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.
That we expect planets inhabited by intelligent creatures to be plentiful, but have not encountered any, is referred to as the Fermi Paradox. The explanation may lie simply in the vast distances involved relative to the speed of light and how long we have been looking. However, this silence also raises a question about possible factors that could constrain the development of exoplanetary, advanced-technology, civilizations.
Astrobiologists have designated the constellation of factors that could prevent the evolution of a civilization capable of interstellar communication as “The Great Filter”. The supposition here is that there are many crucial steps along the way, and only rarely would they all fall into place. Some of the crucial roadblocks are the origin of life in the first place, the biological evolution of complex multicellular organisms, and the cultural evolution of technologically advanced societies.
To help us think about patterns in planetary evolution, astrobiologists refer to the possibility of technospheres as well as biospheres. A biosphere comes into existence on a planet when the summed biogeochemical effects of all living organisms begins to significantly affect the global environment (e.g. the oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere around 2.5 billion years ago). A technosphere comes into existence when the summed biogeochemical effects of all the material artifacts generated by a highly evolved (probably self-aware) biological species begins to affect the global environment (e.g. the recent boost in the CO2 concentration of Earth’s atmosphere). Like a biosphere, a technosphere maintains a throughput of energy (such as fossil fuel) to power its metabolism, and a throughput of materials (e.g. minerals and wood) to maintain and grow its mass.
Earth’s biosphere has existed for billions of years and operates in a way that its influence on the global environment tends to keep the planet habitable (the Gaia Hypothesis). Reconciling this mode of operation with Darwinian evolution is controversial, but Earth system scientists have proposed that components of the biosphere (i.e. guilds of organisms that perform particular biogeochemical cycling functions) have been gradually configured and reconfigured (by chance in combination with persistence of favorable states) into a planetary biogeochemical cycling system with sufficient negative feedback processes to maintain the habitability of the planet.
In contrast to the biosphere, Earth’s technosphere exploded into existence quite recently and has grown wildly since its inception. Few negative feedbacks to its growth have yet evolved. Possible causes for truncated efforts towards a long-lived technosphere include factors such as apocalyptic warfare (a nuclear winter), pandemics, AI related take downs, and environmental degradation. Any of these could qualify as the Great Filter.
The key impact of overexuberant technosphere growth on Earth is rapid global climate change induced by greenhouse gas emissions. A continued high level of these emissions could trigger a cascade of positive feedback mechanisms within the climate system that drive the global environment to a state fatal to the technosphere itself. That process may turn out to be the distinctive manifestation of the Great Filter on Earth.
The transition to a mature (sustainable) technosphere on Earth will require 1) recognizing the danger of rapid environmental change, 2) understanding what must be done to redesign the technosphere, and 3) organizing collectively (globally) to carry out a program of change.
Earth system scientists have gotten quite good at simulating the causes and consequences of global climate change. Thus, the scientific community recognizes the danger of uncontrolled technosphere growth and understands what must be done to avoid a climate change catastrophe.
But deliberately pushing our current technosphere through the sustainability phase of the Great Filter will require the difficult political work (within and between nations) of changing values and better organizing ourselves at the global scale.
If humanity does ever encounter extra-terrestrial intelligence, I imagine that it will stimulate global solidarity in an “us vs. them” context, and perhaps strengthen our willingness to work together on issues of global sustainability and defense.
As long as we do not encounter extra-terrestrial intelligence, we must face the enormous moral responsibility to conserve and cultivate our biosphere and technosphere as possibly unique, hence supremely valuable, cosmic experiments.
An analogous statement regarding the energy requirements associated with the coming proliferation of conversational virtual beings (based on Artificial Intelligence) is that the technosphere is going to need a bigger power supply.
The process by which these advanced digital creatures learn to speak is based on development of neural networks that are trained with a large body of textural information (like Wikipedia, books, and an array of content available on the Internet). Training means determining statistical relationships between the occurrence of different words in the training text, which the algorithm then uses to formulate a response based on keyword inputs (queries).
If these virtual beings were only going to be used by a minority of people (such as now visit Meta’s colony in the metaverse), the power draw would be minor. But, very likely, their seductive appeal will be so great (albeit with an occasional hint of menace) that they will become a standard feature of ordinary life. Just in the field of education, there is vast potential for inspiring and informing students using dialogic Chatbots.
However, at least for electricity, that seems unlikely given the burgeoning energy demand in the developed world noted here, and the aspiration to raise standards of living in the developing world.
Since 66% of global electricity production is still based on combustion on fossil fuels, any increase in electricity consumption will tend to result in more greenhouse gas emissions and more societal problems with climate change. The obvious conclusion in that new energy demand must be met by nonfossil fuel sources like hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear fission. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Meta that are building the metaverse will experience huge increases in energy consumption in the near future; they should be held to their commitments to run on carbon neutral power sources.
New energy technologies that could contribute to a clean global power supply in the coming decades include geologic hydrogen and solar energy from space. These sources, however, will require long-term investments in research and development.
The global renewable energy revolution is off to a good start and has a bright future, but it will require steady political pressure to 1) stop building new fossil fuel burning facilities, 2) replace aging fossil-fuel-based infrastructure with renewable sources, and 3) build new renewable energy sources that can accommodate the increasing demand that is surely coming.
Pope Francis issued an encyclical (Laudato Si) in 2015 about “care for our common home”. The document discussed a wide range of global environmental change topics, notably climate change and loss of biodiversity. It aimed to provide a moral rationale for simultaneously addressing the issues of global environmental change and human inequity. The encyclical runs to nearly 200 pages and is not a light read. Perhaps to make its message more accessible, the Vatican recently produced and released (October 12, 2022) a related video (The Letter: Laudato Si Film), clocking in at 81 minutes.
The encyclical was released just prior to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP21 meeting that was held in Paris. The product of that meeting was The Paris Agreement, which is widely perceived as a significant step towards mitigating global climate change. Considering that there are 1.3 billion Catholics who ostensibly consider the pope infallible, the encyclical may well have strengthened global political will to seriously address the climate change issue.
The film is a very different vehicle from the encyclical, leaving behind the encyclical’s more controversial aspects (discussed below) and presenting an engaging narrative about global change with good visuals and music. The premise of the film is that the Pope invites a set of 5 people from widely different backgrounds to Rome for a “dialogue” about the encyclical.
1. A poor black man from Senegal who is considering an attempt to migrate to the EU because of the deteriorating environment in his home country. He represents the billion or so people expected to be displaced by climate change this century.
2. An indigenous man from Brazil whose forest homeland in the Amazon Basin is under siege. He represents forest dwellers throughout the tropical zone who are losing their homes to rampant deforestation.
3. A young woman from India. She represents the voice of a younger generation who will be forced to deal with the massive environmental change problems caused by their elders (intergenerational inequity).
4. A man and a woman from the U.S. who are scientists working on monitoring and understanding coral reef decline. They represent the community of research scientists trying to understand climate change impacts and what to do about them.
Each participant is shown in their home environment receiving a letter of invitation from the Pope. The film then documents their experiences in Rome, including discussions amongst themselves and with the pope.
The film was engaging and had a positive message about the need for solidarity across all humanity in the face of threats from climate change and loss of biodiversity.
However, I did have some concerns.
First was that the film seemed to be more about the victims of global environmental change (both human and nonhuman) than about the solutions. The participants were certainly sincere, and helped put a human face on the challenges ahead; but little was said about the personal changes and the political realities involved in transitioning to global sustainability.
Second was the emphasis on climate change as the sole driving force in the current surge of migration. Climate change is indeed driving international migration but a host of other factors are of equal or greater importance, including civil war, overuse of local natural resources, and gross defects in local governance. If indeed a billion people will potentially be displaced by climate change in this century, they can’t all migrate. Alternatives to migration include foreign aid for adaptation, and aid to improve local educational opportunities that would help train citizens for local economic activity and help limit population growth (the fertility rate in Senegal is 4.3 births per woman).
Third was that the film may point viewers towards reading the actual encyclical, which has inspired much more commentary ̶ both positive and negative ̶ than the film.
The proclamations of the pope usually do not draw much attention from the scientific community, but in the case of the Laudato Si encyclical, the science of global environmental change is front and center.
As I started reading the encyclical, I was surprised because the tone sounded as if it were written by an environmental science policy analyst rather than a religious leader (apparently there was a ghost writer). The scientific causes of climate change and biodiversity loss were reasonably explained, and it was refreshing to see the “dominion” over the Earth given to humanity by God presented more in terms of responsibility to conserve environmental quality than as a license to exploit limitless natural resources. The intrinsic value of all species, independent of their utility to humans, was recognized. When the text veered into explaining the Christian belief system (e.g. the Holy Trinity), it lost cogency from an Earth system science perspective.
The encyclical was well received by scientific authorities in some cases, perhaps because the Pope broadened the usual rationales for caring about climate change and biodiversity loss to include the moral dimension. Wealth-based inequity (relatively wealthy people have caused most of the greenhouse gas emissions but it is relatively poor people who will suffer the greatest impacts) and intergenerational inequity (recent generations have caused most of the greenhouse gas emissions but future generations will suffer the greatest impacts of climate change) are clearly moral issues.
Critiques of the encyclical have referred to its limited regard for the full suite of dimensions (technical, political, and economic) needed to address global environmental change. The encyclical comes across as hostile to the “technocratic paradigm”, suggesting some technofixes will induce more problems than they solve. There is much emphasis on reducing excess consumption. Realistically though, there must be a revolutionary change in technology towards renewable energy and complete product recycling. Likewise, beyond calling for a stronger climate change treaty (as the Pope did), we must have stronger institutions of global environmental governance, and new economic policies that prioritize sustainability.
The section of the encyclical about population control was especially provocative. The pope took issue with calls for limiting population growth for the sake of the environment, a position consistent with formal Catholic doctrine against contraception. This view rings false, however, because of the contradiction between saying that Earth’s natural resources are limited (as stated several times in the encyclical) and that all humans deserve a decent quality of life (which inevitably consumes natural resources), while at the same time maintaining that high rates of population growth in developing countries are not an issue. In contrast, the recent World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2022 called for “stabilizing and gradually reducing the human population by providing education and rights for girls and women”. Ehrlich and Harte also point out that unchecked population pressure on food supply and natural resources pushes development into ever more vulnerable ecosystems, and fosters ever more inegalitarian forms of government.
Pope Francis deserves credit for bringing attention to the moral questions raised by anthropogenically-driven global environmental change. Our contemporary materialistic and instrumental value system has proven to be unsustainable and should indeed be influenced by values based on respect for the natural environment, as well as values derived from human solidarity. The Laudato Si encyclical and film (along with associated praise and critique) are contributing in a positive way to the ongoing process of cultural evolution, which has now begun to operate at the global scale.
Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud are credited with delivering major blows to humanity’s self-image. They didn’t do it on their own of course, but their ideas were notably illuminating. Here, I revisit their insights and discuss two additional blows of that type rendered in more recent years. Awareness of the human limitations implied by these blows may help save us from our present environmental predicament.
Copernicus (1473 -1543) established that – contrary to Church dogma – Earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun. Humans could no longer maintain that we are living at the center of the universe. The scientific discipline of astronomy has gone on to reveal how remarkably tiny this planet really is in the context of an immense universe. Knowing that we live on a small planet points to biophysical limits on our current demands for natural resources.
Darwin (1809 – 1882) elucidated the theory of biological evolution, and the corresponding fact that Homo sapiens originated the same way every other animal species on this planet did – through natural processes. We were no longer a special creation of an omnipotent, benevolent god who dictates our aspirations and values. Ironically, though, humanity is coming to have a kind of dominion over the Earth even without the hand of god.
Freud (1856 – 1939) suggested that unconscious processes within our brains have a substantial influence on our thoughts and emotions. He turned out to be wrong in many respects, but his primary insight had merit. We are not even in full control of our own minds. Contemporary cognitive science aims to understand (1) the function (adaptive significance) of specific mental processes, (2) the representations and algorithms by which those processes are implemented, and (3) the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Insights along those lines may help modify our destructive impulses.
The two recent blows to our self-image come from a biologist and an atmospheric chemist.
The fifth blow is truly aimed at the whole of humanity. Around 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (1933 – 2021) helped consolidate a wide array of observations by Earth System Scientists concerning the baleful influences of humanity on the biosphere and the global environment. He suggested that we have entered a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene.
In the scientific Anthropocene narrative, humanity has become the equivalent of a geologic force; we are now capable of significantly altering the global biogeochemical cycles. This shocking realization and consequent shift in worldview have been characterized as the “second Copernican revolution”.
Unfortunately, we are altering the global environment in a way that may ultimately be self-destructive (e.g. by inducing rapid global climate change). Our self-image must therefore include the conclusion that we are an existential threat to ourselves.
Recognition of the Anthropocene epoch places a new responsibility on each of us as individuals, and a new responsibility on our species as a whole, to begin managing ourselves – and to some degree begin managing the Earth system – in support of global sustainability.
Given the vast amount of order in the universe, can humans reasonably hope to add a new increment of order in the form of a sustainable, high-technology, global civilization?
On the plus side, the universe is said to be order-friendly. Complexity is a rough measure of order, and we can observe that from its Big Bang origin to the present, the universe displays a gradual build-up of complexity. Systems theorist Stuart Kaufmann says that we are “at home in the universe” and he emphasized the widespread occurrence of self-organization (Figure 1). From atoms to molecules, to living cells, to multicellular organisms, to societies, to nation states – why not onward to a sustainable planetary civilization?
Figure 1. The Belousov-Zhabotinsky Reaction. This mixture of chemicals generates geometric forms (order) that oscillate until chemical equilibrium is reached.
Whether the universe is order-friendly or not is of course not strictly a scientific question, but scientists do aspire to explain the origins and elaboration of order. Broadly speaking, they refer to the process of cosmic evolution with its components of physical evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution. Cosmic evolution is a unifying scientific narrative now studied by the discipline of Big History; it covers the temporal sequence from Big Bang to the present, emphasizing the role of energy transformations in the buildup of complexity.
Physical evolution of the universe consists of the emergence of a series of physical/chemical processes powered by gravity. Formation of the higher atomic weight elements by way of fusion reactions in successive generations of stars is a particularly important aspect of physical evolution because it sets the stage for the inorganic and organic chemistry necessary for a new form of order – life.
Biological evolution on Earth began with single-celled organisms, and by way of genetic variation and natural selection, led to the vast array of microbes and multi-cellular organisms now extant. Each creature is understood as a “dissipative structure”, which must consume energy of some kind to maintain itself and reproduce. Biological evolution produced increments of order – such as multicellularity – because each step allows for new capabilities and specializations that help the associated organisms prevail in competition for resources.
Scientists are just beginning to understand how biological evolution favors cooperation among different types of organisms at higher levels of organization. Ecosystems, which are characterized by energy flows and nutrient cycling, depend on feedback relationships among different types of organism (e.g. producers, consumers, decomposers). The biosphere (i.e. the sum of all organisms) is itself a dissipative structure fueled by solar energy. Biosphere metabolism participates in the regulation of Earth’s climate (e.g. by its influence of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), thus making the planet as a whole an elaborate system, now studied by the discipline of Earth System Science.
Cultural evolution introduces the possibility of order in the form of human societies and their associated artifacts. It depends on the capacity for language and social learning, and helps account for the tremendous success of Homo sapiens on this planet. As with variation and selection of genes in biological evolution, there must be variation and selection of memes in the course of cultural evolution. In the process of cultural evolution, we share information, participate in the creation of new information, and establish the reservoirs of information maintained by our societies.
The inventiveness of the human species has recently produced a new component of the Earth system – the technosphere. This summation of all human artifacts and associated processes rises to the level of a sphere in the Earth system because it has become the equivalent of a geologic force, e.g. powerful enough to drive global climate change.
Unfortunately, the technosphere is rather unconstrained, and in a sense its growth is consuming the biosphere upon which it depends (e.g. tropical rain forest destruction). Technosphere order (or capital) is increasing at the expense of biosphere order. The solution requires better integration within the technosphere, and between the technosphere and the other components of the Earth system – essentially a more ordered Earth system.
How might the technosphere mature into something more sustainable? One model for the addition of order to a system is termed a metasystem transition. I have discussed this concept elsewhere, but briefly, it refers to the aggregation of what were autonomous systems into a greater whole, e.g. the evolution of single-celled organisms into multicellular organisms, or the historical joining of multiple nations to form the European Union.
In the case of a global civilization, the needed metasystem transition would constitute cooperation among nation states and civil society organizations to reform or build new institutions of global governance, specifically in the areas of environment, trade, and geopolitics. Historically, the drivers of ever larger human associations have included 1) the advantages of large alliances in war, and 2) a sense of community associated with sharing a religious belief system. But perhaps in the future we might look towards planetary citizenship. Clear benefits to global cooperation would accrue in the form of a capacity to manage global scale threats like climate change.
Living in an order-friendly universe allows us to imagine the possibility of global sustainability. However, the next increment of order-building on this planet will require humans and humanity to take on a new level of responsibility.
Biological evolution gave us the capacity for consciousness and now we must use guided cultural evolution to devise and implement a pathway to global sustainability. Besides self-preservation, the motivation to do so has a moral dimension in terms of 1) minimizing the suffering of relatively poor people who have had little to do with causing global environmental change but are disproportionately vulnerable to it, 2) insuring future generations do not suffer catastrophically because of a deteriorating global environment caused by previous generations, and 3) an aesthetic appreciation or love (biophilia) for the beauty of nature and natural processes.
Our brains, with their capacity for abstract thought, are the product of biological evolution. They were “designed” to help a bipedal species of hunter-gatherers survive in a demanding biophysical and social environment. Hence, they don’t necessarily equip us to understand how and why the universe is order-friendly. But we can see the pattern of increasing complexity in the history of the universe, and aspire to move it forward one more step – to the level of a planetary civilization.
The technosphere is a component of the contemporary Earth system. Like the biosphere ̶ also an Earth system component ̶ the technosphere has a mass, requires a steady input of materials, and utilizes a throughput of energy.
Technosphere mass is composed of all human-made objects, including the mass of buildings, transportation networks, and communication infrastructure. That mass has built up over centuries, and is still accumulating at the rate of 3-5% per year.
The material inputs to the technosphere (besides fossil fuels) include food, water, wood, and minerals. These inputs are derived from the geosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere ̶ often with destructive consequences. Upward trends in consumption of these inputs are associated with an upward trend in global Gross Domestic Product of about 3% per year.
The energy that drives technosphere metabolism comes mostly from fossil fuels (80%). Global fossil fuel consumption was increasing at a rate of about 5% per year (2009 – 2019) until the recent dip associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earth system scientists have estimated both current technosphere mass (in use) and the current biosphere mass (i.e. including all microbes and multicellular organisms). Coincidentally, those numbers are of approximately the same magnitude (about 1018 g). However, technosphere mass is increasing substantially each year, while the multi-century trend in biosphere mass and diversity is towards a diminished and depauperate state. The technosphere is essentially now growing at the expense of the biosphere.
There are a few cases at the national scale where peak technosphere mass has been reached, albeit not specifically by design. In Japan, the number of automobiles is close to its peak and the length of pipelines and high-speed rail are not increasing. Ninety-two percent of the population is urban. Total energy use is declining. These trends can be traced to a high level of development and a declining population.
A low birth rate and a low level of immigration account for the decreasing population. As a case study, Japan points to the role of population size in stabilization of technosphere mass. Per capita technosphere mass is relatively high, but is not rising because the country is already highly developed. Hence, technosphere mass at the national scale has likely peaked. By 2050, population is projected to decline about 25% from its peak, which may allow for a decrease in national technosphere mass.
China is an interesting case at the other extreme of technosphere mass dynamics, with vast on-going growth of its technosphere mass. Despite a low birth rate, China’s population is still growing (slowly). More importantly, per capita wealth is increasing. Consequently, the number of people owning modern housing and an automobile is rising rapidly. The government is also making huge investments in infrastructure – notably in power plants and high-speed rail.
Humans do sometimes place limits on technosphere mass expansion ̶ as in the urban growth boundaries around cites in the state of Oregon (USA), and in areas of land and ocean that are in a protected status (e.g. wilderness areas in the U.S.). Idealized prescriptions for future land use include 30 X 30 and 50 X 50. These values refer to 30 percent of Earth’s surface dedicated to biosphere conservation by 2030, and 50% by 2050. Seventeen percent of land and ten percent of ocean are in a protected status at present.
These conservation goals are consistent with the strong global trend towards urbanization. Over half of humanity now lives in an urban setting, a proportion that is projected to rise to 66% by 2050. The key benefits of urbanization with respect to technosphere mass are that 1) it potentially frees up rural land for inclusion in biosphere protection zones, 2) the per capita technosphere mass of urban dwellers is less than that of equally wealthy rural dwellers (e.g. living in multiple unit buildings as opposed to living in dispersed separate building, and using public transportation rather than everyone owning an automobile), and 3) birth rates decline as people urbanize, which speeds the global demographic transition.
Peak technosphere mass will occur sometime after peak global population. That assumes global per capita technosphere mass will also peak eventually, which brings up the fraught issue of wealth inequality. Individual wealth is equivalent in some ways to individual technosphere mass (e.g. owning a yacht vs. owing a row boat). Given that there are biophysical limits to human demands on the Earth system, the nearly 8 billion people on the planet cannot all live like billionaires. From a humanist perspective, a wealth distribution that brings standards of living for everyone up to a modest level is desirable. That worthy principle is the guiding light for significant philanthropic efforts and should figure into policies related to taxation of income and wealth. Whether to explicitly attempt to reduce the ecological footprint of the wealthy is a related, and highly contested, question.
Humans already appropriate around 25% of terrestrial net primary production, and divert 54% of available fresh water flows. Mining geosphere minerals for input to the technosphere covers approximately 57,000 km2 globally.
The concept of the Great Acceleration captures the problem of exponentially rising technosphere demands on the Earth system. It refers to the period since 1950 during which many metrics of human impact on the global environment have risen sharply (Figure 1). Obviously, those trends cannot continue. Humanity must bend those usage curves and redesign the technosphere to maintain itself sustainably.
Figure 1. The Great Acceleration refers to the period after 1950 when impacts of the technosphere on the global environment grew rapidly. Image Credit: Adapted from Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Some metrics, like wild fish consumption, have already peaked but that is because the resource itself has been degraded. Future increases in fish consumption will have to come from cultured sources.
Many rivers around the world are already fully utilized (and then some), e.g. the Colorado River Basin in Southwestern United States. Policies like tearing out lawns in Las Vegas to save water portend the future.
Global wood consumption increases several percent per year and is projected to continue doing so for decades. Much of current industrial roundwood production is from natural forests, sometimes in association with deforestation. Forest sector models suggest that high yield plantations in the tropical zone could supply most of the projected global demand for industrial wood, thus reducing pressure on natural forests.
Resource use efficiency can be increased by extending product lifetimes (e.g. automobiles), boosting rates of recycling (e.g. paper), and improvement in design (e.g. more efficient solar panels). Again, these changes must be made along with the stabilization of population if we are to end continuing growth of technosphere demand for natural resources.
In 2021, fossil fuel emissions roared back to about the level of 2019. Emissions in 2022 will likely be impacted significantly by the war in Ukraine, possibly reducing global emissions since moves to avoid purchasing Russian gas, oil, and coal are driving up prices for fossil fuels. Certainly, there is increased political support in the EU and elsewhere for rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Technological constraints will slow the pace of that conversion, and emissions will continue to increase in many countries outside the EU (especially China and India). Thus, the actual peak year for global fossil fuel emissions is uncertain.
The faster that fossil fuel-based energy is replaced by renewable energy sources, the better chance of avoiding a climate change catastrophe. Multiple policy rationales, beside reducing carbon dioxide emissions, support the goal of a global renewable energy revolution.
Note that total energy consumption need not decline within the context of global sustainability if the energy sources are renewable. Projected peak global energy use – with accounting for increasing efficiency, population growth, and the curing cases of energy poverty – is on the order of current global energy use.
The sprawling mass of the technosphere, its demands on natural resources, and its flood of chemicals and solid waste into the global environment, have begun to diminish the biosphere and threaten human welfare on a massive scale. Humanity must begin to work as a collective to redesign technosphere metabolism such that it conforms to the biophysical limits of the Earth system.
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.
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:
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.
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).
The threat of anthropogenically-induced global environmental change imposes a challenge on humanity to reconceptualize its relationship to the other components of the Earth system. Historically, Nature was the background for the human enterprise. It provided unlimited sources of ecosystem services, such as ocean fish, clean air, and clean water. However, as the human enterprise expanded – especially after the “Great Acceleration” of technological development beginning about 1945 – real limits have become obvious.
Because the sum of human impacts on the environment is now global, humanity as a collective must act to self-regulate. Unfortunately, humanity is not at present a collective, and we are only beginning to construct a worldview that is consistent with living within the biophysical limits of the planet. This post examines three concepts that may help move us towards those goals.
The term technosphere has been used for decades in the field of Science and Technology Studies and is loosely construed as the sum of all technological artifacts on Earth. Often it is credited with having a degree of autonomy in the sense of its growth having a direction and momentum outside of human control. The current difficulty in reducing fossil fuel related emissions of greenhouse gases is indicative of that autonomy.
the set of large-scale networked technologies that underlie and make possible rapid extraction from the Earth of large quantities of free energy and subsequent power generation, long distance, nearly instantaneous communication, rapid long-distance energy and mass transport, the existence and operation of modern governmental and other bureaucracies, high-intensity industrial and manufacturing operations including regional, continental and global distribution of food and other goods, and a myriad additional ‘artificial’ or ‘non-natural’ processes without which modern civilization and its present 7 × 109 human constituents could not exist.
Earth system scientists now make quantitative estimates of the properties of the technosphere such as total mass and annual energy throughput. The juxtaposition of technosphere metrics like global fertilizer use, with biosphere metrics like global nitrogen fixation, reveals the growing dominance of the technosphere in the global biogeochemical cycles and points to the limits to technosphere growth.
The technosphere is in some ways analogous to the biosphere. Both are globe girdling aggregations of quasi-independent subsystems. In energetic terms, both the biosphere and the technosphere are dissipative structures, meaning they capture and use energy to maintain order. The biosphere changes by way of biological evolution; the technosphere changes by way of cultural evolution.
Humans and their institutions are parts of the technosphere, and human thinking is required to organize the technosphere. But the question about technosphere autonomy, and its possible danger to humanity, remains. Notably, the capitalist economic system that underlies the technosphere thrives on growth. Relentless technosphere growth is in effect consuming Earth system capital, such as biodiversity and fossil fuel, that has accumulated over millions of years. Astrobiologists, who ponder evolution of intelligent life on other planets, suggest that an environmentally self-destructive technosphere may significantly limit (filter) how often sustainable high technology planetary civilizations arise in the universe.
A critical problem with Earth’s current technosphere is that due to its rapid and recent evolution, it does not have the kind of feedback loops (as found in the biosphere) needed for self-regulation. Humans are programmed (biologically) to exploit all available resources, but we haven’t evolved culturally to understand limits. Haff emphasizes that the lack of recycling within the technosphere (with the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion as an iconic example). Life cycle analyses of all manufactured products, and better monitoring of input/recycling/output budgets (e.g., for aluminum) at the global scale is required for a sustainable technosphere.
Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863 – 1945) was one of the first scientists to explicitly study Earth as a whole. He understood that the biosphere (the sum of all living matter) added an unusual feature to the planet. The biosphere uses the energy in solar radiation to maintain a new form of order (life) on the surface of the planet. That layer of living matter is a major driver of the global biogeochemical cycling of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Vernadsky emphasized that the biosphere was a new kind of thing in the universe, i.e. a step forward in cosmic evolution.
He also recognized that humanity, as a result of the industrial revolution, had become of geological significance. Like the biosphere, humanity and its technology are a product of cosmic evolution – in this case relying upon an organism-based nervous system capable of consciousness and symbolic thinking. By extension from the existing concepts of lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere, Vernadsky adopted the term noosphere for this new layer of thinking matter that could alter the global biogeochemical cycles.
The noosphere as conceived by Vernadsky was just getting powered up in his lifetime. He defined it more as a potential transformation of the biosphere – “a reconstruction of the biosphere in the interests of freely thinking humanity as a single entity”.
Vernadsky’s noosphere concept lay mostly dormant for much of the 20th century (although see Sampson and Pitt 1999). Around the turn of the century, Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen evoked Vernadsky’s idea of transforming the biosphere into a noosphere. But in this 21st century usage, the issue of dangerous human meddling with the Earth system had risen to prominence and the inevitability of a stabilized noosphere was less certain. Similarly, Turner proposed that an updated meaning for noosphere would refer to a planetary system as a whole in which an intelligent life form had developed advanced technology but had learned to self-regulate so as to not degrade the planetary life support system.
In a slightly different take, noosphere is proposed as a paradigm for an era to follow the Great Acceleration. In this case, the noosphere is still imagined as emerging from the biosphere, but here in response to the threats of anthropogenic global environmental change. The maturation of the noosphere would mean the arrival of a global society that collaboratively self-regulates its impact on the Earth system.
Limitations of the Noosphere Concept
As noted, Vernadsky was writing before the scientific discovery that humanity was altering the atmosphere, e.g., by increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases. Thus, he did not foresee humanity’s possible self-destructive tendencies. His noosphere concept was more about Promethean management of the Earth system than about humanity learning how to self-regulate, which is what we need now.
In most versions of the noosphere concept, the biosphere is “transformed” into a noosphere, hence in its fruition it would physically include the biosphere. However, the biosphere (much of it microbial) will always be capable of functioning independent of human attempts to manage the Earth system. The biosphere could be said to have agency relative to human impacts, which might be a more realistic basis on which to attempt to manage it.
Vernadsky’s noosphere was purely physical, but other users of the term have interpreted it more metaphysically, especially Teilhard de Chardin who referred to a purely spiritual endpoint of noosphere evolution. This spirituality and teleology have made the noosphere concept aversive to many scientists (see Medawar in Sampson and Pitt 1999).
The Global Brain
About the same time (1920s) that the noosphere meme was fostered by Vernadsky, Teilhard de Chardin, and Le Roy, the concept (or metaphor) of the global brain also emerged. Novelist and futurist H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) proposed that all knowledge be catalogued in a single place and be made available to anyone on the planet. His hope was that this common knowledge base might lead to peace and rapid human progress. Given that World War II was soon to erupt at the time of his “World Brain” proposal, Wells was clearly ahead of his time.
Like the noosphere concept, the World Brain concept was not much referred to in the decades following its origin in Well’s imagination. However, the late 20th century Information Technology revolution has reinvigorated discussion about it. With rapid build out of the global telecommunications infrastructure, the global brain has begun to be envisioned as something wired together by the Internet.
Systems theorist Francis Heylighen and his collaborators at the Global Brain Institute have devoted considerable attention to building the analogy between the human brain and a proposed global brain, especially in relation to the process of thinking.
Heylighen sees the global brain as a necessary part of an emerging social superorganism – a densely networked global society. His global society will coalesce because information technology now offers a growing proportion of the global population access to a wealth of information and an efficient way to organize production and consumption of goods and services. Rather than totalitarianism, the high level of connectivity in Heylighen’s model of the social superorganism stimulates individuals to develop themselves (while still acknowledging membership in a global collective). This model leads to more distributed, less hierarchical, power centers.
Collaborative development of the Community Earth System Model is an example of collective thinking on a limited scale. Specialist scientists work to improve the many subsystems of the model, and periodically the computer code is updated based on a consensus decision.
One other intriguing analogy relates to a characteristic feature of the human brain in which it makes frequent (conscious or unconscious) predictions. If they are not fulfilled, a motivation to act may be instigated. With Earth system model scenarios now produced in the context of climate change assessment, the global brain might also be said to be constructing scenarios/predictions for itself. Comparisons of scenarios, or detection of discrepancies between favorable scenarios and how reality is playing out, could inspire corrective action by the global collective.
Limitations of the Global Brain Concept
The analogy of global brain to individual brain is certainly a stimulant to conceptualizing new global scale structures and processes. However, since we barely understand our own consciousness and decision-making processes, it is an analogy that still needs a lot of work, especially with respect to the executive function. In the near-term, humanity needs research and models on how to integrate governance among 8-10 billion people (i.e. what form of institutions?) and how to convince billions of planetary citizens to cooperate in the effort that humanity must make to self-regulate. The global brain concept does not facilitate the coupling of the human enterprise to the rest of the Earth system.
The technosphere, noosphere, and global brain concepts share a common concern with understanding the relationship of the burgeoning human enterprise, including its technology, to the entirety of the Earth system. Anthropogenic global environmental change poses an existential threat to humanity and there is a clear need for a Great Transition involving massive changes in values as well as technology. These three concepts serve as beacons pointing towards global sustainability.
The utility of the technosphere concept is that it refers to measurable entities, and formally meshes with the existing Earth system science paradigm. Given that humans are only part of the technosphere, and a part does not control the whole, awareness of the technosphere argues against hubris. However, the technosphere concept doesn’t engage the host of psychological and sociological issues that must be addressed to rapidly alter the Earth system trajectory. It helps reveal the danger humanity faces but doesn’t foster a worldview that will ameliorate the danger.
The utility of the global brain concept is that it confirms we have the technical means to actualize global collective intelligence, which will be required to deal with the overwhelming complexity of the Earth system. A weakness is a limited model of global governance and a lack of attention to the rapid erosion of the human life support system (the biosphere) that must function well for the emerging global brain to flourish. The capacity of individuals to know themselves, i.e. to reflect on their own behavior and its consequences, can potentially be scaled up to the global human collective. This process will depend on the communication possibilities opened up by the Internet.
The technosphere, noosphere, and global brain concepts will contribute to synthesizing a new model of the planetary future that includes a functioning global society and a technological support system that maintains a sustainable relationship to the rest of the Earth system.
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.