A Systems Theory View of the Emerging Planetary Socio-ecological System

David P. Turner / May 6, 2021

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.

Planetary Citizenship

David P. Turner / March 7, 2021

The developmental task of building a personal identity is becoming ever more complicated.  While some aspects of identity come with birth, others are adopted over the course of maturation.  Increasingly, each person has multiple identities that are managed in a complex psychological juggling act.

Citizenship − generally defined in terms of loyalty to the society within a specified area − is a key component of personal identity.  National citizenship most readily comes to mind, but the term is also used at other levels of organization.  Members of a tribe, residents concerned about watershed protection, and neighbors attending to local quality of life all qualify as citizens.

The concept of citizenship at the planetary scale is rather new, in part because our global governance infrastructure (environmental, geopolitical, and economic) is rudimentary.  However, if there is to be a purposeful (teleological) attempt to mitigate and adapt to global environmental change, we residents of Earth must become planetary citizens.

The impetus to identify as a planetary citizen typically comes from growing awareness of planetary scale environmental threats to human welfare.  The result is a commitment to rein in the human enterprise (the technosphere) and work towards global sustainability

Earth system scientists generally reject the Gaian notion that the planet is in some way self-regulating or purposeful.  But if humanity indeed manages to join together and intentionally reverse the trend of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and mass extinction, the Earth system as a whole (Gaia 2.0) would in a sense gain purpose.

Embrace of planetary citizenship is a pushback against unbridled individualism.  In the widely held neoliberal belief system, individuals are viewed most fundamentally as autonomous consumers who live in a biophysical environment that is a limitless source of materials and energy as well as a limitless sink for wastes.  In fact, the human impact on the global environment is a summation of the resource demands from the 7.8 billion people who now inhabit the planet.  The cumulative impact of humanity has clearly begun to induce changes in the Earth system that endanger both developing and developed nations. 

Rights and Responsibilities

Planetary citizens have rights, in principle.  As noted though, the global governance forums for establishing those rights are weak.  In the realm of environmental quality, a planetary citizen certainly should have a right to an unpolluted environment. 

Correspondingly, a planetary citizen’s responsibilities include understanding their own resource use footprint, and endeavoring to control it (e.g., having fewer children).  Understanding the environmental impacts of their society and advocating in support of conservation-oriented governmental policies and actions (e.g., by voting) is also essential.

Because global change is happening so quickly and persistently, a commitment to lifelong learning about local and global environmental change is a foundation of planetary citizenship.

Identifying with any collective evokes a tension between personal autonomy and obligations to the greater good.  Thus, the addition of planetary citizenship to personal identity creates psychological demands.  Mental health requires that those new demands (e.g., pressure for less consumerism and more altruism) be calibrated to individual circumstances and to the state of the world.

Collective Intelligence

Possibilities for the emergence of collective intelligence and agency among planetary citizens at various scales have grown rapidly as the Internet has evolved.  Besides the general sense of a global brain emerging from the mass of online communication, various online groups now specifically address global environmental change issues, e.g. the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence sponsors a crowdsourced web site aimed at finding solutions to climate change.  

Civil society organizations like 350.org, Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, and Wikipedia are testaments to the power of collective intelligence among planetary citizens.  Participation of planetary citizens in self-organized groups of activists creates a sense of agency, which can be hard to find when a person confronts the enormity of global environmental change on their own.  What is glaringly missing is a planetary forum for global environmental governance, something like the proposed World Environment Organization.

Global Citizenship

It is worth making a distinction between planetary citizenship and global citizenship.  Both concepts are relevant to building global sustainability, with planetary citizenship more focused on the biophysical environment and global citizenship more concerned with human relationships. The global perspective is fundamentally political.

Global Citizenship is often discussed in the context of Global Citizenship Education (GCE).  GEC theory commonly calls for “recognizing the interconnectedness of life, respecting cultural diversity and human rights, advocating global social justice, empathizing with suffering people around the world, seeing the world as others see it and feeling a sense of moral responsibility for planet Earth”.

Traditional GCE theory may be oriented around experiential learning by way of immersive experiences in other cultures, often including volunteer work.  However, persistent concerns that the relationship of visitor to host replicates the colonial model of dominance have led to more critically oriented versions of GCE theory.  Here, the emphasis is on examining injustices and power differentials among social groups and evaluating effective means to foster greater equity. 

The thrust of the global citizenship concept tends towards differentiating the parts of humanity and fulfilling the obligation to address injustices of all kinds; the thrust of planetary citizenship is on humanity as a collective entity playing a role in Earth system dynamics.  A comprehensive approach to teaching global citizenship would emphasize both  aspects and even transcend them.

Pedagogy

Since identity as a planetary citizen is a choice, the question of how education can be designed to foster that choice is significant.

The idealized outcome of education for planetary citizenship is a human being who understands the impacts of the technosphere on the Earth system and has a willingness to engage in building global sustainability (Go Greta Thunberg!).  These individuals would share a sense of all humans having a common destiny.

Two disciplines are particularly relevant. 

The field of Big History covers the history of the universe leading to the current Earth system.  It juxtaposes cosmic evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution to give perspective on how humanity has become aware of itself and come to endanger itself.  A recently developed free online course in Big History aimed at middle school and high school students nicely introduces the subject.  My own text, The Green Marble, and my blog posts such as A Positive Narrative for the Anthropocene, examine Big History at a level suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.

The field of environmental sociology is likewise important.  It explores interactions of social systems with ecosystems at multiple spatial scales.  The concept of a socioecological system, composed of a specific ecosystem and all the relevant stakeholders, is a core object of study.  Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom helped elucidate the optimal structural and functional properties of socioecological systems at various scales.

Conclusion

Identifying as a planetary citizen means seeking to understand humanity’s environmental predicament and trying to do something about it.  An important benefit from this commitment is the acquisition of a sense of agency regarding global environmental change.  The aggregate effect of planetary citizenship across multiple levels of organization (individual, civil society, nation, global) will be purposeful change at the planetary scale.

Peak Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Peak Carbon Dioxide Concentration

David P. Turner / December 2, 2020

Updated November 7, 2021 based on the 2021 Global Carbon Budget

Updated April 12, 2022 based on 2021 International Energy Agency Emissions Report

A remarkable speculation has circulated in the cybersphere to the effect that global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel combustion may have peaked in 2019.  Considering that recent formal projections generally indicate increasing emissions through 2030 or longer, this assertion is striking.  It matters because CO2 emissions determine the growth in the atmospheric CO2 concentration, which in turn influences the magnitude of global warming.

The atmospheric CO2 concentration is currently around 420 ppm (up from a preindustrial value of around 280 ppm) and is rising at a rate of 2-3 ppm per year.  The consensus among climate scientists is that rapid greenhouse-gas-driven climate change will be harmful to the human enterprise on Earth.  It would be good news indeed if CO2 emissions were on the way down.

Estimates for annual global CO2 emissions are produced by assembling data on consumption of coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as data on production of cement, which also releases CO2 (the sum is termed Fossil Fuel & Industry emissions).  Two independent emissions estimates (GCP and IEA) differ slightly. Deforestation is another significant anthropogenic source of CO2, but it is not considered in this blog post except to say that reducing deforestation will further reduce total CO2 emissions.

The suggestion that we are passing peak fossil fuel emissions is based on several observations.

1.  The rate of increase in global emissions has been low in recent years (before the 2021 recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic) averaging less than 1% per year for 2010-2018.  CO2 emissions are falling in the US and the EU, and the annual rate of increase in emissions is declining in India

GCB reports Covid-19 related reductions in global fossil fuel consumption for 2020 were 5.4%. There was a 4.9% rebound in 2021, but the total emissions remained below 2019 (the IEA report indicates a slight increase in 2021). Emissions will likely rebound further in 2022 as the pandemic recedes. However, those increases will be offset to some degree by continued efforts to reduce emissions in the interest of mitigating climate change (e.g. COP26). The increase in oil prices associated with the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine may further suppress oil consumption (but may increase coal consumption because of a spike in natural gas prices).

2.  Peak global coal use appeared to occur in 2013.  Aging coal powered electricity plants in the U.S. are often replaced with plants powered by natural gas (more efficient that coal) or renewable energy.  Some coal plants are being prematurely retired.  A gradual phase out in global coal consumption will be driven by the price advantage of renewable energy, impacts of coal emissions on human health, and the reluctance of insurance companies to cover new coal power plant construction. Covid-19 caused a drop in global coal emissions in 2020 but there was a 5.7% rebound in 2021, lead by India and China and the US, that brought the total above the level in 2019. If coal emissions continue to increase and exceed the level in 2013, it would be a tragic reversal of what had been a hopeful trend (according to IEA, coal emissions in 2021 did reach a new high).

3.  Peak oil use may have occurred in 2019.  Global demand in 2020 fell 7.6% because of Covid-19 and recovered by 4.4% in 2021.  Structural changes such as reduced commuting and business-related flying mean that some of the demand reductions will be persistent.  Vehicles powered by electricity and hydrogen rather than gasoline are on the ascendancy, sparked in part by governmental mandates to phase in zero emissions vehicles.

4.  Even a near term peak in natural gas consumption is being discussed.  Again, the price advantage of renewable sources will increasingly weigh against fossil-fuel-based power plants.  Ramped up production of renewable natural gas could substitute for fossil natural gas in some applications.

Surprisingly, it appears likely that a long-term decline in total fossil fuel use will be driven more by lack of demand than lack of supply.

Emissions from cement manufacturing are still climbing and amount to about 4% of total fossil fuel emissions.  However, a recent study suggests that the CO2 uptake from slow weathering of aging cement around the world is providing a large offset (more than half) to current cement manufacturing emissions.  Innovative uses of wood and geopolymers can potentially replace cement in many construction applications.

The election of Biden to the U.S. presidency is also relevant.  Biden’s leadership has returned the U.S. (largest cumulative CO2 emissions on the planet) to the international fold with respect to climate change mitigation.  President Xi Jinping of China (largest CO2 emitter on the planet) has also displayed leadership (in words if not deeds) on the climate change issue.  A revitalized collaboration between the U.S. and China on climate change mitigation could push the needle on global emissions reduction.

A critical missing piece in the global struggle to reduce CO2 emissions is the soaring use of coal in India (up 14.8% in 2021). Offers of climate finance from the more developed world could go a long way towards funding the needed renewable energy revolution there.

Currently about half of fossil fuel CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere, with the remainder sequestered on the land (e.g. in vegetation and soil) and in the ocean.  Once fossil fuel emissions begin decreasing and fall by half − and assuming the net effect of increasing CO2 and climate warming is still substantial carbon uptake by the land and ocean − the atmospheric CO2 concentration will peak and begin to decrease.  The year of peak CO2 concentration could be as early as 2040 (see carbon cycle projection tool below).

There is of course plenty that might go wrong.  The net effect on the land and ocean sequestration just referred to could be a decline in carbon uptake.  On land, carbon sources such as permafrost melting and forest fires will be stimulated by climate warming.  In the ocean, warming will intensify stratification, thereby reducing carbon removal to the ocean interior. 

On the other hand, land sequestration is increasing now and could continue to do so in response to CO2 enhancement of photosynthesis and plant water use efficiency.  Policy driven increases in the land carbon sink (e.g. more reforestation and afforestation) are also possible.  The ocean carbon sink is likewise increasing now, continuing an upward trend over the last 20 years.

Whatever specific years do turn out to be peak CO2 emissions and peak CO2 concentration, they will be remembered as historic hallmarks in humanity’s effort to address an existential threat of its own making.

Recommended:  Interactive CO2 Emissions and Concentration Projection Tool.

Peak Human Population and the Global Environment

David P. Turner / September 11, 2020

Introduction

A key pursuit in the field of Earth System Science is measuring and monitoring global scale structures and processes.  These measurements have led to the concept of the “Great Acceleration”, a name given to the period since around 1950 during which many global scale attributes related to the human enterprise (the technosphere) began rising in an exponential fashion.  The increase in global population is the iconic example.

Intuitively, it seems unlikely that this level of population increase and associated resource consumption could continue indefinitely on a finite planet.  Practically speaking, problems have begun to arise both with resource shortages and environmental degradation from excess waste production (e.g. global warming and ocean acidification from massive fossil fuel combustion).

Humanity clearly must transition to a more sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system.  The way forward lies in bending those exponentially rising Great Acceleration curves for population and resources use, hitting the peaks, and engineering declines.

As noted by ecologists long ago, total resource use (Impact) is a function of the number of people (Population), their per capita use (Affluence), and the efficiency with which raw resources are converted to useful products (Technology).

Resource use per person obviously varies tremendously, hinting at the special responsibility of the more developed countries to limit population growth (the net effect of births minus deaths and immigration minus emigration).  But all humans consume natural resources.  Thus, the high projected population growth rates in less developed countries must also be brought down.  The sooner global population peaks, the less natural capital (e.g. biodiversity) will be degraded, the less likely that competition for resources will lead to human conflict, and the less likely that climate change will trigger tipping points in the Earth system that precipitate extreme impacts on humans.

Past, Present, and Future Global Population

The global population size doubled between 1927 and 1974 and has nearly doubled again since 1979.  It is now 7.8 billion.

However, the rate of annual global population growth has fallen in recent decades (from > 2% per year to 1.05% per year), mostly associated with a decreasing trend in fertility (children born per woman during her reproductive lifetime).

Family planning programs by governmental and nongovernment organizations have significantly impacted the trend towards lower fertility rates.

Projections by demographers of peak global population range widely.  The median estimate from the United Nations Population Division is for a population of 10.9 billion in 2100.  Most of the increase from the present is in Africa.

However, recent research points toward lower values, possibly a peak of 9.7 billion around 2064 and a decline to 8.8 billion by 2100. 

Factors Influencing Demographic Projections

Projections of peak global population have significant policy implications.  Relatively low estimates may have the effect that national commitments to stabilize population are downgraded and that overhyped media accounts of depopulation sap political will to continue family planning programs.  Relatively high estimates for peak global population foster the impression that humanity it doomed to an overcrowded and overheated planet, hence favoring lifeboat ethics.

Despite the critical implications of their results, the models used to predict peak population are very sensitive to the assumptions made about trends in fertility. 

The recent lower estimates for peak global population rely on continued or increasing reductions in fertility in the high fertility countries.  But demographers in the past have sometimes overestimated declines in fertility, and may be doing so now as well.  Historic trends of declining fertility have stalled in some high fertility countries, possibly related to falling support for family planning.  The Catholic Church still formally prohibits artificial birth control. 

Nevertheless, several emerging trends may support lower projected peaks in global population. 

One is that efforts to shift cultural norms favoring large family size increasingly include family planning messaging in popular media (e.g. serial dramas), which are having significant success with both genders

Another is that the incidence of unplanned pregnancy is declining globally (1990-2014), probably as a function of improving access to family planning resources.

The Covid-19 pandemic could push birth rates down (at least in the more developed countries) because financial insecurity will dispose women in developed and developing countries to postpone or forgo having children.  

Mortality rates may also be higher than expected.  Life expectancy has generally increased in recent decades throughout the world.  Much of that increase is associated with reduced child mortality but increasing longevity is also a factor.  However, life expectancy in the U.S. went down from 2014 to 2017 because of increasing fatal drug overdoses and suicides.  Climate change is expected to bring an increase in extreme weather events causing mortality directly (as in flooding), and indirectly by way of impacts on agriculture and possibly the incidence of war.

Implications Beyond Absolute Population Size

A leading concern about a rapid peak and then decline in national populations is the associated increase in the ratio of older retired people to younger working people.  As the population ages, the number of active workers available to support each elderly person tends to decline.  Hence, taxes may have to be increased to provide income and health care to the elderly.  Various mitigating factors include the improving health of elderly people, significant intergenerational transfers of wealth, increases in labor force participation by the elderly, and volunteer efforts by the elderly.

Also, a larger proportion of elderly people generally means decreased per capita demand for resources and a more peaceful society.

A decline in the number of children per family can have many beneficial side effects including: 1) more resources (parental attention and ability to finance education) per child, 2) improved quality of life for parents (less stress and more free time), and 3) rising per capita income.

Conclusion

The sooner global population peaks and begins to decline, the greater the possibilities for achieving global sustainability.  Since about 40% of pregnancies globally are still unplanned, a primary tool for insuring children are born into a welcoming and opportunity-rich environment is continued and improved provision of family planning support in both the developing and developed world.  More political will and contributions to NGOs are needed.  At this point in human history, the local and global challenges (environmental, economic, and social) that arise from a stable or declining population are likely more manageable than those arising from high rates of population growth.