Environmental Reglobalization

David P. Turner / April 24, 2022

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. 

In this post, I am particularly interested in how globalization, and its follow-on stages of deglobalization, and reglobalization, impact the global environment (Figure 1).

three stages of globalization
Figure 1.  Three sequential phases of globalization.  Neoliberal globalization from around 1980 to 2008 was based on maximizing profits by way of free trade within a global capitalistic system.  More recently, nationalistic deglobalization is characterized by a reassertion of national borders and reduction in flows of trade goods, financial capital, and immigrants.  Environmental reglobalization is a potential way forward in which the necessity to collectively address global environmental change issues provides a basis for global solidarity.  Image Credits: Neoliberal Globalization, Nationalistic Deglobalization, Environmental Reglobalization, Composite (D. Turner).

Despite globalization’s significant detrimental impacts on the global environment – notably a large stimulus to growth in the global Gross Domestic Product and associated greenhouse gas emissions – it has also had significant beneficial effects on the global environment, e.g. progressive environmental standards have been widely promulgated, and a global environmental governance infrastructure has begun to function.

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.

Is the Technosphere Underconnected?

Image of planet Earth with technosphere connections.
Figure 1.  Transparent Anthropocene.  Image Credit:  Globaia.  https://globaia.org/geophanies. Creative Commons License.  The image includes Global Roads, Global Human Impacts on Marine Ecosystems, Global Urban Footprint, Open Flights, Open Street Map, and Submarine Cables.

David P. Turner / September 14, 2021

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. 

Technosphere connectivity has grown increasingly dense over time (Figure 1) with a corresponding rise in technosphere mass and energy throughput.  All that global connectivity has helped raise standards of living for billions of people.  But the technosphere is showing signs of self-destructiveness, and it is worth asking if it is in any sense underconnected or overconnected.

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 panarchy cycle.
Fig. 2.  The panarchy cycle. The symbols r and K refer to species that are adapted to early or late stages of succession (Pianka, 1970); α (first letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to a beginning; Ω (last letter of the Greek alphabet) refers to an ending. The tail labeled x refers to the potential for the system to undergo a regime shift (Gunderson and Holling, 2002). Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Reproduced in The Green Marble by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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.

Capitalism and the Global Environment

David P. Turner / January 15, 2021

Humanity is beset by global scale problems, notably climate change, pandemics, and geopolitical struggles.

Clearly, global scale solutions and – broadly stated – more global solidarity are needed.

The most obvious factor currently binding together nearly all humans and nations on the planet is the global economy.  That economy is rooted in capitalism, albeit in various forms (e.g., free market capitalism, crony capitalism, state capitalism, and monopoly capitalism).  Thus, capitalism is a logical place to look for both the source of our global scale problems and perhaps even, in its reform, solutions to those same problems.

The ubiquity of capitalism is not in doubt.  Its characteristic feature is a market that allows for competitive exchange of goods and services.  Legal support for accumulation of capital and its investment in profit making enterprises is foundational.  In recent decades, capitalism has taken on a global character, featuring globalization of the labor market and capital flows.

The upsides of national level and globalized capitalism include efficiency in the distribution of goods and services, economic growth to support rising standards of living, and the availability of capital for investment in productive enterprises.

Important downsides include growing inequality of wealth and income, both within and between nations, growing instability of the global financial system, and growing environmental degradation at all scales.

This blog post is primarily concerned with the relationship of capitalism to the global environment.

The impact of capitalism on the global environment traces back to its fundamentals.  A capitalist organizes labor to manipulate natural resources and create products, which can then be sold in a competitive market.  Income from product sales pays for the costs of production, for personal or corporate profit, and possibly for expansion of production.

Key problems with respect to the environment lie in the propensity for expansion and the pressure to minimize costs.

Because of the competitive nature of capitalism, producers are compelled to expand.  More profits mean more capital to invest in beating competitors.  Expansion tends to allow economies of scale that help minimize costs, hence increase competitiveness.  However, production cannot expand indefinitely on a finite planet.  Graphic examples include unsustainable use of ground water for irrigated agriculture, and unchecked conversion of rain forests to soybean fields. 

Minimizing costs often means externalizing environmental costs.  Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are freely emitted as a byproduct of the fossil fuel combustion that powers much of the modern economy.  The emitter does not pay the cost of climate change impacts.  Economic globalization makes the externalization of environmental costs easier by shifting production to countries with relatively weak regulation of pollution.

It is time for a global scale reckoning of capitalism, in all its forms, with the fact that nearly eight billion people and a biosphere need to co-exist on what has become a crowded, rapidly warming, planet.  Capitalism clearly causes environmental problems that it cannot solve.

Despite the fact that global climate change “changes everything”, capitalism is not going to go away.  A primary mechanism by which to modify capitalism is policy changes at the level of the nation-state.  Historically, the relationship of western capitalism to the state has undergone several major transformations and the time is now for the next reset.

A very brief history of that relationship runs as follows.

The Capitalist State arose in the 19th century in association with the Industrial Revolution.  This type of state strongly supported rapid expansion of capitalist enterprises but displayed limited concern for workers or the environment.

Reaction to inequality in wealth and overexploitation of workers led eventually to the Welfare State in which government expanded and supported provision of decent wages, health care, and old age income (e.g., the New Deal in the U.S.).  By the 1960s, the issue of environmental quality also began to be considered a governmental responsibility.

By around 1980, the Neoliberal State (think Reaganomics) began to replace the welfare state.  Here the size of government shrank, i.e., lower taxes and less regulation.  Capitalists were again given free rein to maximize profits. 

Forty years later we find ourselves with vast inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, in America approaching levels in the early 20th century, and an alarmingly deteriorating global environment.

The appropriate transformation at this point is from the Neoliberal State to the Green State.  Governmental concern for the environment must rise to the level of its concern for economic, security, and social welfare issues.  The economic system is then seen as embedded in a society and constrained by the local and planetary ecology.  If the goal is a sustainable Earth system, governments will have to increasingly intervene in the economic system to moderate capitalism’s worst excesses.

The transformation to Green States will require well educated citizens who share environmental friendly values, reformed corporate governance, and leaders who employ government to protect rather than exploit common pool resources (e.g. a carbon tax).    

Note that economic inequality and environmental quality are linked by the notion that people who are not materially secure are not in a position to support potentially costly policies that improve environmental quality.  Consequently, redistribution of income and wealth to improve material security are critically important – not only for the sake of social justice but also for the sake of the environment.  More ominously, highly skewed distributions of wealth are historically associated with violent conflict, which often has adverse environmental consequences.

Moderating the impacts of capitalism on the global environment will require innovations in Earth system governance that parallel the transformations at the nation-state scale.  The institutions of global geopolitical governance, economic governance, and environmental governance must be redesigned and empowered to protect the global environment.  Thus, we might speak of fostering a green planet (or Green Marble as I have termed it).  The vision of a Global Green New Deal from the United Nations outlines some steps that will move us in that direction.

Earth Day 2020

Earth Day 2020 and Global Solidarity

David P. Turner / April 19, 2020

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. 

The United Nations has functioned as a forum for international deliberations about global environmental change issues, and the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987 hinted at the possibilities for global solidarity with respect to the environment.

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.

Recommended audio/video:
One World (Not Three), The Police