More Blows to Humanity’s Self-image

heliocentric universe
Cellarius’s chart (1661) illustrating a heliocentric model of the universe, as proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus.  Image Credit.

David P. Turner / October 2, 2022

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.

In the 1970s, Harvard professor E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021) fostered the development of the new discipline of sociobiology – the study of animal social behavior.  He applied its concepts to Homo sapiens, as well as to ants (his favorite object of study).  What he asserted (albeit in the face of raging controversy) is that humans have significant genetic influences on our thinking and behavior.  Our capacity for altruism (self-sacrifice) and jealousy are notable example of traits which evolution has likely shaped.  As with the first three blows, this realization forces us to question our spontaneous motivations and actions (e.g. our acquisitiveness).

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.

The prescription for better integration of the human enterprise (the technosphere) with the Earth system requires that humanity become aware of itself as a social entity, having agency at the global scale, before it can learn to self-regulate and reintegrate with the Earth system.  Awareness of the five blows covered here introduces an element of humility to this project of understanding ourselves as a planetary phenomenon.

Products of an Order-friendly Universe

David P. Turner  /  August 4, 2022

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?

chemical dissapative structure

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 organizationEcosystems, 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. 

Conclusion

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.

Peak Technosphere Mass and Global Sustainability

David P. Turner / June 21, 2022

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.

The growing impact of the technosphere on the Earth system has been widely documented by the scientific community (IPCC, IPBES) and scenarios for a sustainable high technology global civilization require that technosphere mass, inputs, and use of fossil fuels peak as soon as possible.  If the peaks are left to occur spontaneously, the outcome may well be a collapse of civilization driven by the stress of global environmental change, rather than a soft landing at a state of global sustainability.

Peak Technosphere Mass

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.

An estimate of technosphere mass that includes landfills, and other cases of human-made objects not in use, is much larger that the 1018g estimate of technosphere mass in use.  Indeed, geoscientists looking for a depositional signal for the Anthropocene are considering discarded plastic as a marker.  It will take a concerted effort to decrease material flows into landfills before we will see a peak in unused technosphere mass.

Peak Technosphere Input of Material Resources

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.

Peak Technosphere Consumption of Fossil Fuels

An abrupt decline in carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2020 was induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, hinting at the possibility that 2019 was inadvertently the year of peak fossil fuel emissions

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.

Conclusion

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.

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).

Differentiating the Concepts of Technosphere, Noosphere, and Global Brain

Computer generated image of world-wide internet connections.  Image credit: The OPTE Project

David P. Turner / November 14, 2021

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 Technosphere

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.

In the last decade, the technosphere concept has been more formally defined as:

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. 

Limitations of the Technosphere Concept

The technosphere concept hints that its structure and function can be shaped by humanity, but there is little sense of economic, political, and legal obstacles to global sustainability.  The concept does not capture the reflexive capacity characteristic of human individuals and organizations.

The Noosphere

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.

How the global brain will think is not well characterized at present.  Cultural evolution has always been a form of collective intelligence and the binding power of the Internet now provides a forum for a global collective to exchange ideas (memes).  Changes in the frequency distribution of search term or web page usage would be one means of monitoring global thinking. 

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.

Conclusions

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 chief utility of the noosphere concept is its cosmic perspective and aspirational quality.  A weakness is ambiguity about what the noosphere includes and how it operates.

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. 

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.

Planetary Citizenship

David P. Turner / March 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rights and Responsibilities

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

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

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

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

Collective Intelligence

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

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

Global Citizenship

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

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

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

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

Pedagogy

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

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

Two disciplines are particularly relevant. 

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

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

Conclusion

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

The Technosphere is Melting the Cryosphere

Iceberg in Lilliehöökfjord, Svalbard.  Image credit: Hannes Grobe, CC BY-SA 4.0

David P. Turner / February 1, 2021

Earth system scientists think of planet Earth as composed of multiple interacting spheres.  The cryosphere is a term given to the totality of frozen water on Earth – including snow, ice, glaciers, polar ice caps, sea ice, and permafrost.

The cryosphere has a significant effect on the global climate because snow and ice largely reflect solar radiation, hence cooling the planet.

Unfortunately, the cryosphere is melting.  That loss of snow and ice is providing a significant positive (amplifying) feedback to anthropogenically induced global warming.

Over the course of Earth’s geological history, the cryosphere has existed as everything from nearly 100% coverage of the planetary surface around 700 Mya (million years ago) i.e. snowball Earth (Figure 1) to virtually disappearing during the Hothouse Earth period (about 50 Mya).

Figure 1. Snowball Earth.  The planet was nearly covered in snow and ice around 700 million years ago.  Image Credit: NASA.

The multiple glacial-interglacial cycles over the last several million years were initiated by changes in sun/earth geometry (the Milankovitch cycles), but strengthened by changes in snow/ice reflectance along with changes in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Figure 2.  Ice cover (black) shifted markedly between the glacial and interglacial periods over the last 3 million years.  Image credit:  Hannes Grobe CC Attribution 3.0

The culprit in the current melting of the cryosphere is something new to the Earth system – the technosphere.  This recently evolved sphere consists of the totality of the human enterprise on Earth, including its myriad physical objects and material flows.

By way of fossil fuel combustion, the technosphere is driving up the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and correspondingly, warming the global climate.  That new heat is causing reduced snow cover, receding glaciers, melting of ice caps, and loss of sea iceBy various anthropogenically driven mechanisms, the cryosphere is also said to be “darkening” and hence melting quicker because more solar radiation is absorbed.

Projections by Earth system models of cryosphere condition over the next decades, centuries, and millennia suggest it will significantly wane if not disappear.

Besides the positive feedback to climate change by way of reflectance effects (and release of greenhouse gases from permafrost melting), the diminishment of the cryosphere will have profound impacts on the technosphere.

  1.  The circulation of water through the hydrosphere on land is regulated in many cases by accumulation of snow and ice on mountains.  That water is subsequently released throughout the year, thus providing stable stream flows for downstream irrigated agriculture and urban use. 
  2. The melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps will drive up sea level.  If all such ice is melted (over the course of hundreds to thousands of years), sea level is projected to rise 68 m.  The magnitude of sea level rise projected over the next 100 years for intermediate emissions scenarios is on the order of one meter.
  3. It remains controversial, but reduction of snow and ice cover may alter the behavior of the jet stream and could induce more extreme weather events in mid- to high latitudes of the northern hemisphere.

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will certainly slow the erosion of the cryosphere and should be made.  The precautionary principle suggests we avoid passing tipping points associated with melting of the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice cap.  However, the momentum of environmental change is strongly in that direction.

Once these ice caps are gone, there is a hysteresis effect such that the ice does not return with a simple reversion to the current climate (e.g. by an engineered drawdown of the CO2 concentration).

The planet is headed towards a warmer, largely ice free, condition.  The biosphere has been there before.  The technosphere has not.  Humanity will be challenged to develop adequate adaptive strategies.

Recommended Video: What is the Cryosphere │How it Affects Climate Change

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.