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 . 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 .
Figure 1. Decline in freshwater, marine and terrestrial populations of vertebrates. Adapted from Ripple et al. 2015 .
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 .
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” . 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 . 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 .
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” . 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 . 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  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.
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.
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13. Haff, P., Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules. 2014. The Anthropocene Review:126-136.