Decarbonizing the Power Sector

Figure 1.  Design for a decarbonized utility scale electrical power facility.  Image credits: solar array, electrolyzer, hydrogen storage, hydrogen fuel cell, power grid

David P. Turner / November 11, 2022

National governments the world over have made political commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly in the next few decades.  Because the generation of electricity, i.e. the power sector, is currently one of the largest anthropogenic sources of CO2 emissions (due to its reliance on coal and natural gas burning power plants), a great deal of research and investment is directed towards power sector decarbonization.

There are many pieces to the technical puzzle of how to decarbonize the power sector, and the optimum answer will differ depending on location and available resources.  But generating electricity while avoiding fossil fuels altogether is entirely feasible.

In that regard, I was happy to see news of a funded power project that nicely weaves together many of the critical components needed to deliver carbon-free electricity at grid scale (Figure 1).

The facility in this case is being built in French Guiana by a consortium of private firms.  The exciting thing to see is the co-location and integration of five key power generation components:  (1) an array of solar panels, (2) an electrolyzer to produce hydrogen, (3) a hydrogen gas storage capability, (4) a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity, and (5) a short-term battery energy storage system.  Functioning together, these components will provide a 24/7 baseload supply of carbon free electricity (10,00 households worth).

The solar array collects sunlight.  Most of the energy is fed into the local electricity grid, but a portion is directed to the electrolyzer to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen.  The hydrogen gas is stored on site.  At night, the hydrogen is supplied to the fuel cell generator.  The short-term battery storage system helps maintain a steady flow of energy as needed.

This kind of facility largely solves the intermittency problem for renewable solar energy.  Its design could be adapted to other renewable energy sources with an intermittency problem, notably wind energy farms.  Excess hydrogen could potentially be transported to other locations by pipeline or in liquid form.

Successful operation of the facility (slated to open in 2024) will provide a model that potentially could be scaled up and widely adopted.  Since garnering the political will and financing for renewable energy development is still a significant challenge, the completion and operation of this power plant would send of strong signal about the feasibility of decarbonization to government, industry, and sources of investment.

News that this facility is actually under construction inspires the feeling that the global we (such as it is) can indeed accomplish a needed renewable energy revolution.

More Blows to Humanity’s Self-image

heliocentric universe
Cellarius’s chart (1661) illustrating a heliocentric model of the universe, as proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus.  Image Credit.

David P. Turner / October 2, 2022

Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud are credited with delivering major blows to humanity’s self-image. They didn’t do it on their own of course, but their ideas were notably illuminating.  Here, I revisit their insights and discuss two additional blows of that type rendered in more recent years.  Awareness of the human limitations implied by these blows may help save us from our present environmental predicament.

Copernicus (1473 -1543) established that – contrary to Church dogma – Earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun.  Humans could no longer maintain that we are living at the center of the universe.  The scientific discipline of astronomy has gone on to reveal how remarkably tiny this planet really is in the context of an immense universe.  Knowing that we live on a small planet points to biophysical limits on our current demands for natural resources.

Darwin (1809 – 1882) elucidated the theory of biological evolution, and the corresponding fact that Homo sapiens originated the same way every other animal species on this planet did through natural processes.  We were no longer a special creation of an omnipotent, benevolent god who dictates our aspirations and values.  Ironically, though, humanity is coming to have a kind of dominion over the Earth even without the hand of god.

Freud (1856 – 1939) suggested that unconscious processes within our brains have a substantial influence on our thoughts and emotions.  He turned out to be wrong in many respects, but his primary insight had merit.  We are not even in full control of our own minds.  Contemporary cognitive science aims to understand (1) the function (adaptive significance) of specific mental processes, (2) the representations and algorithms by which those processes are implemented, and (3) the underlying neurobiological mechanisms.  Insights along those lines may help modify our destructive impulses.

The two recent blows to our self-image come from a biologist and an atmospheric chemist.

In the 1970s, Harvard professor E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021) fostered the development of the new discipline of sociobiology – the study of animal social behavior.  He applied its concepts to Homo sapiens, as well as to ants (his favorite object of study).  What he asserted (albeit in the face of raging controversy) is that humans have significant genetic influences on our thinking and behavior.  Our capacity for altruism (self-sacrifice) and jealousy are notable example of traits which evolution has likely shaped.  As with the first three blows, this realization forces us to question our spontaneous motivations and actions (e.g. our acquisitiveness).

The fifth blow is truly aimed at the whole of humanity.  Around 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (1933 – 2021) helped consolidate a wide array of observations by Earth System Scientists concerning the baleful influences of humanity on the biosphere and the global environment.  He suggested that we have entered a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene. 

In the scientific Anthropocene narrative, humanity has become the equivalent of a geologic force; we are now capable of significantly altering the global biogeochemical cycles.  This shocking realization and consequent shift in worldview have been characterized as the “second Copernican revolution”.

Unfortunately, we are altering the global environment in a way that may ultimately be self-destructive (e.g. by inducing rapid global climate change).  Our self-image must therefore include the conclusion that we are an existential threat to ourselves.

Recognition of the Anthropocene epoch places a new responsibility on each of us as individuals, and a new responsibility on our species as a whole, to begin managing ourselves – and to some degree begin managing the Earth system in support of global sustainability.

The prescription for better integration of the human enterprise (the technosphere) with the Earth system requires that humanity become aware of itself as a social entity, having agency at the global scale, before it can learn to self-regulate and reintegrate with the Earth system.  Awareness of the five blows covered here introduces an element of humility to this project of understanding ourselves as a planetary phenomenon.

Environmental Reglobalization

David P. Turner / April 24, 2022

Globalization refers to the increasing interconnectedness of individuals and social groups everywhere on the planet, and to the increasing inability of any particular social group to isolate itself from outside influences.  The process has geopolitical, economic, cultural, and environmental dimensions. 

In this post, I am particularly interested in how globalization, and its follow-on stages of deglobalization, and reglobalization, impact the global environment (Figure 1).

three stages of globalization
Figure 1.  Three sequential phases of globalization.  Neoliberal globalization from around 1980 to 2008 was based on maximizing profits by way of free trade within a global capitalistic system.  More recently, nationalistic deglobalization is characterized by a reassertion of national borders and reduction in flows of trade goods, financial capital, and immigrants.  Environmental reglobalization is a potential way forward in which the necessity to collectively address global environmental change issues provides a basis for global solidarity.  Image Credits: Neoliberal Globalization, Nationalistic Deglobalization, Environmental Reglobalization, Composite (D. Turner).

Despite globalization’s significant detrimental impacts on the global environment – notably a large stimulus to growth in the global Gross Domestic Product and associated greenhouse gas emissions – it has also had significant beneficial effects on the global environment, e.g. progressive environmental standards have been widely promulgated, and a global environmental governance infrastructure has begun to function.

However, globalization is currently in retreat, and any possible environmental benefits from it are in jeopardy.  Causes of the current wave of deglobalization include: 1) the economic suffering imposed on workers in the most developed countries by globalization of the labor market (which has inspired efforts to reduce imports of manufactured goods), 2) the psychological shock of juxtaposing very different cultures (e.g. secular vs. religious) made possible by modern transportation and communication technology (hence leading to revivals of xenophobic fundamentalism), and 3) the political benefits to autocratic leaders from rousing nationalist fervor (hence leading to outbreaks of war, as in Ukraine).

The rise of nationalism and deglobalization is associated with a retreat from global environmental change issues, e.g. the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement by the Trump administration in 2017, and the anti-environmental policies of the Bolsonaro administration in Brazil.  That kind of nationalism shirks responsibility for planetary scale problems and in practice is a false nationalism.  It ultimately endangers all nations on Earth as the global biophysical environment deteriorates and ecosystem services to humans are lost.

Reformed globalization (reglobalization) is a new concept that could help overcome the dangers of deglobalization.  Reglobalization would include stronger national and international efforts to reduce economic inequality and to extend the benefits of globalization more uniformly.  It would mean a wide recognition that we live on a crowded planet, which must be managed collectively to insure continued delivery of nature’s services.  Indeed, global environmental change issues could be the major driver towards an era of greater global unity.

With respect to the environment, reglobalization would include stepped-up green-tech transfer to developing countries for mitigation of climate change, stronger institutions of global environmental governance, and a revived commitment by individuals, institutions, and nations to global sustainability.

Environmental reglobalization will likely not have the prodigious force of the neoliberal globalization wave that began in the 1980s.  Rather, it must be cultivated based on wide public awareness, active civil society organizations, and wise political leadership.

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.

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

Earth Day 2020

Earth Day 2020 and Global Solidarity

David P. Turner / April 19, 2020

Earth Day in 2020 is the 50th Anniversary for this annual gathering of our global tribe.  Historically, it has been an opportunity to note declines in environmental quality and to envision a sustainable relationship of humanity to the rest of the Earth system.

This year, in addition to the usual concerns about issues like climate change and ocean acidification, Earth Day is accompanied by concern about the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A glance at the geographic distribution of this virus is the latest reminder that interactions with the biosphere, in this case the microbial component, can link all humans in powerful ways. 

Environmental issues that were on the front burner when Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated Earth Day in 1970 were mostly local − polluted rivers, polluted air, and degraded land cover.  These issues were addressed to a significant degree in the U.S. by passage of the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).  These were national level successes inspired by environmental activism.

Awareness of global environmental change in 1970 was only dimly informed by geophysical observations such as the slow rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  But by the 1980s, climate scientists began a drumbeat of testimony to governments and the media that the environmental pollution issue extended to the global scale and might eventually threaten all of humanity. 

The United Nations has functioned as a forum for international deliberations about global environmental change issues, and the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987 hinted at the possibilities for global solidarity with respect to the environment.

To help matters, economic globalization in the 1990s began uniting the world in new ways.  Huge flows in goods and services across borders fueled a truly global economy.  The level of communication required to support the global economy was based on the rapidly evolving Internet.  It provided the foundation for a global transportation/telecommunications infrastructure that now envelops the planet.

A political backlash to economic and cultural globalization has recently brought to power leaders like Donald Trump (U.S.) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil).  Their inclination is much more towards nationalism than towards global solidarity on environmental issues.

However, humanity is indeed united – in fear of climate change and coronavirus pandemics if nothing else.

Each year, the growing incidence of extreme weather events associated with anthropogenic climate change negatively impinges on the quality of life of a vast number of people around the planet.  This year, billions of us are locked down in one form or another to slow the spread of a virus that likely emerged from trafficking in wild animals.  In a mythopoetic sense, it is as if Earth was responding to the depredations imposed upon it by our species.

Philosopher Isabelle Stengers refers to the “intrusion” of Gaia (the Earth system) upon human history.  The message from Gaia is that she is no longer just a background for the infinite expansion of the human enterprise (the technosphere). 

Humanity can reply to Gaia with ad hoc measures like building sea walls for protection from sea level rise.  Or we can get organized and develop a framework for global environmental governance.

There are many impediments to becoming a global “we” that will work collectively on global environmental change issues.  Nevertheless, the incentives for doing so are arriving hard and fast.  The diminishment of the wild animal trade in China in response to COVID-19, and the unintended reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally associated with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, signal that radical change is possible. 

Fitting testaments to an emerging global solidarity about environmental issues would be eradication of commercial exploitation of wild land animals everywhere in the world, and stronger national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to current obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Both initiatives of course face strong cultural and political headwinds.  But Earth Day, as one of the largest recurring secular celebrations in the world, is an opportunity to think anew.

Recommended audio/video:
One World (Not Three), The Police
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N0U-IaURsGM

Ocean Photosynthesis May Be Decreasing

My previous blog post noted that global land photosynthesis is clearly increasing in recent decades.  However, when we turn to the ocean, the story is different (albeit more ambiguous).

About half of global photosynthesis takes place in the ocean.  Much of the resulting biomass production (net primary production) is consumed, thus supporting a food web that includes large marine animals like fish and whales.  Billions of people eat wild caught ocean fish each day as a source of protein.

Photosynthesis in the ocean is frequently constrained by nutrient availability.  Hence, areas where photosynthesis is high are often where upwelling brings nutrient-rich deep water to the surface, or runoff from the land includes nutrients. 

Earth system scientists now monitor global ocean photosynthesis using a combination of satellite remote sensing, direct measurements, and modeling.  As always with global scale processes, there is significant uncertainty about the estimates and some regions show increasing net primary production (NPP) while other regions show decreases.  Various studies have reached differing conclusions about trends in the global total, but a recent study suggested that ocean NPP is in decline (1998 – 2015).

Figure 1.  Trend in ocean primary production.  Estimates are based on a biogeochemical model (coupled to a full ocean model) that assimilates ocean color satellite data. 

Oceanographers are beginning to get an understanding of what is driving the decline.

A key factor appears to be reduced delivery of nutrients to the ocean’s surface.  The causes are related to global warming, a process driven by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

An important mechanism that is slowing delivery of nutrients to the surface ocean is an increase in stratification associated with the general warming of ocean surface waters.  A cap of warm water tends to reduce vertical mixing, which in turn reduces recharge of surface nutrients from deeper waters where much decomposition and nutrient release takes place.

Figure 2.  Trend in ocean mixed layer depth.  Estimates are based on a global physical three-dimensional model of the ocean driven by geophysical observations.

Another process related to nutrient supply involves the cycling of water from the surface to the deep ocean and back to the surface (the thermohaline circulation).  The descending arm of this Earth-girdling loop of ocean circulation is based on warm water brought north by the Gulf Stream.  That water cools, densifies, and sinks in the North Atlantic Ocean and eventually returns to the surface elsewhere bringing with it nutrients from the deep ocean.  Recent measurements suggest a weakening of that descending arm cause by a freshening of North Atlantic waters driven mostly by melting of the Greenland ice cap.

A decline in ocean photosynthesis − the base of the ocean food chain − likely translates into lower fish production.  Fisheries all over the planet are already under stress from many factors, not least of which is overharvesting.  Ocean warming causes decline of coral (a source of NPP), ocean acidification reduces NPP of calcifying plankton, decreases in ocean oxygen from reduced mixing and excess nutrient runoff (coastal dead zones) force fish to migrate, and toxic waste inputs (including macro-, micro-, and nano- plastics) reduce feeding efficiency.  After decades of fish harvest increases, the global catch peaked in the 1990s.  Model-based projections of ocean animal biomass suggest continuing declines with further ocean warming.

Despite the immensity of the ocean, human impacts on it are piling up.  A new narrative about ocean management is needed.

We (as a part of the technosphere) cannot directly change ocean circulation in an attempt to restore declining primary production and fish production.  We can only slow the emissions of greenhouse gases, which would slow global warming and its associated impacts on ocean mixing and circulation.  Stabilizing, then reducing, the atmospheric CO2 concentration would also slow ocean acidification.

The time is now to support leaders who understand the realities of global environmental change and are committed to working domestically and internationally to implement policies that change the current trajectory of the Earth system.

The Icarus Scenario


Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637), courtesy of Prado Museum

David P. Turner / February 26, 2020

The future invades the present much more so in recent times than was the case in previous generations.  That’s because the global human enterprise (the technosphere) has initiated an era of global climate change – with potentially catastrophic impacts on future generations.  Thus, humans must now worry more about the future than might otherwise be the case.  While we still have time, humanity must alter course – we must redesign the technosphere.

Earth system scientists have a responsibility to discern coming changes to the Earth system as clearly as possible, and to evaluate potential mitigation strategies.  The time horizon of these scenarios for global change are commonly on the order of a century, or perhaps several centuries.  But examining scenarios that play out over hundreds to thousands of years is also necessary.

In the course of writing a book about global environmental change, I developed a rather dystopian long-timeframe Earth system scenario.  I call it the Icarus Scenario.  This story of Earth’s future is based on emerging Earth system science knowledge about past episodes of drastic global change over the course of geologic history.  On multiple occasions, tectonic movements have initiated periods of massive greenhouse gas emissions (sound familiar?) that led to strong global warming, followed by major alterations in ocean circulation and chemistry, as well as profound changes in the biosphere (including mass extinction events in some cases). 

Humanity might now be initiating the next iteration of that sequence, and the Icarus myth seems an appropriate referent.  Icarus was the figure from Greek mythology who, with his father, constructed wings of feathers and wax.  His father warned him not to fly too close to the sun for fear of melting the wax, but Icarus got carried away with the joy of flight.  He indeed flew too close to the sun, his wings disintegrated, and he crashed to his death on the ground.

A contemporary version of this myth might be manifest as the on-going build-out of the technosphere (with associated greenhouse gas emissions), warnings by scientists about the possibility of overheating the planet, continued fossil-fuel-based technosphere growth driven by an exuberant market economy, and global warming sufficient to push the Earth system through a series of tipping points that catastrophically warm the planet.  Recent geophysical observations suggest the risk of initiating that sequence is increasing.

We can’t of course know the future.  But there are several compelling reasons why we as a global collective should grapple with the Icarus Scenario.

It is likely that the wealthiest people in the world will be able to largely insulate themselves from impacts of climate change over the next generation or so.  Consequently, supporting societal investment in mitigation climate change (e.g. the Green New Deal) may not be a high priority.  However, if their legacy will amount to nothing in a somewhat longer perspective, they might pitch in more vigorously (thanks Jeff Bezos!).

The Icarus Scenario also strengthens the rationale for investing in climate change mitigation as soon as possible to reduce the possibility of passing a threshold and being unable to reverse the trajectory of the Earth system towards catastrophic warming.  The precautionary principle is more readily invoked as the magnitude of a threat increases, and the Icarus Scenario is the ultimate threat.

Being an inveterate optimist, I also formulated in my book a long-term Earth system scenario in which the technosphere builds a sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system.  My Noösphere Scenario (pronounced like noah-sphere) assumes cultural evolution towards a high technology global civilization that self-regulates to avoid overheating the planet and consuming the biosphere.  The root word nous refers to mind – Earth becomes a planet organized by collective thought.

Recommended Audio: Epilogue from Everest motion picture (Dario Marianelli)

Growth of the Technosphere

David P. Turner / January 28, 2020

The growth of the technosphere is changing the Earth system, pushing it towards a state that may be inimical to future human civilization [1].  As technosphere capital − e.g. in the form of buildings, machines, and electronic devices – is increasing, biosphere capital −in the form of wild organisms and intact ecosystems − is decreasing [2].

Figure 1.  Decline in freshwater, marine and terrestrial populations of vertebrates.  Adapted from Ripple et al. 2015 [3].

The growth of the technosphere has tremendous momentum and we must ask if it can be shaped and regulated into something that is sustainable, i.e. able to co-exist with the rest of the Earth system over the long term.

Figure 2.  Earth system indicator trends 1750-2010.  Adapted from Steffen et al. 2015 [4].

Why is the technosphere growing so vigorously?  Let’s consider three quite different factors. 

1.  The most general driver of technosphere growth is what systems ecologist Howard Odum called the “maximum power principle”.  It states: “During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency” [5].   Self-organization is a widely observed phenomenon, extending from the funnel of water formed in a draining bathtub, to inorganic chemical reactions that create arresting geometric designs, to giant termite mounds, and indeed, to cities [6].  Given Earth’s vast reservoirs of fossil fuel energy, and a selection regime that rewards growth, the technosphere will indeed tend to increase energy consumption, matter throughput, and complexity. 

2.  Underlying much of the momentum of technosphere growth is the global market economy.  Capitalism is essentially the operating system of the technosphere.  Corporations, the state, and workers are compelled to expand the economy and hence the technosphere [7]. 

The market economy rewards increasing efficiencies in production (to reduce costs) and often the route to greater efficiently and greater economies of scale is by investment in technology.  Technical progress is now the expected norm and investments in research and development are a part of corporate culture and national agendas.  Economists refer to the “treadmill of production” in which “competition, profitability, and the quest for market share has contributed to an acceleration of human impact on the environment” [8].  Economic globalization has geographically extended the market economy to the whole world.

3.  Historically, war has been one of the biggest drivers of technological expansion.  In the Parable of the Tribes, historian Andrew Schmookler describes the sustained pressure on societies to conquer or be conquered [9].  Technology advances certainly help in winning wars and national governments invest heavily in research and application of technologies for war.  The Internet began with U.S. Defense Department funding to build a communications infrastructure that was hardened against nuclear attack.

Humanity has of course benefited broadly as the technosphere expanded.  Billions of people now have standards of living rivaling those of royalty a few hundred years ago.  The proportion of the global population living in poverty continues to decline.

But even before the use of the term technosphere, scientists and philosophers had begun to question whether technology was always a benevolent force.  The concept of “autonomous technology” suggests that the growth and elaboration of technology can escape human control [10, 11].  The possibilities for a nuclear holocaust or a greenhouse gas driven climate change catastrophe are indicative of technology-mediated global threats. 

What can be done?

The maximum power principle does promote energy throughput, but there is plenty of scope for insuring that technosphere energy prioritizes renewable energy.  Carbon taxes may be the simplest approach to rapidly driving down fossil fuel combustion.  Comprehensive recycling, based on a circular economy, will help constrain the mass throughput of the technosphere.  Finishing the global demographic transition [12] will reduce future demand for natural resources.

Capitalism will not go away but could undergo a Reformation.  That means more corporate responsibility, better governmental oversight of corporate behavior, and increased attention by consumer to the environmental footprint of their consumption.

The global incidence of physical war is decreasing, which will help slow the growth of the technosphere.  Wars are often based on the threat of an enemy, but humanity may become more unified based on the common threat of global environmental change.  The Paris Accord is suggestive of the possibilities.

Implications

The trajectory of the technosphere is towards limitless growth.  However, we live on a planet – there are indeed limits to the natural resources upon which the technosphere depends.  Humans are only a part of the technosphere, thus cannot truly control it (13).  But they can certainly shape it .  Likewise, the technosphere is only part of the Earth system, thus cannot fully control the Earth system: quite possibly, the Earth system will respond to the environmental impacts of the technosphere with changes that suppress the technosphere and associated human welfare.  Improved understanding of technosphere growth in the context of the rest of the Earth system is clearly warranted.

1.  Steffen, W., et al., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2018. 115(33): p. 8252-8259.

2.  Diaz, S., et al., Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science, 2019. 366(6471): p. 1327-+.

3.  Ripple, W.J., et al., World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Bioscience, 2017. 67(12): p. 1026-1028.

4.  Steffen, W., et al., The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2015. 2: p. 81-98.

5.  Odum, H.T., Self-Organization and Maximum Empower, in Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H.T. Odum. 1995, Colorado University Press: Boulder CO.  See Hall review.

6.  Prigogine, I. and I. Stengers, Order out of Chaos. 1984: Bantam.

7.  Curran, D., The Treadmill of Production and the Positional Economy of Consumption. Canadian Review of Sociology-Revue Canadienne De Sociologie, 2017. 54(1): p. 28-47.

8.  Hooks, G. and C.L. Smith, Treadmills of production and destruction – Threats to the environment posed by militarism. Organization & Environment, 2005. 18(1): p. 19-37.

9.  Schmookler, A.B., The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, Second Edition 1994: Suny Press. 426.

10.  Winner, L., Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme of Political Thought. 1978: The M.I.T. Press. 402.

11.  Kelly, K., Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World. 1995: Basic Books.

12.  Bongaarts, J., Human population growth and the demographic transition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 2009. 364(1532): p. 2985-2990.

13.  Haff, P.,  Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules. 2014. The Anthropocene Review:126-136.