Given the vast amount of order in the universe, can humans reasonably hope to add a new increment of order in the form of a sustainable, high-technology, global civilization?
On the plus side, the universe is said to be order-friendly. Complexity is a rough measure of order, and we can observe that from its Big Bang origin to the present, the universe displays a gradual build-up of complexity. Systems theorist Stuart Kaufmann says that we are “at home in the universe” and he emphasized the widespread occurrence of self-organization (Figure 1). From atoms to molecules, to living cells, to multicellular organisms, to societies, to nation states – why not onward to a sustainable planetary civilization?
Figure 1. The Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction. This mixture of chemicals generates geometric forms (order) that oscillate until chemical equilibrium is reached.
Whether the universe is order-friendly or not is of course not strictly a scientific question, but scientists do aspire to explain the origins and elaboration of order. Broadly speaking, they refer to the process of cosmic evolution with its components of physical evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution. Cosmic evolution is a unifying scientific narrative now studied by the discipline of Big History; it covers the temporal sequence from Big Bang to the present, emphasizing the role of energy transformations in the buildup of complexity.
Physical evolution of the universe consists of the emergence of a series of physical/chemical processes powered by gravity. Formation of the higher atomic weight elements by way of fusion reactions in successive generations of stars is a particularly important aspect of physical evolution because it sets the stage for the inorganic and organic chemistry necessary for a new form of order – life.
Biological evolution on Earth began with single-celled organisms, and by way of genetic variation and natural selection, led to the vast array of microbes and multi-cellular organisms now extant. Each creature is understood as a “dissipative structure”, which must consume energy of some kind to maintain itself and reproduce. Biological evolution produced increments of order – such as multicellularity – because each step allows for new capabilities and specializations that help the associated organisms prevail in competition for resources.
Scientists are just beginning to understand how biological evolution favors cooperation among different types of organisms at higher levels of organization. Ecosystems, which are characterized by energy flows and nutrient cycling, depend on feedback relationships among different types of organism (e.g. producers, consumers, decomposers). The biosphere (i.e. the sum of all organisms) is itself a dissipative structure fueled by solar energy. Biosphere metabolism participates in the regulation of Earth’s climate (e.g. by its influence of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), thus making the planet as a whole an elaborate system, now studied by the discipline of Earth System Science.
Cultural evolution introduces the possibility of order in the form of human societies and their associated artifacts. It depends on the capacity for language and social learning, and helps account for the tremendous success of Homo sapiens on this planet. As with variation and selection of genes in biological evolution, there must be variation and selection of memes in the course of cultural evolution. In the process of cultural evolution, we share information, participate in the creation of new information, and establish the reservoirs of information maintained by our societies.
The inventiveness of the human species has recently produced a new component of the Earth system – the technosphere. This summation of all human artifacts and associated processes rises to the level of a sphere in the Earth system because it has become the equivalent of a geologic force, e.g. powerful enough to drive global climate change.
Unfortunately, the technosphere is rather unconstrained, and in a sense its growth is consuming the biosphere upon which it depends (e.g. tropical rain forest destruction). Technosphere order (or capital) is increasing at the expense of biosphere order. The solution requires better integration within the technosphere, and between the technosphere and the other components of the Earth system – essentially a more ordered Earth system.
How might the technosphere mature into something more sustainable? One model for the addition of order to a system is termed a metasystem transition. I have discussed this concept elsewhere, but briefly, it refers to the aggregation of what were autonomous systems into a greater whole, e.g. the evolution of single-celled organisms into multicellular organisms, or the historical joining of multiple nations to form the European Union.
In the case of a global civilization, the needed metasystem transition would constitute cooperation among nation states and civil society organizations to reform or build new institutions of global governance, specifically in the areas of environment, trade, and geopolitics. Historically, the drivers of ever larger human associations have included 1) the advantages of large alliances in war, and 2) a sense of community associated with sharing a religious belief system. But perhaps in the future we might look towards planetary citizenship. Clear benefits to global cooperation would accrue in the form of a capacity to manage global scale threats like climate change.
Living in an order-friendly universe allows us to imagine the possibility of global sustainability. However, the next increment of order-building on this planet will require humans and humanity to take on a new level of responsibility.
Biological evolution gave us the capacity for consciousness and now we must use guided cultural evolution to devise and implement a pathway to global sustainability. Besides self-preservation, the motivation to do so has a moral dimension in terms of 1) minimizing the suffering of relatively poor people who have had little to do with causing global environmental change but are disproportionately vulnerable to it, 2) insuring future generations do not suffer catastrophically because of a deteriorating global environment caused by previous generations, and 3) an aesthetic appreciation or love (biophilia) for the beauty of nature and natural processes.
Our brains, with their capacity for abstract thought, are the product of biological evolution. They were “designed” to help a bipedal species of hunter-gatherers survive in a demanding biophysical and social environment. Hence, they don’t necessarily equip us to understand how and why the universe is order-friendly. But we can see the pattern of increasing complexity in the history of the universe, and aspire to move it forward one more step – to the level of a planetary civilization.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
In the discipline of Earth System Science, a useful analytic approach to sorting out parts and wholes is by reference to the earthly spheres. The pre-human Earth system included the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. With the biological and cultural evolution of humans came the technosphere. In a very aggregated way of thinking, these spheres interact.
The biosphere is the sum of all living organisms on Earth; it is mostly powered by solar radiation and it drives the biogeochemical cycling of elements like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
The technosphere is the sum of the human enterprise on Earth, including all of our physical constructions and institutions; it is mostly powered by fossil fuels and it has a large throughput of energy and materials.
Over the last couple of centuries, the technosphere has expanded massively. It is altering the biosphere (the sixth mass extinction) and the global biogeochemical cycles (e.g. the CO2 emissions that drive climate change).
The interaction of the technosphere and the biosphere is evident at places like wildlife markets where captured wild animals are sold for human consumption. Virologists believe that such an environment is favorable to the transfer of viruses from non-human animals to humans. The SARS-CoV-2 virus likely jumped from another species, possibly wild-caught bats, to humans in a market environment. Covid-19 (the pandemic) has now spread globally and killed over one million people.
The human part of the technosphere has attempted to stop SARS-CoV-2 transmission by restricting physical interactions among people. The summed effect of these self-defense policies has been a slowing of technosphere metabolism. Notably, Covid-19 inspired slowdowns and shutdowns have driven a reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and a decrease in the demand for oil. This change is of course quite relevant to another interaction within the Earth system − namely technosphere impacts on the global climate.
There are important lessons to be learned from technosphere response to Covid-19 about relationships among the Earthly spheres.
One lesson regards the degree to which the technosphere is autonomous.
If we view the technosphere as a natural product of cosmic evolution, then the increase in order that the technosphere brings to the Earth system has a momentum somewhat independent of human volition. The technosphere thrives on energy throughput, and humans are compelled to maintain or increase energy flow. It is debatable if we control the technosphere or it controls us.
In an alternative view, tracing back to Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky in the 1920s, humanity controls the technosphere and can shape it to manage the Earth system. This view received a recent update with a vision of Gaia 2.0 in which the human component manages the technosphere to be sustainably integrated with the rest of the Earth system.
The fact that humanity did, in effect, reduce technosphere metabolism in response to Covid-19 supports this alternative view.
Admittedly, the intention in fighting Covid-19 was not to address the global climate change issue. And the modest drop in global carbon emissions will have only a small impact on the increasing CO2 concentration, which is what actually controls global warming. Nevertheless, the result shows that it is possible for human will to affect the whole Earth system relatively quickly. The Montreal Protocol to protect stratospheric ozone is more directly germane.
A second lesson from technosphere reaction to Covid-19 is that a technosphere slowdown was accomplished as the summation of policies and decisions made at the national scale or lower (e.g. slowdowns/shutdowns by states and cities, and voluntary homestay by individuals). The current approach to addressing global climate change is the Paris Agreement, which similarly functions by way of summation. Each nation voluntarily defines its own contribution to emissions reduction, and follow-up policies to support those commitments are made at multiple levels of governance. This bottom-up approach may prove more effective than the top-down approach in the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol.
A third lesson from technosphere response to Covid-19 regards the coming immunization campaign to combat it. Many, if not most, people around the planet will need to get vaccinated to achieve widespread herd immunity. Success in addressing the climate change issue by controlling greenhouse gas emissions will likewise depend on near universal support at the scale of individuals. Education at all levels and media attention are helping generate support for climate change mitigation. Increasing numbers of people are personally experiencing extreme weather events and associated disturbances like wildfire and floods, which also opens minds. The political will to address climate change is in its ascendency.
The response of the technosphere to biosphere pushback in the form of Covid-19 shows that the technosphere has some capacity to self-regulate (i.e. to be tamed from within). Optimally, that capability can be applied to ramp up a renewable energy revolution and slow Earth system momentum towards a Hothouse World.