Why we can regain agency and how – a riposte to James Dyke

I fully agree that at the current stage, we may suffer from partial blindness to the limits and constraints of our agency in technosphere evolution. However, at the same time I believe that in improving our scientific understanding of these, we can regain our human agency and find an escape route, as James hopes for.

There are two central aspects here which relate to the biased view of most scientists towards the technosphere, centring on its materiality and physical mechanisms. As I argued in other posts, this is exactly the kind of ‘alienation’ (‘Entfremdung’) highlighted by classical critical theory in distinguishing itself from standard theory. It is a paradox, as the scientists argue with forceful criticism about the current crisis of climate change. But in factually supporting a pessimistic and defeatist stance towards their own analysis, they may factually contribute to our loss of agency. In other words, science as it is practiced today mirrors the technosphere, it is the ideology of the technosphere, even if it presents a lucid and objective analysis of our current tragedy and opens our eyes for the looming catastrophe. We are left with either techno-optimism or techno-pessimism. On this blog, Axel Kleidon tends towards the former, James to the latter. From the social science and philosophy perspective, both do not move far enough into the domain of the humanities in understanding the technosphere.

Technosphere reductionism overlooks the fact that our human systems are symbiotic to the technosphere, down to the level of agency. This is clearly recognized in the social sciences, even in economics: Technology combines physical and social mechanisms in creating integrated patterns of technologically enhanced action. One implication of this is that the notion of technology needs to be broadened. This overcomes the conceptual separation between institutions and physical mechanisms, especially when it comes to the economy. It is overly simplistic to refer to large-scale constructs such as ‘capitalism’, and then discarding it, as James does; instead we need to recognize that the core of capitalism is a set of technologies in the domain of money and finance, which are  not inherently ‘capitalistic’ in the ideological sense. Goetzmann’s book ‘Money changes everything’ makes this abundantly clear, finance is a material technology like building roads or ships. This technology shapes our agency, as Marx thought, though on a different conceptual basis, in creating affordances that drive our actions. In fact, the technological core of capitalism is also the core of technosphere as it evolves today. But that also means that once we recognize this, we can redesign the engine.

The first evolutionary economist, Thorstein Veblen, believed that there is a fundamental contradiction between economy and technology, and that the former drives the latter towards technologically suboptimal developmental trajectories. I think this is reflecting suboptimal design of financial technologies. Let me give an example. Via legal changes in the US, tech companies can go public today even when they accumulate huge losses over years. One example are the mobility platforms such as Uber. This is exclusively driven by profit expectations of investors, and not by technological criteria of optimizing transport systems of the technosphere. Uber and the likes further cement the technological trajectory of individualized mobility and passenger car technology, only adding components of electric engines and automatic driving. Experts already expressed concerns that this will put even larger strain on urban traffic, as the number of individual rides will actually increase, to the detriment of radically different approaches to urban transport.

Without modern financial engineering, this trajectory may not have materialized at all. What is the solution? The problem is not the market as such, and therefore the cure is not government-driven planning and intervention. The cure is reforming finance. I cannot deal with details here, but proposals are plenty, reaching from fundamentals like radically changing our monetary system to detailed prescriptions of specific mechanisms. In our context, this means regaining agency: This is only possible via systemic design, and not by choosing certain action directly. And this is not about big-ticket items such as ‘socialism’ versus ‘capitalism’, but about ‘social engineering’. Via engineering finance, we can gain control back about technosphere evolution. Concentrating on actions such as carbon tax or green infrastructure cannot solve the deeper problem of the underlying patterns of agency.

The other important topic is winning agency back via sharing agency with others, that is, recognizing agency of others. This is a deeply Hegelian thought: genuine agency rests on mutual recognition. In thinking that we are the only masters of technology, we end up with hybris and ultimate loss of agency.

This is the political dimension, and it requires constitutional initiatives and design, as it happened in the past when democratic and human rights gradually expanded. I think that we have not yet fully recognized this point. For example, the ‘Fridays for future’ movement mostly demands for certain actions – it should increase the stakes and demand for constitutional changes, which would be truly revolutionary. In this case, that would be the constitutional recognition of future generations. There are many ways of doing this, with smaller stakes such as the lowering of age restrictions on voting, and the really challenging ones such as creating an innovative way to representing future generations, perhaps in enriching the system of division of powers, adding a power that represents future generations.

This needs to be extended towards including non-humans in our political systems, reaching from the local to the global. James introduces this perspective at the end of his post. Yes, we need the non-humans to escape from the prison that we created for ourselves. I discuss this in my previous post on co-creation, therefore do not enter into details here.

To conclude, we need a deflated view on the technosphere, against the view of many Earth system scientists in overestimating its systemicity. I agree that there are systemic drivers, such as Maximum Power. But as Georg Kobiela has argued in his comments, there are many ways how to design technological trajectories that follow this law, such as permaculture in agriculture. But we cannot impose these trajectories on the societies in which we live today, in which emergent forms of agency push towards other directions. Agency can be designed, though, on the level of creating new institutions. Of course, incumbents of power may not prefer this. That’s why we need new forms of political activism.

Marxism and the Technosphere

The problem of agency in the technosphere has much in common with Marx’s treatment of agency in capitalism. In capitalism agency is endogenous to the system: Capitalists are not the bad guys who expropriate workers with sinister intentions, but the forces of ‘capital’ subject them to this type of behavioural governance. The system drives their actions, and that’s why we need to change the system, not just improve what people think and aim at: turning capitalists into philantropists would not be enough (or even possible). Marx’s theory of revolution is about workers regaining agency, via emancipating themselves from the system, understanding how it works, and then build countervailing power on collective agency as a class. Yet, Marx believed that this is only possible when a certain stage of technological development would be reached that creates certain material conditions in terms of the concentration of the economy and levels of productivity.

Marx’s ‘capital’ is a financial category, in simplest terms, ‘money’, as epitomized in his famous M-C-M’ formula depicting the circuit of generating surplus value. However, he approached money just as neoclassical economists today do, as a mere medium in which capital is transformed: In Marxist theory, money is not value. He followed the classical labour theory of value, which means that in the generation of surplus, complex calculations of labour inputs, socially necessary labour etc. were needed. This is the point where modern economics does not follow Marx: Value is rooted in subjective preferences.

Obviously, Marx is relevant for understanding the technosphere, in terms of the systemic perspective, the ideas about endogenous agency, and the emphasis on technology (‘productive forces’). I suggest two ways in which we can turn Marx from head to feet.

The first is to take money seriously. Money is a technological artefact, as is modern finance. We have very substantial research that shows how money transforms human agency, beginning with the work of the sociologist Georg Simmel at the turn to the 20th century. Money is the central artefact in organizing markets, which are the prominent medium in which technosphere evolution is proceeding. In my work, I approach money as a social technology that makes us performing the economy in a specific way, that Marx called ‘capitalism’ (see my Journal of Economic Methodology paper here, which summarizes the state of our knowledge). Money is one of the crucial causal connectors between technosphere and the human domain, down to the level of causation of individual action.

The second track is offered by thermodynamics. Despite his focus on technology, Marx analysed capitalism as a social system, epitomized in his labour theory of value. He overlooked the role of energy in the industrialization process (as far as I know). The work of the physicist Reiner Kümmel helps to correct this view (here). As it was also shown by Ayres and others, in modern economics neglecting energy in the analysis of economic growth partly results from misjudging its marginal productivity, based on national income accounts (factor shares). If alternative production functions are employed, and energy is explicitly included, the marginal productivity of energy is higher than that of labour and capital. As Kümmel argues, this means that ‘energy slaves’ are exploited by humans, they are paid less than the value that they generate. That sounds very Marxian, indeed!

Following Kümmel, I suggest that Marx could not anticipate the failure of proletarian revolution because labour and capital could find an arrangement in which labour could increase its income position (higher wages, less working time, more redistribution) without jeopardizing capitalist profits because the two could shift the burden to the third party: energy (or, more generally, ‘Mother Earth’). In that sense, the neglect of energy in modern economics is an ideological construct that hides a quasi-political structure of exploitation. Energy cannot regain agency, however, so it is an almost safe political deal. Yet, we could say that Marxian analysis of expropriation still applies, mutatis mutandis (which might point towards an energetic theory of value that many tried to create, but never succeeded: A task for technosphere science of the future?).

That implies a different justification why energy prices need to be adjusted than internalization of externalities (across the board, not just in terms of CO2 taxes): Energy must be compensated according to its true marginal productivity. Such a general adjustment of factor prices would have very substantial effects on the evolution of economic structure, with labour getting relatively cheaper. I always refer to the Chinese economy in late Imperial times as an example how an economy operates in such a regime.

In the end, however, Marx gets his right. Who owns energy resources and who grabs the profits? Well, the capitalists and the ‘state-capitalists’. The global energy system is embedded in a truly sinister network of economic and political power that shapes governance and social conditions in many countries, often creating catastrophic conditions for the population (for a sobering account, see Wenar’s book ‘Blood Oil’ here). These are not exactly the same types of actors that Marx was observing in his times. But the need for a political revolution is as urgent as he felt it.

In a Climate-neutral Solar Economy, Would the Technosphere Outcompete the Biosphere? A Provocation.

In his recent post, Axel Kleidon offered a grand view on the thermodynamics of the Earth system that includes the human domain. His fundamental point is that the human economy follows the same systemic dynamics as the Earth system, i.e. Lotka’s Maximum Power principle. That means, it manifests an inherent physical trend towards maximizing energy throughput. There is much evidence that supports this view, which I presented in my 2015 ‘Ecological Economics’ paper (here). Axel Kleidon also believes that we still have sufficient freedom to act. His solution is a technological one. As he describes in detail in his recent book (here), that means that humans have choices in implementing the specific way how we realize this law of nature. Basically, we could copy the biosphere: The only technological energy system that directly corresponds to nature’s energy system based on photosynthesis is solar energy.

However, this macro-perspective blanks out the fact that making the Earth system thermodynamically more productive by means of solar energy implies that the technosphere will grow forever: If energy is transformed in the technosphere, its material size will expand. That is why complete plans for a solar economy always include another copy from nature, complete recycling. That would create an energetically and materially autonomous technosphere, apparently. It would materially grow by means of the transformation on abiotic inputs into technological artefacts while minimizing emissions to the biosphere.

Yet, even if such a science fiction scenario is physically feasible, the technosphere would grow in terms of sheer size. That implies that the human economy would continue to put pressure on biospheric ecosystems, if only in competing for space (I remember the German science fiction blockbuster of my childhood, ‘Orion’ where humanity lives in the deep sea, hence leaving the terrestrial surface to the biosphere). Biodiversity would be increasingly threatened, for example.

Is such a scenario of technosphere/biosphere competition a reasonable assumption? One solution is that the technosphere would increasingly include the biosphere and also support growth of the biosphere. How is that possible? It means that technological artefacts would be partly built from organic material. That is already going on, if we include all domesticated plants and animals in the technosphere. Of course, eventually what we normally think of ‘nature’ would be outcompeted, in turn. The biodiversity issue would remain a problem.

These arguments are very coarse, but I think they catch an import methodological point. The thermodynamic perspective needs to be complemented by a meso-perspective that makes material flows explicit, as in research on industrial metabolism. In the established material flows framework, for purely pragmatic reasons domesticated plants and animals are treated as ‘nature’ and excluded from the ‘socio-economic system’ and its stocks. But certainly, in a material flows view on the technosphere, they would need to be included as human-crafted biological artefacts, including human controlled and designed habitats (from chicken farms to fenced pastures).

Why is this scenario a provocation? I wonder whether we are also free to act against this additional specification of the thermodynamic macro-view. If the Maximum Power principle also implies that the technosphere outcompetes the biosphere, or transforms the biosphere into a part of the technosphere, are we free to act against this evolutionary force? The solar economy means to follow the flow of thermodynamic Earth system forces, but containing the size of the technosphere might involve stemming those forces.

In the end, this raises fundamental questions about the anthropocentrism of our notions of agency. Do we only recognize human goals and needs? If yes, we might just be happy with turning the Earth into a ‘hybrid planet’, i.e. a human artefact, literally ‘spaceship Earth’. But if we include the interests of all other Earthlings, is this what they want? Could we possibly assume the agency of stewards acting in their interest? Why should we do that?

We’ve created a civilisation hell bent on destroying itself

The following is a repost of an article originally published in The Conversation and The Idependent.

The coffee tasted bad. Acrid and with a sweet, sickly smell. The sort of coffee that results from overfilling the filter machine and then leaving the brew to stew on the hot plate for several hours. The sort of coffee I would drink continually during the day to keep whatever gears left in my head turning.

Odours are powerfully connected to memories. And so it’s the smell of that bad coffee which has become entwined with the memory of my sudden realisation that we are facing utter ruin.

It was the spring of 2011, and I had managed to corner a very senior member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during a coffee break at a workshop. The IPCC was established in 1988 as a response to increasing concern that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are being largely caused by humans.

The IPCC reviews the vast amounts of science being generated around climate change and produces assessment reports every four years. Given the impact the IPPC’s findings can have on policy and industry, great care is made to carefully present and communicate its scientific findings. So I wasn’t expecting much when I straight out asked him how much warming he thought we were going to achieve before we manage to make the required cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Oh, I think we’re heading towards 3°C at least,” he said.

“Ah, yes, but heading towards,” I countered: “We won’t get to 3°C, will we?” (Because whatever you think of the 2°C threshold that separates “safe” from “dangerous” climate change, 3°C is well beyond what much of the world could bear.)

“Not so,” he replied.

That wasn’t his hedge, but his best assessment of where, after all the political, economic, and social wrangling we will end up.

“But what about the many millions of people directly threatened,” I went on. “Those living in low-lying nations, the farmers affected by abrupt changes in weather, kids exposed to new diseases?”

He gave a sigh, paused for a few seconds, and a sad, resigned smile crept over his face. He then simply said: “They will die.”

That episode marked a clear boundary between two stages of my academic career. At the time, I was a new lecturer in the area of complex systems and Earth system science. Previously, I had worked as a research scientist on an international astrobiology project based in Germany.

In many ways, that had been my dream job. As a young boy, I had lain on the grass on clear summer evenings and looked up at one of the dots in the night sky and wondered if around that star a planet orbited with beings that could look up from the surface of their world and similarly wonder about the chances of life being found within the unremarkable solar system we call home in the universe. Years later, my research involves thinking about how surface life can affect the atmosphere, oceans and even rocks of the planet it lives on.

That’s certainly the case with life on Earth. At a global scale, the air we all breathe contains oxygen largely as a result of photosynthetic life, while an important part of the UK’s national identity for some – the white cliffs of Dover – are comprised of countless numbers of tiny marine organisms that lived more than 70m years ago.

So it wasn’t a very large step from thinking about how life has radically altered the Earth over billions of years to my new research that considers how a particular species has wrought major changes within the most recent few centuries. Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.

Change within a lifetime

I was born in the early 1970s. This means in my lifetime the number of people on Earth has doubled, while the size of wild animal populations has been reduced by 60%. Humanity has swung a wrecking ball through the biosphere. We have chopped down over half of the world’s rainforests and by the middle of this century there may not be much more than a quarter left. This has been accompanied by a massive loss in biodiversity, such that the biosphere may be entering one of the great mass extinction events in the history of life on Earth.

What makes this even more disturbing, is that these impacts are as yet largely unaffected by climate change. Climate change is the ghosts of impacts future. It has the potential to ratchet up whatever humans have done to even higher levels. Credible assessments conclude that one in six species are threatened with extinction if climate change continues.

The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish. We know that in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to rapidly reduce emissions now.

The sudden increase in media coverage of climate change as a result of the actions of Extinction Rebellion and school strike for climate pioneer Greta Thunburg, demonstrates that wider society is waking up to the need for urgent action. Why has it taken the occupation of Parliament Square in London or children across the world walking out of school to get this message heard?

There is another way of looking at how we have been responding to climate change and other environmental challenges. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating because it offers a new perspective that could cut through inaction. Terrifying as it could, if we are not careful, lead to resignation and paralysis.

Because one explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere.

The technosphere

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2014, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. From skyscrapers to CDs, fountains to fondue sets. A good deal of this is infrastructure, such as roads and railways, which links humanity together.

Along with the physical transport of humans and the goods they consume is the transfer of information between humans and their machines. First through the spoken word, then parchment and paper-based documents, then radio waves converted to sound and pictures, and subsequently digital information sent via the internet. These networks facilitate human communities. From roving bands of hunter-gatherers and small farming tribes, right up to the inhabitants of a megacity that teams with over 10m inhabitants, Homo sapiens is a fundamentally social species.

Just as important, but much less tangible, is society and culture. The realm of ideas and beliefs, of habits and norms. Humans do a great many different things because in important ways they see the world in different ways. These differences are often held to be the root cause of our inability to take effective global action. There is no global government, for a start.

But as different as we all are, the vast majority of humanity is now behaving in fundamentally similar ways. Yes, there are still some nomads who roam tropical rainforests, still some roving sea gypsies. But more than half of the global population now lives in urban environments and nearly all are in some way connected to industrialised activities. Most of humanity is tightly enmeshed into a globalised, industrialised complex system – that of the technosphere.

Importantly, the size, scale and power of the technosphere has dramatically grown since World War II. This tremendous increase in the number of humans, their energy and material consumption, food production and environmental impact has been dubbed the Great Acceleration.

The tyranny of growth

It seems sensible to assume that the reason products and services are made is so that they can be bought and sold and so the makers can turn a profit. So the drive for innovation – for faster, smaller phones, for example – is driven by being able to make more money by selling more phones. In line with this, the environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental calamities is capitalism and consequently any attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will ultimately fail if we allow capitalism to continue.

But zooming out from the toil of individual manufacturers, and even humanity, allows us to take a fundamentally different perspective, one that transcends critiques of capitalism and other forms of government.

Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements.

There are also the things we need to perform our different jobs and activities and to travel to and from our jobs and activities. And beyond that is more discretional consumption: TVs, games consoles, jewellery, fashion.

The purpose of humans in this context is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.

The emergence and development of capitalism obviously lead to the growth of the technosphere: the application of markets and legal systems allows increased consumption and so growth. But other political systems may serve the same purpose, with varying degrees of success. Recall the industrial output and environmental pollution of the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, all that matters is growth.

The idea that growth is ultimately behind our unsustainable civilisation is not a new concept. Thomas Malthus famously argued there were limits to human population growth, while the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, Limits to Growth, presented simulation results that pointed to a collapse in global civilisation.

Today, alternative narratives to the growth agenda are, perhaps, getting political traction with an All Party Parliamentary Group convening meetings and activities that seriously consider de-growth policies. And curbing growth within environmental limits is central to the idea of a Green New Deal, which is now being discussed seriously in the US, UK, and other nations.

If growth is the problem, then we just have to work at that, right? This won’t be easy, as growth is baked into every aspect of politics and economics. But we can at least imagine what a de-growth economy would look like.

My fear, however, is that we will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control.

Limits to freedom

It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.

Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely. Tokyo train commuters travelling to work.

If you jump in your car to get to a particular destination, you can’t travel in a straight line “as the crow flies”. You will use roads that in some instances are older than your car, you, or even your nation. A significant fraction of human effort and endeavour is devoted to maintaining this fabric of the technosphere: fixing roads, railways, and buildings, for example.

In that respect, any change must be incremental because it must use what current and previous generations have built. The channelling of people via road networks seems a trivial way to demonstrate that what happened far in the past can constrain the present, but humanity’s path to decarbonisation isn’t going to be direct. It has to start from here and at least in the beginning use existing routes of development.

This isn’t meant to excuse policymakers for their failure of ambition, or lack of bravery. But it indicates that there may be deeper reasons why carbon emissions are not decreasing even when there appears to be increasingly good news about alternatives to fossil fuels.

Think about it: at the global scale, we have witnessed a phenomenal rate of deployment of solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy generation. But global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. This is because renewables promote growth – they simply represent another method of extracting energy, rather than replacing an existing one.

The relationship between the size of the global economy and carbon emissions is so robust that US physicist Tim Garrett has proposed a very simple formula that links the two with startling accuracy. Using this method, an atmospheric scientist can predict the size of the global economy for the past 60 years with tremendous precision.

But correlation does not necessarily mean causation. That there has been a tight link between economic growth and carbon emissions does not mean that has to continue indefinitely. The tantalisingly simple explanation for this link is that the technosphere can be viewed like an engine: one that works to make cars, roads, clothes, and stuff – even people – using available energy.

The technosphere still has access to abundant supplies of high energy density fossil fuels. And so the absolute decoupling of global carbon emissions from economic growth will not happen until they either run out or the technosphere eventually transitions to alternative energy generation. That may be well beyond the danger zone for humans.

A repugnant conclusion

We have just come to appreciate that our impacts on the Earth system are so large that we have possibly ushered in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. The Earth’s rocks will bear witness to humans’ impacts long after we disappear. The technosphere can be seen as the engine of the Anthropocene. But that does not mean we are driving it. We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. This runs completely counter to how we view our relationship with the Earth system.

Take the planetary boundaries concept, which has generated much interest scientifically, economically, and politically. This idea frames human development as impacting on nine planetary boundaries, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification. If we push past these boundaries, then the Earth system will change in ways that will make human civilisation very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. The value of, say, the biosphere here is that it provides goods and services to us. This represents what we can literally get from the system.

This very human-centric approach should lead to more sustainable development. It should constrain growth. But the technological world system we have built is clever at getting around such constraints. It uses the ingenuity of humans to build new technologies – such as geoengineering – to reduce surface temperatures. That would not halt ocean acidification and so would lead to the potential collapse of ocean ecosystems. No matter. The climate constraint would have been avoided and the technosphere could then get to work overcoming any side effects of biodiversity loss. Fish stocks collapse? Shift to farmed fish or intensively grown algae.

As defined so far, there appears nothing to stop the technosphere liquidating most of the Earth’s biosphere to satisfy its growth. Just as long as goods and services are consumed, the technosphere can continue to grow.

And so those who fear the collapse of civilisation or those who have enduring faith in human innovation being able to solve all sustainability challenges may both be wrong.

After all, a much smaller and much richer population of the order of hundreds of millions could consume more than the current population of 7.6 billion or the projected population of nine billion by the middle of this century. While there would be widespread disruption, the technosphere may be able to weather climate change beyond 3°C. It does not care, cannot care, that billions of people would have died.

And at some point in the future, the technosphere could even function without humans. We worry about robots taking over human’s jobs. Perhaps we should be more concerned with them taking over our role as apex consumers.

Escape plan

The situation, then, may all seem rather hopeless. Whether or not my argument is an accurate representation of our civilisation, there is the risk it produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if we believe we can’t slow down the growth of the technosphere, then why bother?

This goes beyond the question of “what difference could I make?” to “what difference can anyone make?” While flying less, cutting down on eating meat and dairy and cycling to work are all commendable steps to take, they do not constitute living outside the technosphere.

It’s not just that we give tacit consent to the technosphere by using its roads, computers, or intensively farmed food. It’s that by being a productive member of society, by earning and spending, above all by consuming, we further the technosphere’s growth.

Perhaps the way out from fatalism and disaster is an acceptance that humans may not actually be in control of our planet. This would be the vital first step that could lead to a broader outlook that encompasses more than humans.

For example, the mainstream economic attitude about trees, frogs, mountains, and lakes is that these things only have value if they provide something to us. This mindset sets them up as nothing more than resources to exploit and sinks for waste.

What if we thought of them as components or even our companions in the complex Earth system? Questions about sustainable development then become questions about how growth in the technosphere can be accommodated with their concerns, interests, and welfare as well as ours.

This may produce questions that seem absurd. What are the concerns or interests of a mountain? Of a flea? But if we continue to frame the situation in terms of “us against them”, of human well-being trumping everything else in the Earth system, then we may be effectively hacking away the best form of protection against a dangerously rampant technosphere.

And so the most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.

To understand you are in a prison, you must first be able to see the bars. That this prison was created by humans over many generations doesn’t change the conclusion that we are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people.

Eight years ago, I woke up to the real possibility that humanity is facing disaster. I can still smell that bad coffee, I can still recall the memory of scrabbling to make sense of the words I was hearing. Embracing the reality of the technosphere doesn’t mean giving up, of meekly returning to our cells. It means grabbing a vital new piece of the map and planning our escape.

Co-creation and agency in the Earth system

Two weeks ago, I attended the meeting of the European Society for Ecological Economics at Turku, Finland. The core topic of the conference was ‘co-creation’. Many people attending had no clear idea what that means, including myself. However, as I had been invited as a keynote speaker, in the recent months I invested some intellectual effort into developing my own approach to it. My keynote was devoted to ‘The Art of Co-Creation’. You can find my paper here, and also a science shot on Youtube.

Co-creation directly relates to the question of agency. In the narrower sense, which, in my perception, was prevalent in the Turku discussions, co-creation is about topics such as participatory modelling and democratic inclusion. That means, whereas in the standard policy process agency is often centred on certain organizations and networks of decision-makers and their advisers, a co-creative process would engage many more stakeholders and concerned parties. A typical example is the activation of grassroots level communities in biodiversity initiatives. This does not only involve decision-making as such, but also the activation of local knowledge.

My view on co-creation is much broader. For example, as ventilated on this blogsite, the question is how far technology co-creates outcomes of human action, so that agency is not only centred on humans, but networks of humans and artefacts (‘agencements’ in Actor-Network Theory). A most interesting issue is co-creation in the biosphere, because this ties up with the narrower meaning of co-creation.

There is no doubt that in ecological systems, the performance of the system is co-created by all entities that make it up. In this sense, the notion of ‘Anthropocene’ is indeed misleading, as we humans may have disproportionally strong impact on the biosphere, but that does not nullify the role of other biological entities as actors which respond to our action, and co-create the result of our actions. Now, the exciting question is, can we acknowledge the agency of other actors and include them in our own systems of deciding our actions? Can we imagine institutional designs that would allow for including other biological actors in our human body politic?

That question is strikingly akin to co-creation as participatory modelling or democratic inclusion. If the biosphere is co-created by all biological entities, how can we give them voice and recognize them as stakeholders of our own society and economy? There are two major problems that call for (co?)creative solutions.

The first is that we must establish institutional forms of representation. That might sound outlandish, since even our beloved pets cannot talk to us and vote over our decisions (although it seems that they have many communicative means to express their will and even subject our agency to their interests, see here). But in fact, it is straightforward if we create institutions in which other biological entities would be represented by humans: that is, legal persons and chartered organizations which would be based on pertinent constitutional rules and which have the legal responsibility of biosphere representation. This idea has been already explored by Bruno Latour, and I think that the only limitation is our own lack of imagination. After all, we treat physically non-existent beings as actors in our society, such as public corporations or endowments. Why not animals?

However, the second problem is how could human representatives of other biological beings communicate with them and fully understand their interests? There is small subfield in biology and behavioural ecology that tackles this issue, sometimes labelled ‘zoosemiotics’, and which goes back to Jakob von Uexkuell’s theory of ‘Umwelten’. This is a scientific way to reconstruct the worldview of other biological entities and may enable us to translate the semiotic systems of other species into our own. I think that this eventually integrates science and art, as discussed in my keynote. We must develop linguistic and other creative means to enable us imagining how other beings think and act.

To sum up, co-creation is indeed a powerful conceptual frame to elaborate new institutional forms of agency in the Earth system. In Hegelian terms, as I have argued elsewhere, this is creating a ‘second nature’. Only in such a comprehensive institutional approach, we can also regain control of the technosphere. In fact, we can even view the suggested institutional set-up as ‘social technology’ and hence a means to establish a co-creative relationship between biosphere and technosphere.

The technosphere as a ‘major transition’?

John Maynard-Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995; Szathmáry and Maynard Smith 1995) famously argued that evolution has undergone highly significant ‘major transitions’ in the very units of evolution and the mechanisms by which evolution proceeds. Incorporating the technosphere fully within their schema of ‘major transitions’ would involve expanding the definition of the latter away from its emphasis on the biological organism. Nevertheless, it is possible, with care, to use the analysis of earlier transitions to shed light on the technosphere.[1]

Here I want to focus on one feature shared by many major transitions: the combination of formerly distinct individuals into stable new evolutionary and ecological individuals. The clearest examples of these are the enclosure of replicating molecules within a membrane, the fusion of unrelated prokaryotes into the eukaryotic cell, and the organisation and specialisation of genetically identical cells into multi-cellular plants, fungi and animals. Can we regard the emergence of the technosphere as a major transition to a new kind of stable association, even though it is neither a functional and evolutionary ‘individual’ itself, nor composed of stable individual cyborgs, but a continuously shifting coupling of organic and inorganic matter? To help us here, we need to move to a more dynamic understanding of hierarchical structure in complex systems.

Peter Haff (2014a) argues that the entities that make up any system can be described as organised into three strata – Stratum I, Stratum II and Stratum III – each of which contains entities which are progressively larger and at higher organisational levels than the previous stratum.  In Haff’s terminology, an evolutionary individual is composed of a number of Stratum I units such as cells, but is itself a Stratum II entity that associates with other Stratum II entities (whether belonging to the same genetic lineage or not) in Stratum III structures such as societies, symbioses and ecosystems. But as Carl Simpson (2011) and others argue, hierarchies in living systems are not static but themselves evolve.  In such ‘transitions in individuality’, evolutionary fitness passes from the Stratum II entities to the Stratum III structures, which become a new kind of evolutionary individual.

Crucially, for each such transition in individuality to become permanent, mechanisms must emerge which prevent the new, higher-level individuals reverting to their constituent parts. In Haff’s language, the new individuals must find new methods of enforcing his ‘six rules’, especially the ‘rule of performance’ which ensures that each constituent unit supports the functioning of the whole. For example, in the eukaryotic cell, the energy-giving mitochondria, once free-living eukaryotes, are now completely dependent on the wider cell architecture for their reproduction.  Similarly, in multicellular animals a division of labour between germ and soma cells prevents any cell from defecting back to solitary living by ensuring that no cell possesses both the capacity for independent metabolism and that of reproduction (Michod and Roze 1997; Simpson 2012).

Against this background, the balance of mutual dependency concerning both metabolism and reproduction in the evolving association between humans and technology seems to be shifting in interesting ways.

Firstly, the individual components of the technosphere – both humans and technologies – are increasingly dependent on their membership of the technosphere.  Haff (2014a; 2014b) has drawn attention to how humans find it increasingly hard to leave the technosphere; but technologies too are becoming more tied in, both metabolically (for example in terms of their energy needs) and reproductively (in complex networks of manufacturing and innovation).  In this sense, the evolution of the technosphere seems to follow the pattern of earlier macroevolutionary transitions on the Earth.

Secondly, however, there is also a shifting distribution of powers between the human and technical components of the technosphere, and here the pattern is rather different.  If indeed technologies are moving towards ‘general intelligence’ and self-replication, then it rather appears that, unlike for example the prokaryotes which became the mitochondria within the eukaryotic cell, technologies are being granted the powers of reproduction and independent teleonomic purpose rather than having them taken away.  Placed in the light of evolutionary biology, contemporary concerns about the technological singularity and impending human obsolescence (Bostrom 2013; Shanahan 2015) start to feel like the latest twist in a story that is almost as old as the Earth itself.


[1] For more on this argument, see (Szerszynski 2016).


Bostrom, Nick (2013) Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haff, Peter K. (2014a) ‘Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: six rules,’ The Anthropocene Review, 1(2), pp. 126-36.

Haff, Peter K. (2014b) ‘Technology as a geological phenomenon: implications for human well-being,’ Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395(1), pp. 301-9.

Maynard Smith, John and Eörs Szathmáry (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michod, Richard E. and Denis Roze (1997) ‘Transitions in individuality,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 264(1383), pp. 853-7.

Shanahan, Murray (2015) The Technological Singularity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Simpson, Carl (2011) ‘How many levels are there? How insights from evolutionary transitions in individuality help measure the hierarchical complexity of life,’ in The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited, ed. Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 200-25.

Simpson, Carl (2012) ‘The evolutionary history of division of labour,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 279(1726), pp. 116-21.

Szathmáry, Eörs and John Maynard Smith (1995) ‘The major evolutionary transitions,’ Nature, 374(6519), pp. 227-32.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw (2016) ‘Viewing the technosphere in an interplanetary light,’ The Anthropocene Review, 4(2), pp. 92-102.


Agere and gerere – on ‘action’ in the critical zone

What does it mean to be an agent in the ‘critical zone’, the near-surface environment of the Earth where most living things reside and have evolved?  This is a complex, dense, folded world, a commons where the powers of each entity – abiotic, living or technological – are dependent on those around it. The character of the critical zone does not just distribute agency but alters its very condition of possibility.  I want to unpack this a little by reference to two Latin verbs, agere and gerere, the influence on European thought of which can be traced in our thinking about agency.

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition points out how in ancient Greek and Latin there are two words with which to designate the verb ‘to act’.  In Latin there is agere,[i] ‘to set into motion’ (from which we get the words ‘agent’, ‘act’ and ‘action’) but also gerere , ‘to bear’ or ‘to sustain’ (Arendt 1958: 189).[ii]  Here, she says, we can see a crucial split occurring in European thought about agency and action, a split as consequential as that between nature and culture that Latour (1993) describes as the modern constitution. This is the division between a beginning made by a single person, and the achievement in which many join by ‘bearing’ and ‘finishing’ the enterprise, by seeing it through; between the one who leads and the others that follow.  Because of this diremption of spirit, agere came to mean ‘to lead’, giving us the Western masculinist political imaginary of a ruler who rules alone, who rules because he is alone, who rules through his own isolation and is isolated because he rules.  The ruler, Arendt says interestingly, is ‘isolated against others by his force’ (Arendt 1958: 189).

In the same book Arendt also gave us the wonderful idea of ‘acting into nature’ – that with modern technology our struggle with nature comes to take on the unpredictability and fragility exhibited by action and speech in the human sphere, so prone to misinterpretation and ironic consequences (Arendt 1958: 231).  And this invites us to apply her genealogy of political rule to the human relation with nature as a whole.  Thinking of ‘making’ in a hylomorphic way – as simply imposing an imagined and desired form on passive matter (Galarraga and Szerszynski 2012) – is to imagine the agent as isolated by their striving: to imagine that humans can ‘act’, and non-humans will simply ‘bear’ or ‘sustain’ the effects of their action.

Yet this isolation is always an illusion, as it was in the case of Prince Kutuzov in War and Peace (Tolstoy 1889).  As Arendt puts it, ‘the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings … he is never merely a ‘doer’ but always and at the same time a sufferer’ (Arendt 1958: 190).

Riña a garrotazos, Francisco Goya, c. 1820-23

Here one thinks of Michel Serres’ reflection in The Natural Contract (1995) on Goya’s Fighters with Clubs – that in the painting, nature is not just a backdrop for the human agon but an actor, one that is threatening to envelop the human pair. The club fighters in Goya’s painting are both actors and bearers – they suffer in the agon of battle, they are in agony, but are also somehow ‘carrying out’ something where their wills have been subsumed within a wider story of humans and nature.  Perhaps we should call the painting Clavigers, so that we can use this word for ‘club-bearers’ to smuggle in the verb gerere.[iii]

Amongst the multiple agencies of the critical zone, there is no simple division between initiator and bearer, between leader and follower, active and passive.  We need to find new ways of talking about action in the grammatical ‘middle voice’, that don’t make a simplistic division between things that simply act and things that simply bear or carry through the results of those actions (Szerszynski 2019).


Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Galarraga, Maialen and Bronislaw Szerszynski (2012) ‘Making climates: solar radiation management and the ethics of fabrication,’ in Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management, ed. Christopher Preston, Lexington, MA: Lexington, pp. 211-25.

Latour, Bruno (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, tr. Catherine Porter, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Serres, Michel (1995) The Natural Contract, tr. Elizabeth MacArthur and William  Paulson, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw (2019) ‘Drift as a planetary phenomenon,’ Performance Research, 23(7), pp. 136-44.

Tolstoy, Leo (1889) War and Peace, tr. Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co.


[i] Gk agein, from the PIE root ag- – to drive, to move or to draw out.

[ii] Gerere gives us words such as gestate (to carry), suggest (to carry or bring up) and jest or gest (to perform).

[iii] Claviger, from clava ‘club, knotty branch’ + stem of gerere ‘to bear’.

A Unified Evolutionary Approach to the Biosphere and the Technosphere?

In current debates about the technosphere, human agency is often taken as a given: Humans are conceived as creators of the technosphere. Anthropocentrism seems also implicit in the term ‘anthropocene’, as many critics point out. One reason for this human-centred approach is that the evolutionary framework for analysing the technosphere is not well developed. Some authors directly aim at tying the physics of the technosphere with human social systems, thus blanking out what I regard as a crucial intermediary level of theorizing, evolutionary theory. We can switch to this view if we just reflect upon the relationship between the biosphere and the technosphere: Do they follow the same evolutionary principles? How exactly did the technosphere evolve from the biosphere? How does the technosphere impact on the evolution of the biosphere? And so on.

We do not need to invent the wheel anew: Clearly, the rich literature on gene-culture evolution that was launched in the early days of sociobiology (Lumsden and Wilson, Boyd and Richerson, Dawkins and others) is directly relevant because ‘culture’ is approached as a material phenomenon: For example, Dawkin’s ‘memes’ are real entities with causal impact on behaviour, even though they are referred to as ‘mental’. But they are material in the sense of being cultural artefacts, such as certain symbols that are embodied in soundwaves or artwork. Today, we have a rich pool of hypotheses and theories about the relationship between biological and cultural evolution on which an evolutionary approach to the technosphere can build, and which has moved beyond these early attempts, overcoming many of their flaws. This literature has been converging on a universal theory of evolution which discards the dualistic thinking of early co-evolutionary theory. In my view, the core ideas driving this convergence are:

Conceiving ‘evolution’ as a statistical process that is embodied in many and diverse domains and is most generally described by Price’s theory of selection and the Price’s equation, which allows to derive other fundamental principles of evolutionary theory, such as Fisher’s equation. This view has been adopted in some contributions to Evolutionary Economics, which centres analytically on innovation and technological change.

Overcoming the gene-centred view of the ‘Neodarwinian synthesis’ and thinking in terms of multiple forms of heredity of biologically relevant, i.e. adaptive information, such as synthesized in contributions such as Jablonka and Lamb or Mesoudhi. This allows for establishing many links between genetic and cultural evolution, for example, improving our understanding of the biological and cultural forces that drive the evolution of human preferences.

Recognizing the role of the environment as a medium of information transmission, beyond a mere selective force, and adopting a systemic view on evolution that allows for a better understanding of its creative forces, as in evolutionary transitions. Exemplary contributions are niche construction theory or the developmental systems literature. In Ecological Economics, this focuses our view on phenomena like the relationship between human hyper-sociality and the technosphere.

If we put all these ideas together, we can move beyond the naïve idea that humans are creators of the technosphere: Humans are an important factor, but the driver and medium of the technosphere are more general evolutionary processes. As my examples already revealed, I think that the economy is a central domain where such evolutionary processes unfold. In other words, a general evolutionary theory of the technosphere would build on biological evolutionary theory, with the intermediate, though essential layer of the human economy. That would activate the rich literature in Evolutionary Economics for the study of the technosphere.

In addition, in current research on the technosphere, there is a tendency of reducing it to a narrow meaning of ‘materiality’, i.e. just conceiving it as the sum of material artefacts (such as when measuring the ‘mass’ of the technosphere). This blanks out the very advanced state of research on technology which agrees on approaching technology as a complex systemic phenomenon that involves artefacts and human behaviour as governed by rules and institutions. In this sense, technology cannot be separated from humans, but technology is a many-level system involving both, macro and micro phenomena. For example, the shape that the internet technology assumes cannot be separated from the dynamics of market processes that govern it, in turn embedded in a complex set of institutional and organizational phenomena, and the emergence of individual user patterns on a systemic level. As far as human agency is concerned, nobody controls and designs this technological evolution. What is true for the market, should also hold for the technosphere.

How can we build a universal evolutionary theory of the technosphere? In my view, there are several starting points. The first is to approach the technosphere as a phenomenon of niche construction enabled by culture as a biological phenomenon. My hunch is that the domestication of fire is the original event of this evolutionary transition. Fire is one of the simplest, yet essential technologies that drove many evolutionary adaptations of the evolving human species, including somatic changes such as the size and functioning of the digestive system via the diffusion of cooking as a cultural practice. The niche construction view is liberating in many ways, such as including the recognition that the technosphere already includes large parts of the biosphere, i.e. via the dominance of domesticated animals and plants in the biomass of the Earth system. The human niche includes symbiotic relationships in many forms, thus merging biosphere and technosphere.

Another important question is the role of the technosphere in inheriting adaptive information. One consequence of the increasing recognition of non-genetic channels of evolution in biology is that we realize that evolution evolves, that is, evolution includes the emergence of new evolutionary mechanisms. In which sense is the technosphere a ‘new stage’ in the evolution of evolution? I can only hint at some possibilities. One is that we need to realize that the technosphere grounds in the evolution of culture: Hence, perhaps what counts is not the direct emergence of technosphere from biosphere, but more specifically, the emergence of the technosphere from cultural evolution. For example, the technosphere may overcome certain limitations on cultural information transmission via embodying culture in artefacts. In that view, technology may be interpreted as an extended memory system for enacting culture.

Perhaps to open our mind for this way of thinking about the technosphere, we need to delink it from debates about the Anthropocene and the ‘Great Acceleration’, which narrows our mind on most recent forms of technology. If we were to approach fire as the common ancestor of human technology, the conceptual link between technosphere and Anthropocene would suggest that the Anthropocene would have begun at a time when homo sapiens sapiens was not yet on Earth, which would certainly be nonsense. But that would suggest an outrageous thought: Did the technosphere emerge earlier than us, and are we modern humans a product of the co-evolution of biosphere and technosphere?

Do humans have free will? Or are our actions merely manifestations of a thermodynamic imperative? Or are both views right in their own ways?

Figure: The human imprint on Earth can easily be seen at night. Is this imprint simply a manifestation of thermodynamics? Image source: NASA/NOAA.

I really like to think that I am free to decide on what I like, want and what I do, manifestations of what one commonly refers to as free will. Or one can call it human agency, describing the concept that humans can make independent and conscious decisions. It comes into play when we talk about individual human beings.

Yet, when we talk about many, or even all human beings, that’s quite a different matter. At that scale, we talk about the collective behaviour of all humans, and we talk about a scale at which the interactions with the Earth system matter. These interactions are critical, as humans draw their food and other resources from the Earth system and thereby impact its functioning. How does free will of individual human beings manifest itself at the planetary scale?

This is where thermodynamics comes in. It describes what systems do, it describes the limits of their activity, and it describes how they evolve. What thermodynamics tells me is that human activity at the planetary level does not have complete freedom but rather follows a general thermodynamic direction, like any other process within the Earth system. I refer to this general thermodynamic direction of processes at large scales and the associated notion that processes evolve and operate at their thermodynamic limit as the “thermodynamic imperative”. It is similar to Wilhelm Ostwald‘s energetic imperative.

It seems that these two views exclude each other, but as I will explain in the following, they mutually belong together. The central link between these views is that humans, at their very core, require a source of free energy to be active, just like any other dissipative Earth system process. By withdrawing this free energy from the Earth system, this results in consequences that impact the ability of the Earth to generate energy, and this feeds back to human activity when dealing with the activity of all humans at the planetary scale.

I wish I could explain this perspective in just a few words, but I think this would loose the bigger picture to see that humans are part of a natural evolutionary succession of the dynamics of the Earth system. So I take a little longer. I first describe the relevance of thermodynamics and limits for purely physical processes, then the relevance to the biosphere before getting to human activity. I do this to see that human activity is a progression of processes that takes the Earth system to the next level of dissipative activities.

The atmosphere evolves to work as hard as it can. It sets an example to distinguish between individual influences and the collective behavior of the whole atmosphere.

I want to start with applying thermodynamics to purely physical processes of the climate system. Here, the application is most straightforward: Solar radiation heats the planet unevenly, this creates temperature differences from which mechanical work can be produced to accelerate air into motion, just like a heat engine. The resulting atmospheric motion then acts to level out the temperature differences. It involves energy conversions, from radiation to heat, and some heat into the kinetic energy associated with motion, which is turned back into heat by friction, and is eventually radiated away into space.

There is quite a history of research that shows that the atmospheric general circulation operates at its thermodynamic limit. This was first popularised by Garth Paltridge in the 1970’s and expressed by the so-called principle of Maximum Entropy Production (MEP, see e.g., the nice review paper by Hisashi Ozawa and co-authors). I prefer a more specific way to look at atmospheric dynamics and thermodynamic limits than MEP, using the limit of maximum power of an atmospheric heat engine. I find power, defined in physics as work being performed per time, to be easier to understand and more specific as it differentiates between the different types of energy that are being involved. The end result is nevertheless pretty much the same as MEP. Over the last few years, we have shown that with this assumption that the atmosphere operates at this limit, we can predict climate and climate sensitivities with extremely simple equations just based on physics. These predictions are as good as highly complex climate models (see, for example, here and here). The success of these applications implies that the atmosphere indeed works at its limit, working as hard as it can to generate motion and redistribute heat.

I do not want to get into the specifics of climate here, but rather focus on the more general aspect as to why our simple, parsimonious approach works so well. With simple I mean that one can calculate the estimates with pencil and paper on the back of an envelope, and with parsimonious I mean that we basically do not need empirical fudge factors, just physics and the assumption that the atmosphere works at its limit.

Atmospheric motion involves highly complex processes of fluid dynamics and turbulence, so why does our approach work? I like to use the term “emergent complexity” here. It is not that climate dynamics is per se simple, but rather that the dynamics are so complex that the ultimate limitation comes from thermodynamics. The many different whirls from a tiny turbulent eddy to a huge low pressure system in the mid-latitudes provide freedom to arrange the atmospheric flow in many different ways to transport heat from A to B so that a lack of options is not the problem. It is that, overall, thermodynamics limits how much power can maximally be generated to drive the whole atmospheric flow and feed the growth of the different whirls and pressure systems. This limit then constrains how much heat, in total, is being transported, and this limitation can be expressed and quantified in relatively simple terms. It does not lead us to better understand how an individual whirl evolves, but it rather helps us to understand how the whole atmosphere works, which then allows us to predict the mean climate and its sensitivity.

What does this imply for agency? Well, in the atmosphere, we do not deal with living organisms, but we do deal with individual whirls of motion that grow and decease. These whirls have their influences, and are what we recognise as weather. These dynamics are even described in terminology that is similar to how living organisms are treated – meteorology uses the term „cyclogenesis“ for the growth of a mid-latitude low pressure system. Yet, overall, the dynamics of the whole atmosphere are limited by thermodynamics. As the dynamics evolve to the thermodynamic limit, one can predict the atmosphere as a whole, or climate, with a comparatively simple thermodynamic limit. One needs the freedom of the many, individual whirls to arrange the flow, but the atmosphere as a whole nevertheless follows the thermodynamic imperative.

The biosphere pushes its environmental limitations to make it as productive as possible. So it works as hard as it can, given the natural constraints of the Earth system.

Thermodynamics also applies to life. The vast majority of life is fuelled by the chemical energy generated by photosynthesis. It uses sunlight to split water, and drive a chain of processes that transfers some of the energy contained in sunlight to create chemical free energy in form of carbohydrates and atmospheric oxygen. This energy is then used to sustain the metabolisms of the primary producers (mostly plants on land and phytoplankton in the sea). Some of it is then used to fuel food webs, composed of animals that recycle nutrients and make these again available to the producers, resulting in the dissipation of the chemical energy created by photosynthesis and associated nutrient cycling in ecosystems.

When we look at patterns of natural biospheric activity at the larger scale, then one sees mostly the physical limitations of the climate system (see Figure below). Marine producers are mostly limited by oceanic mixing, as mixing brings essential nutrients from the deeper ocean layers to the surface where the producers harvest the sunlight. Mixing happens primarily in the mid-latitudes, where the low pressure systems of the atmosphere blow over the ocean and mix it, so productivity is comparatively high for open-ocean environments. In addition, there are some other regions in which nutrients are either brought in by rivers or by so-called western boundary currents that also relate to atmospheric dynamics.

On land, the principal limitation is water. Plants loose water as they take up the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to store the energy from sunlight in carbohydrates. As a consequence, the patterns of terrestrial productivity basically reflect patterns of water availability (see Figure). As plants loose water and evaporate it back in the atmosphere, they act to enhance precipitation over land (particularly during dry periods, where root systems can reach water in the deeper soil layers, allowing rainforests to keep transpiring and being productive). Yet, the enhancement of hydrologic cycling on land has its limits, and the terrestrial biosphere probably operates quite close to these limits. I tested this hypothesis with climate model simulations a long time ago, and the results indicate that on land, terrestrial productivity is close to the limits of hydrologic cycling.

The large-scale patterns of biotic activity (“net primary productivity”, in units of grams of carbon per square meter per year) reflect mostly physical limitations. This map was motivated by the paper by Field et al. to plot marine and terrestrial biotic activity together, but uses more recent data for ocean and land.

So how does this link to agency? Well, the biosphere is composed of a huge number of individual organisms, and these do not function identically, but exhibit a vast diversity in their functioning. Also, life evolves and constantly creates new variations, which are then filtered by natural selection for their success. And the individuals affect their local environment. Yet, as a whole, the activity of biosphere is constrained by its physical limitations. Evolution can make the biosphere more active, the effects can make the environment less limiting, but the limitations cannot be eliminated entirely. This should result in the biosphere to be as productive as possible given these limitations, representing a state of maximum chemical power (a notion already described by Alfred Lotka in the 1920‘s). The limitations then make the biosphere predictable by abiotic factors. This is a very well established notion, reflected for instance in biogeographical patterns such as biome distributions.

This notion shares the same pattern as the atmosphere: Individual entities exist and have their effect, and they are critical, as they allow the process to explore the path to the physical limits. Yet, the impact of the individual at the planetary scale cannot be seen directly. The collective activity of the whole biosphere thus evolved to and operates at the physical and thermodynamic limits of the Earth system. It is a second example that needs freedom at the individual level, but follows the thermodynamic imperative at the scale of the whole biosphere.

Human activity is a planetary thermodynamic process that evolves to its limits to maximise power. This does not mean, however, that human agency does not matter.

Humans need energy to sustain their metabolisms and their socioeconomic activity. This is a rather central aspect of their existence, and this basic need for energy makes human activity a thermodynamic process. This energy comes from the Earth in form of harvesting a part of the productivity of the biosphere in form of agriculture, and in form of fossil fuels, deposits of ancient biomass locked up by geologic processes over millions of years ago. So human activity is a thermodynamic process that consumes chemical free energy of the Earth system.

When we apply the thermodynamic imperative directly to this notion, this would lead to the prediction that human societies inevitably increase their energy consumption in the future, as described e.g., by Tim Garrett (e.g., here) and Andy Jarvis (e.g., here). Yet, does this mean that human agency does not matter?

In the two previous examples of the atmosphere and the biosphere, individual entities played a critical role in providing the means of the whole system to find and evolve to its respective thermodynamic limit. Equivalently, I think that a diversity in human action, which we could link to human agency, is likely a necessary requirement for humans at the planetary scale to sustainably increase their activity by converting more and more energy. Such diversity in agency can result, for instance, in different energy policies at the national scale. While the US heavily favours a fossil-based energy system, other countries, like Germany, experienced huge advances in their shift towards a more sustainable energy system based on renewable energy. The extent to which this difference in energy policy then feeds back to the level of human activity of the respective country will then decide in the long run which policy will be more successful. In concrete terms, once renewable energy provides energy to humans with less effort (i.e., cheaper) than fossil fuels, it will provide an evolutionary advantage to those societies that favor a renewable energy policy. The reason why this transition to renewable energy has not happened yet is probably because we are so used to using fossil fuels, with all its associated infrastructure, that it is currently still less effort to use fossil fuels rather than renewable energy.

It seems to me that the basic mechanism that is at play here is essentially the same as in the atmosphere or in the biosphere. Individual entities have diverse strategies of gaining and using their energy harvests, and the extent to which these strategies will grow or decease and become more dominant depends on how successful these are in increasing their energy harvests. It links to the notion of Alfred Lotka that in the end, the success should go to such strategies that can harvest the most energy sustainably from their environment, and this then represents a state of maximum power.

To put this into a more concrete picture of how such a sustainable increase in energy consumption of humans can look like: Humans can increase their energy harvests sustainably by shifting to solar energy. This is because human-made technology, such as photovoltaics, is already much more efficient in harvesting sunlight and generating free energy than leaves can. And the biosphere is more successful in generating chemical free energy from sunlight than abiotic processes are. So the increasing dominance of human activity and their technology could be seen as the emergence of a new class of planetary processes that allows the Earth system to evolve to the next level of energy conversions.

Human agency is a condition for the thermodynamic imperative.

So in summary, I do no think that free will, or human agency, are in contradiction with a thermodynamic imperative of an ever increasing rate of human energy consumption. Just as it is important to recognize that human free will is not independent of the Earth system (because humans need the Earth as an energy source), it is also important to recognize that an increase in human energy consumption is not an automatic, deterministic trend as a consequence of thermodynamics (because humans need to develop the degrees of freedom to allow for such a trend). It rather emerges from the diverse behavior of human agents that use their individual freedom and variations to find out how things work „better“. And things work „better“ when more energy can be generated sustainably.

At present, we are at a crossroads where the impacts of depleting fossil fuels threaten the future thermodynamic trajectory, in terms of depleted stocks of easily-accessible fossil fuels, and in terms of impacting the planetary environment, e.g., by global warming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and so on. It requires a diverse set of human strategies to find out what works best to overcome these challenges.

What this perspective tells us, I think, is how the mechanism is likely to play out. It is critical to have the means of creating variations and a diversity of actions. These can generate different strategies for harvesting energy, and how well these work in harvesting energy then feed back to the growth of these strategies. This will then show us what the best way is into a sustainable future, and this future is likely one in which more energy will be converted sustainably by the Earth system through human technology, thus following the thermodynamic imperative.

Solving the Puzzle of Emergent Order: The Case for Maximum Entropy Thinking

In Andrew Jarvis’ previous post I read that on the one hand we might just observe evolutions that are “most likely”, and on the other hand that the economy is a “low-probability” structure. How can a low-probability structure be most likely? This apparent contradiction applies for all living systems. The Maximum Entropy approach to evolution solves this problem, because it distinguishes neatly between a system and its environment, and the meta-system of both: A system that assumes states of higher complexity and order (hence, ‘low probability’) exports entropy to the environment so that the entropy of the meta-system increases. The latter observation means, that the state of the meta-system is the most likely one. Thus, the economy is an ‘unlikely’ structure, but it exports disorder to the global environment, and therefore the combined state is ‘most likely’.

Of course, this argument is very coarse and over-simplified. But I believe that it deserves to be explored when thinking about agency in the technosphere. In order to start the discussion, let me focus on one specific aspect. The Maximum Entropy approach comes in two variants, as it has been employed in the Earth system sciences and the life sciences. The first variant is strictly statistical and is a way to explain and analyse complex systems (following Jaynes’ theory of probability). It is also well known to econometricians. Maximum Entropy reasoning explains and predicts systems behaviour by means of the constraints that govern its evolution. Regarding the behaviour of the systems constituents, i.e. the ‘agents’, and even systems architecture, you do not need to introduce any more detailed information, because you just assume that the system will move to the most likely state, given the constraints. The second version of the Maximum Entropy approach now asks the question, does the system that behaves in this way also physically maximize entropy production? You can follow the first version without accepting the second. But the fact is that the Maximum Entropy approach is a powerful theory to explain the emergence of order as expression of the Second Law of thermodynamics in the evolution of living systems.

In this post, I only want to reflect on the first version, against the backdrop of our topic ‘agency in the technosphere’. If you apply this version on the economy, it would just mean that you analyse the constraints under which the economy operates on the aggregate level (not the individual level) and then assume that no matter what agents think and do individually, on the aggregate they will move to a state which is the most likely one. In other words, individual agency would not matter at all for economic explanations! In fact, this idea is not unfamiliar to macroeconomists, especially in the Keynesian tradition. Keynes’s famous paradox of savings tells us a similar story: Individual agents might wish to save, but they end up with less savings than intended, because the evolution of the system is governed by fundamental accounting interdependencies in a monetary economy (savings, investment and income). Given the constraints, this is the most likely outcome.

Interestingly, for decades macroeconomists have tried to combine this insight with the so-called ‘micro-foundations’ program. A Nobel award was given to Robert Lucas for introducing the notion of rational expectations and the analytical construct of the representative agent. The aggregate movements of the macro-economy are explained by introducing a ‘rational agent’ who reflects a kind of statistical average of the population. That saves the deep conviction upheld by many economists that only individual agency matters in explanations (‘methodological individualism’). But at what a price! Today, many economists are frustrated with the state of macroeconomics. But the trouble is, as Keynes wanted to show, that any explanation that starts out from ‘real’ individual agents would probably always result in the conclusion that market failure will be endemic because of information externalities, collective action problems, miscommunication, you name it. The ghost of the ‘representative agent’ was created to rescue normative beliefs about the optimality of markets.

Maximum Entropy thinking would just neutralize all these messy methodological and normative issues in treating all individual-level phenomena as random events and exclusively focusing on the constraints. What are the implications for our understanding of the technosphere?

Let me just give an example: There is the Whiggish account of the ‘rise of Europe’ and of industrialization as reflecting unique Western values, enlightenment intellectual achievements and entrepreneurial spirit, for example, in comparisons with Imperial China. But you can also explain the ‘Great Divergence’ just as reflecting the constraints that governed the evolution of the Chinese and the European economy in between the 17th and the 20th century, especially the energy system, land resources and population. From that point of view, European industrialization was indeed the ‘most likely’ trajectory (and certainly not a ‘miracle’), once certain technological innovations were randomly generated that released ‘hang ups’ (Peter Haff’s term), i.e. constraints that governed the activation of fossil fuels for economic uses. China’s ‘failure’ was not due to deficient values, beliefs and institutions, but was a ‘most likely outcome’. No matter what individuals might have pursued and wished for, the aggregate trajectory was shaped by the constraints.

Therefore, the question is, what is the nature of the constraints that govern the evolution of the technosphere and the economy today? Perhaps this is more important to know than pondering what human agents can achieve, both individually and collectively. They throw the dices, and the most likely result will obtain.