The pill metaphor – taking a pill as a route to altered consciousness – has been around in popular culture for some time (e.g. The Jefferson Airplane song White Rabbit). The metaphor was used as a central theme in the 1999 sci-fi film TheMatrix. In the movie, rebel leader Morpheus offers the hero Neo a choice of 1) a blue pill, which will put him back to sleep about the existence of the Matrix (a computer simulation of human existence in which all humans are unconsciously embedded), or 2) a red pill, which will keep him awake to the existence of the Matrix and allow him to step outside it and join the gang of revolutionaries who are trying to destroy the Matrix and save humanity.
The pill metaphor is catnip to social commentators, and many pill colors (and interpretation of those colors) have been expounded (you can search by pill color in The Urban Dictionary).
Here, I want to introduce my interpretation of a pill variant known as the green pill. Taking the green pill awakens the partaker to the human predicament in terms of our relationship with the global environment. Earth system scientists have shown that the human technological enterprise (the technosphere) is rapidly altering the Earth system – notably the climate and the biosphere – in a way detrimental to a sustainable human future.
Despite being a part of the technosphere, most humans are barely aware of it as a thing with structure and function. As with the biosphere (the sum of all life on Earth), the technosphere has a throughput of energy (mostly fossil fuels at this point) and a cycling of materials (albeit poorly developed at this point). Humans participate in the technosphere, but do not fully control it (e.g. our difficulty in reducing fossil fuel emissions). Pervasive development of socio-ecological systems at all spatial scales, and continued work on building institutions of global environmental governance, provide a pathway to a better managed technosphere.
Taking the metaphorical green pill means becoming aware of yourself as a part of the technosphere, and accepting that big changes (non-violent in origin) are needed in our values and in how the technosphere operates (e.g. a global renewable energy revolution).
As more of us take the green pill, we will strengthen the movement to redesign the technosphere into something more sustainable.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.