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?