What Technosphere Response to Covid-19 Says About Earth System Dynamics

David P. Turner / November 8, 2020

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.

The reduction in CO2 emissions in response to Covid-19. Image Credit: Global Carbon Project.

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 globally coordinated effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is clearly possible.  It could conceivably be accomplished without the painful job losses associated with Covid-19 suppression if done by way of a renewable energy revolution that creates millions of infrastructure jobs.

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.

The Second Revival of Gaia

January 11, 2020/David P. Turner

Gaia was originally a figure from Greek mythology: the mother goddess who gave birth to the sky, the mountains, and the sea.  Gaia was adopted by the Romans when they conquered the Mediterranean basin, but her myth was largely abandoned with the ascendency of Christianity by the third century CE.

The first revival of Gaia was a product of the nascent Earth system science community in the 1970s.  Atmospheric chemist James Lovelock was impressed by the finding of geologists that life had persisted on Earth for over 3 billion years despite a 25% increase in the strength of solar radiation (associated with an aging sun), and numerous catastrophic collisions with asteroids.  He also understood that the chemistry of the atmosphere − which provides oxygen for animal respiration, protection from toxic solar UV-B radiation, and influences the global climate − was maintained by the metabolism of the biosphere. 

These observations led him to suggest that the Earth as a whole was in a sense homeostatic, it was able to maintain certain life enhancing properties in the face of significant perturbations.    

In casting around for a name to give this organism-like version of the planet, he was inspired by author William Golding to revive the term Gaia.  Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis went on to write many influential peer-reviewed papers, and later books, on Gaia.

By the 1990s, the question of what regulated the functioning of the Earth system had become of more than academic interest.  Earth system scientists had observed that the Earth system was changing and begun to worry about possible impacts of those changes on the human enterprise.  Concentrations of greenhouse gases were rising, stratospheric ozone was declining, and a wave of extinctions was sweeping the planet. 

Geoscientists were initially intrigued by the Gaia Hypothesis about planetary homeostasis, hoping perhaps that Gaian homeostasis might save us from ourselves.  But by around 2000 they had largely rejected Gaia as an entity.  Many of the feedbacks in the Earth system (see my Teleological Feedback blog) were positive (amplifying climate change) rather than negative (damping), hence not contributing to homeostasis.

The second revival of Gaia came predominantly from scholars in the humanities.  Historians typically begin human history about 10,000 years ago when humans adopted an agricultural way of life.  However, the discovery that humans have recently begun to alter the global environment on a geologic scale changes everything (as activist Naomi Klein says).  The Earth system is no longer a benevolent background state that will provide a growing humanity with unlimited resources.  Earth has a Gaian history that is now imposed upon by human history.  The new field of Big History aims to juxtapose the geologic and anthropocentric time frames.

Historians needed a term to evoke an Earth system that in a sense has its own agency, and scholars like science historian Bruno Latour and philosopher Isabelle Stengers settled on Gaia.  They emphasized Gaia not as a nurturing mother, but rather a force that will smack humanity down if the current trajectory of global environmental change continues.

In a recent hybrid interpretation, geoscientist Tim Lenton and humanities scholar Bruno Latour have dubbed the newly revived Gaia as Gaia 2.0.  This version refers to an Earth system on which a sentient species has evolved and begun to alter the planet but has collectively taken on the project of developing an advanced technological civilization (a technosphere) that will live on the planet sustainably.  That means comprehensive renewable energy, nearly closed material cycling, conservation of biodiversity to support the background metabolism of Gaia 1.0, implementation of multiple strategies to moderate climate change, and forms of governance that facilitate self-regulation at multiple scales.

Gaia 2.0 is the combination of the pre-human Gaian Earth system and the recently emergent technosphere.