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.

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.

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