The Icarus Scenario


Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus (1635–1637), courtesy of Prado Museum

David P. Turner / February 26, 2020

The future invades the present much more so in recent times than was the case in previous generations.  That’s because the global human enterprise (the technosphere) has initiated an era of global climate change – with potentially catastrophic impacts on future generations.  Thus, humans must now worry more about the future than might otherwise be the case.  While we still have time, humanity must alter course – we must redesign the technosphere.

Earth system scientists have a responsibility to discern coming changes to the Earth system as clearly as possible, and to evaluate potential mitigation strategies.  The time horizon of these scenarios for global change are commonly on the order of a century, or perhaps several centuries.  But examining scenarios that play out over hundreds to thousands of years is also necessary.

In the course of writing a book about global environmental change, I developed a rather dystopian long-timeframe Earth system scenario.  I call it the Icarus Scenario.  This story of Earth’s future is based on emerging Earth system science knowledge about past episodes of drastic global change over the course of geologic history.  On multiple occasions, tectonic movements have initiated periods of massive greenhouse gas emissions (sound familiar?) that led to strong global warming, followed by major alterations in ocean circulation and chemistry, as well as profound changes in the biosphere (including mass extinction events in some cases). 

Humanity might now be initiating the next iteration of that sequence, and the Icarus myth seems an appropriate referent.  Icarus was the figure from Greek mythology who, with his father, constructed wings of feathers and wax.  His father warned him not to fly too close to the sun for fear of melting the wax, but Icarus got carried away with the joy of flight.  He indeed flew too close to the sun, his wings disintegrated, and he crashed to his death on the ground.

A contemporary version of this myth might be manifest as the on-going build-out of the technosphere (with associated greenhouse gas emissions), warnings by scientists about the possibility of overheating the planet, continued fossil-fuel-based technosphere growth driven by an exuberant market economy, and global warming sufficient to push the Earth system through a series of tipping points that catastrophically warm the planet.  Recent geophysical observations suggest the risk of initiating that sequence is increasing.

We can’t of course know the future.  But there are several compelling reasons why we as a global collective should grapple with the Icarus Scenario.

It is likely that the wealthiest people in the world will be able to largely insulate themselves from impacts of climate change over the next generation or so.  Consequently, supporting societal investment in mitigation climate change (e.g. the Green New Deal) may not be a high priority.  However, if their legacy will amount to nothing in a somewhat longer perspective, they might pitch in more vigorously (thanks Jeff Bezos!).

The Icarus Scenario also strengthens the rationale for investing in climate change mitigation as soon as possible to reduce the possibility of passing a threshold and being unable to reverse the trajectory of the Earth system towards catastrophic warming.  The precautionary principle is more readily invoked as the magnitude of a threat increases, and the Icarus Scenario is the ultimate threat.

Being an inveterate optimist, I also formulated in my book a long-term Earth system scenario in which the technosphere builds a sustainable relationship with the rest of the Earth system.  My Noösphere Scenario (pronounced like noah-sphere) assumes cultural evolution towards a high technology global civilization that self-regulates to avoid overheating the planet and consuming the biosphere.  The root word nous refers to mind – Earth becomes a planet organized by collective thought.

Growth of the Technosphere

David P. Turner / January 28, 2020

The growth of the technosphere is changing the Earth system, pushing it towards a state that may be inimical to future human civilization [1].  As technosphere capital − e.g. in the form of buildings, machines, and electronic devices – is increasing, biosphere capital −in the form of wild organisms and intact ecosystems − is decreasing [2].

Figure 1.  Decline in freshwater, marine and terrestrial populations of vertebrates.  Adapted from Ripple et al. 2015 [3].

The growth of the technosphere has tremendous momentum and we must ask if it can be shaped and regulated into something that is sustainable, i.e. able to co-exist with the rest of the Earth system over the long term.

Figure 2.  Earth system indicator trends 1750-2010.  Adapted from Steffen et al. 2015 [4].

Why is the technosphere growing so vigorously?  Let’s consider three quite different factors. 

1.  The most general driver of technosphere growth is what systems ecologist Howard Odum called the “maximum power principle”.  It states: “During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency” [5].   Self-organization is a widely observed phenomenon, extending from the funnel of water formed in a draining bathtub, to inorganic chemical reactions that create arresting geometric designs, to giant termite mounds, and indeed, to cities [6].  Given Earth’s vast reservoirs of fossil fuel energy, and a selection regime that rewards growth, the technosphere will indeed tend to increase energy consumption, matter throughput, and complexity. 

2.  Underlying much of the momentum of technosphere growth is the global market economy.  Capitalism is essentially the operating system of the technosphere.  Corporations, the state, and workers are compelled to expand the economy and hence the technosphere [7]. 

The market economy rewards increasing efficiencies in production (to reduce costs) and often the route to greater efficiently and greater economies of scale is by investment in technology.  Technical progress is now the expected norm and investments in research and development are a part of corporate culture and national agendas.  Economists refer to the “treadmill of production” in which “competition, profitability, and the quest for market share has contributed to an acceleration of human impact on the environment” [8].  Economic globalization has geographically extended the market economy to the whole world.

3.  Historically, war has been one of the biggest drivers of technological expansion.  In the Parable of the Tribes, historian Andrew Schmookler describes the sustained pressure on societies to conquer or be conquered [9].  Technology advances certainly help in winning wars and national governments invest heavily in research and application of technologies for war.  The Internet began with U.S. Defense Department funding to build a communications infrastructure that was hardened against nuclear attack.

Humanity has of course benefited broadly as the technosphere expanded.  Billions of people now have standards of living rivaling those of royalty a few hundred years ago.  The proportion of the global population living in poverty continues to decline.

But even before the use of the term technosphere, scientists and philosophers had begun to question whether technology was always a benevolent force.  The concept of “autonomous technology” suggests that the growth and elaboration of technology can escape human control [10, 11].  The possibilities for a nuclear holocaust or a greenhouse gas driven climate change catastrophe are indicative of technology-mediated global threats. 

What can be done?

The maximum power principle does promote energy throughput, but there is plenty of scope for insuring that technosphere energy prioritizes renewable energy.  Carbon taxes may be the simplest approach to rapidly driving down fossil fuel combustion.  Comprehensive recycling, based on a circular economy, will help constrain the mass throughput of the technosphere.  Finishing the global demographic transition [12] will reduce future demand for natural resources.

Capitalism will not go away but could undergo a Reformation.  That means more corporate responsibility, better governmental oversight of corporate behavior, and increased attention by consumer to the environmental footprint of their consumption.

The global incidence of physical war is decreasing, which will help slow the growth of the technosphere.  Wars are often based on the threat of an enemy, but humanity may become more unified based on the common threat of global environmental change.  The Paris Accord is suggestive of the possibilities.

Implications

The trajectory of the technosphere is towards limitless growth.  However, we live on a planet – there are indeed limits to the natural resources upon which the technosphere depends.  Humans are only a part of the technosphere, thus cannot truly control it (13).  But they can certainly shape it .  Likewise, the technosphere is only part of the Earth system, thus cannot fully control the Earth system: quite possibly, the Earth system will respond to the environmental impacts of the technosphere with changes that suppress the technosphere and associated human welfare.  Improved understanding of technosphere growth in the context of the rest of the Earth system is clearly warranted.

1.  Steffen, W., et al., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2018. 115(33): p. 8252-8259.

2.  Diaz, S., et al., Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science, 2019. 366(6471): p. 1327-+.

3.  Ripple, W.J., et al., World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. Bioscience, 2017. 67(12): p. 1026-1028.

4.  Steffen, W., et al., The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2015. 2: p. 81-98.

5.  Odum, H.T., Self-Organization and Maximum Empower, in Maximum Power: The Ideas and Applications of H.T. Odum. 1995, Colorado University Press: Boulder CO.  See Hall review.

6.  Prigogine, I. and I. Stengers, Order out of Chaos. 1984: Bantam.

7.  Curran, D., The Treadmill of Production and the Positional Economy of Consumption. Canadian Review of Sociology-Revue Canadienne De Sociologie, 2017. 54(1): p. 28-47.

8.  Hooks, G. and C.L. Smith, Treadmills of production and destruction – Threats to the environment posed by militarism. Organization & Environment, 2005. 18(1): p. 19-37.

9.  Schmookler, A.B., The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, Second Edition 1994: Suny Press. 426.

10.  Winner, L., Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme of Political Thought. 1978: The M.I.T. Press. 402.

11.  Kelly, K., Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World. 1995: Basic Books.

12.  Bongaarts, J., Human population growth and the demographic transition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 2009. 364(1532): p. 2985-2990.

13.  Haff, P.,  Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules. 2014. The Anthropocene Review:126-136.