Continued Growth of Technosphere Capital by Destruction of Natural Capital is not Sustainable

Figure 1.  An aerial view of the edge of Manaus (Brazil), where the city meets the forest. Image credit: Greenpeace.

David P. Turner / January 27, 2022

Environmental scientists define natural capital in the context of natural resources management.  It commonly refers to a “stock of materials or information” that yields a flow of ecosystem services: an ocean fishery produces a yield of fish; a forest landscape produces a yield of wood.  In practice, most ecosystem services are produced by a combination of natural capital and human management.

In the case of hunter/gatherers, the human contribution to production of harvested food was limited.  But as technology became more important in provision of ecosystem services, the human element (including machines and knowledge) began to dominate.

A problem has arisen because humans have tended to consume not only ecosystem services (flows) from natural capital, but also the nature-built capital (stocks) itself.  A striking example is the cod fishery in the North Atlantic Ocean:  overfishing led to a collapse of the cod population and an abrupt decline in productivity.   

For centuries, humans have gotten away with depleting or destroying natural capital by simply moving on to the next unexploited natural resource.  Commodity frontiers often have a geographic dimension, e.g. the wave of primary forest exploitation in temperate North America that extended from the New England hardwoods, through the pines of the Great Lakes states, and on to the Pacific Northwest conifers.

A massive erosion of nature-built capital over the last two centuries is evident in the spatial patterns of land use change, distortions in animal and plant population structure, and outright extinction of species.  As natural capital is depleted, human interventions (often subsidized by energy from fossil fuels) must be ramped up to maintain the same level of ecosystem services.

From an Earth system science perspective, we can describe the interaction of the human enterprise and natural capital in terms of interaction of the technosphere with its natural resources base. 

The technosphere is the global aggregate of human made artefacts and includes machines, buildings, transportation infrastructure, and communications infrastructure, along with the humans and their knowledge needed to maintain it.  Estimates of technosphere manufactured capital are on the order of 800 Pg. 

The technosphere requires a large stream of materials and energy to maintain itself and to produce the outputs of goods and services that keep the 7.8 billion people on Earth alive.  Here, I am particularly interested in the interaction of the technosphere with the biosphere.

Biosphere capital is the sum of all organisms and the associated information in the form of genetic material.  It is a subset of global natural capital. 

Biosphere mass is estimated at 550 Pg (carbon) and the estimates for the number of species range from 5.3 million and 1 trillion.  Inputs to the biosphere include solar energy and material flows from the geosphere (minerals) and hydrosphere.  Besides sustaining itself, the biosphere outputs vast flows of food and fiber (including wood) to the technosphere. 

From the global perspective, technosphere manufactured capital is clearly increasing and biosphere capital is clearly decreasing.  Examples include:

  1. The aforementioned degradation of marine fisheries by overharvesting.  Correspondingly, the mass of fishing boats is thought to be on the order of 30% higher than needed for a sustainable global catch of high value species.
  2. The continued conversion of intact ecosystems to agriculture use (estimated at 50% of the land surface) or urban development (Figure 1).
  3. The loss of soil organic matter by erosion and oxidation associated with agriculture. 

Our limited understanding of the biosphere makes it difficult to even quantify the on-going loss of biosphere capital.  Note that the biosphere contributes to regulation of atmospheric and marine chemistry by way of the global biogeochemical cycles.  Thus, as we lose biosphere capital, we are beginning to lose those free regulatory services.

Meanwhile, technosphere manufactured capital is growing at a rate of 1-8% per year, depending on the level of development in a given country.  It will likely peak at a much higher level than at present because of the still growing global population and increases in per capita manufactured capital in the developing world.

In principle, biosphere inputs to the technosphere can be derived in a sustainable manner.  A landscape of tree plantations can be continuously harvested and replanted to produce a sustained yield of wood.  Plantation forests supplied about one third of industrial roundwood in 2000.  Likewise, there is such a thing as a sustainable marine fishery if the harvest is properly managed. 

However, much of the current material transfer from biosphere to technosphere is drawing down biosphere capital.  Differentiating between sustainable and depleting production of food and fiber, and increasing attention to sourcing, will play an important role in the transition to a soci-economic metabolism that is sustainable.  Accounting practices that treat all forms of capital – including natural capital and technosphere capital in its various forms (manufactured, financial, human, social) – is necessary.

The view of ecosystem services as a co-production of technosphere capital and natural capital offers a way forward.  Essentially, all ecosystem services must now be managed as socio-ecological systems, i.e. as a coupling of a human subsystem, having full stakeholder participation, and a regenerating biophysical subsystem.

Since different natural resources must be managed at different scales, a hierarchy of socio-ecological systems is needed.  This arrangement points to the importance of zonation on the Earth surface in terms of the strength of the coupling between technosphere and biosphere.  We can have large areas of relatively undisturbed intact ecosystems (e.g. marine reserves and terrestrial wilderness areas), significant areas of heavy technosphere dominance (as in urban and industrial zones), significant areas of intensive food and fiber production (e.g. forest plantations), and a scattering of areas with a moderate intensity of biosphere/technosphere interaction.  This view supports the development of spatially-explicit simulation models – implemented at a range of spatial scales – that can be used within a socio-ecological system to organize the co-production of ecosystem services. Potentially, with a well-designed combination of monitoring, modeling, and environmental governance, the technosphere will drive increases rather than decreases in biosphere capital (e.g. the recovery of whale populations).

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.