free, condition.  The biosphere has been there before.  The technosphere has not.  Humanity will be challenged to develop adequate adaptive strategies.

Recommended Video: What is the Cryosphere │How it Affects Climate Change

Capitalism and the Global Environment

David P. Turner / January 15, 2021

Humanity is beset by global scale problems, notably climate change, pandemics, and geopolitical struggles.

Clearly, global scale solutions and – broadly stated – more global solidarity are needed.

The most obvious factor currently binding together nearly all humans and nations on the planet is the global economy.  That economy is rooted in capitalism, albeit in various forms (e.g., free market capitalism, crony capitalism, state capitalism, and monopoly capitalism).  Thus, capitalism is a logical place to look for both the source of our global scale problems and perhaps even, in its reform, solutions to those same problems.

The ubiquity of capitalism is not in doubt.  Its characteristic feature is a market that allows for competitive exchange of goods and services.  Legal support for accumulation of capital and its investment in profit making enterprises is foundational.  In recent decades, capitalism has taken on a global character, featuring globalization of the labor market and capital flows.

The upsides of national level and globalized capitalism include efficiency in the distribution of goods and services, economic growth to support rising standards of living, and the availability of capital for investment in productive enterprises.

Important downsides include growing inequality of wealth and income, both within and between nations, growing instability of the global financial system, and growing environmental degradation at all scales.

This blog post is primarily concerned with the relationship of capitalism to the global environment.

The impact of capitalism on the global environment traces back to its fundamentals.  A capitalist organizes labor to manipulate natural resources and create products, which can then be sold in a competitive market.  Income from product sales pays for the costs of production, for personal or corporate profit, and possibly for expansion of production.

Key problems with respect to the environment lie in the propensity for expansion and the pressure to minimize costs.

Because of the competitive nature of capitalism, producers are compelled to expand.  More profits mean more capital to invest in beating competitors.  Expansion tends to allow economies of scale that help minimize costs, hence increase competitiveness.  However, production cannot expand indefinitely on a finite planet.  Graphic examples include unsustainable use of ground water for irrigated agriculture, and unchecked conversion of rain forests to soybean fields. 

Minimizing costs often means externalizing environmental costs.  Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are freely emitted as a byproduct of the fossil fuel combustion that powers much of the modern economy.  The emitter does not pay the cost of climate change impacts.  Economic globalization makes the externalization of environmental costs easier by shifting production to countries with relatively weak regulation of pollution.

It is time for a global scale reckoning of capitalism, in all its forms, with the fact that nearly eight billion people and a biosphere need to co-exist on what has become a crowded, rapidly warming, planet.  Capitalism clearly causes environmental problems that it cannot solve.

Despite the fact that global climate change “changes everything”, capitalism is not going to go away.  A primary mechanism by which to modify capitalism is policy changes at the level of the nation-state.  Historically, the relationship of western capitalism to the state has undergone several major transformations and the time is now for the next reset.

A very brief history of that relationship runs as follows.

The Capitalist State arose in the 19th century in association with the Industrial Revolution.  This type of state strongly supported rapid expansion of capitalist enterprises but displayed limited concern for workers or the environment.

Reaction to inequality in wealth and overexploitation of workers led eventually to the Welfare State in which government expanded and supported provision of decent wages, health care, and old age income (e.g., the New Deal in the U.S.).  By the 1960s, the issue of environmental quality also began to be considered a governmental responsibility.

By around 1980, the Neoliberal State (think Reaganomics) began to replace the welfare state.  Here the size of government shrank, i.e., lower taxes and less regulation.  Capitalists were again given free rein to maximize profits. 

Forty years later we find ourselves with vast inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, in America approaching levels in the early 20th century, and an alarmingly deteriorating global environment.

The appropriate transformation at this point is from the Neoliberal State to the Green State.  Governmental concern for the environment must rise to the level of its concern for economic, security, and social welfare issues.  The economic system is then seen as embedded in a society and constrained by the local and planetary ecology.  If the goal is a sustainable Earth system, governments will have to increasingly intervene in the economic system to moderate capitalism’s worst excesses.

The transformation to Green States will require well educated citizens who share environmental friendly values, reformed corporate governance, and leaders who employ government to protect rather than exploit common pool resources (e.g. a carbon tax).    

Note that economic inequality and environmental quality are linked by the notion that people who are not materially secure are not in a position to support potentially costly policies that improve environmental quality.  Consequently, redistribution of income and wealth to improve material security are critically important – not only for the sake of social justice but also for the sake of the environment.  More ominously, highly skewed distributions of wealth are historically associated with violent conflict, which often has adverse environmental consequences.

Moderating the impacts of capitalism on the global environment will require innovations in Earth system governance that parallel the transformations at the nation-state scale.  The institutions of global geopolitical governance, economic governance, and environmental governance must be redesigned and empowered to protect the global environment.  Thus, we might speak of fostering a green planet (or Green Marble as I have termed it).  The vision of a Global Green New Deal from the United Nations outlines some steps that will move us in that direction.