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?

5 Replies to “In a Climate-neutral Solar Economy, Would the Technosphere Outcompete the Biosphere? A Provocation.”

  1. Yes, you can see the dynamic hybridization of biological and human technology from the side of the humans, but I wonder if we see the biosphere co-opting human technology? Can we find any examples of that?

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    1. If we look at agriculture, we see plenty of evidence for such co-opting of the biosphere. Pick pretty much any book advocating organic, regenerative agriculture – pathogenes, parasites, plant deseases and weeds are typically discussed in this light. Sir Albert Howard critical view against the upcoming synthetic fertilizers appears rather clairvoyant, Masanobu Fukuoka also viewed chemical fertilizers to cause imbalances in ecosystem. For them as well as later advocates, such backlashes of “nature” (or, aren’t these or rather their overwhelming occurence also part of the technosphere in some sense? If we grow large-scale corn fields in monoculture, are the invading wild boars and their fast breeding rate under such circumstances then part of the technosphere or part of the biosphere… maybe it’s a play with words) are symptoms for imbalances and mechanisms for re-balancing – so maybe even rather helpers than adversaries. The invasive giant hogweed, causing photoallergic reactions on human skin, can also be viewed as a way of “nature” enabling certain zones of vegetation to rewild.
      To spin this thought even further, dust bowls (not only the emblematic ones in the 1930s in North America) could be considered as a backlash of the geo- and atmosphere against technology…
      Of course, all of these can also be considered as humans’ mistakes, so they just had acted in too naive ways with insufficient considferation of system dynamics. Then it’s about doing it the smart way.
      The smart way, which cannot be found from an armchair perspective but requires trial & error and a lot of tweaking, would then be the backlash-less way (neither short-term nor long-term)of applying technology (probably still competing in some way with evolution, there still will be red queen effects). This might come in the form of “working with nature, not against it”, but would ultimately probably lead to the growth of the technosphere toward its maximum planetary size.

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  2. That is an intriguing question that I was also pondering recently. One idea that I pursue is: If we follow Axel Kleidon’s grand view on the Earth system and its productivity, then one could see the technosphere as evolving from the biosphere in overcoming the latter’s limitations on only relying on carbon as an essential resource for material expansion by mobilizing solar energy. A solar energy technosphere broadens the scope to any kind of substance to expand materially. This is one idea. The other, of course, is just extending the standard principle of ecology: Large predators help to increase productivity of ecosystems. So we do, in that sense serving the biosphere. Of course, we see the reduction of biodiversity in critical light: But don’t we also increase the sheer material weight of biomass? In this view, the technophere becomes a new regulatory level in biosphere productivity. Isn’t the ‘Ecosystem services’ concept just driving that process? All that might be implicit in the ‘Gaia 2.0’ idea that was recently discussed by Lenton and Latour (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6407/1066).

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    1. I would strongly object to the notion that we can be seen as taking the role of the biodiversity- and bioproductivity-increasing top predators. Humans typically do not just take this “top” role in biologic food chains (or, meshs), but rather take a sideways-position, by taking out individials (or mass) from all levels along the chains. So to say, we’re not just the bears or sharks, but also occupying competing roles for all other potential predators along the chains – not only hunting salmon or seals, but also hunting their food sources or diminishing them otherwise.
      So far, we’re semi-fixing this misbalanced system by synthetic fertilizers, using fossil sources for their generation.

      But, solar energy is a very intriguing field, and there I do agree – at least if we look at the task of electricity generation, it appears vastly advantageous in terms of output per area to use photopholtaics on fields rather than grow biomass and convert it to electricity. However, this leaves the question of recycling and the mining of rere earths unadressed. A system with lower output of electricity per area, yet with advantageous effects for the soil (aka, for bioproductivity) and the potential for closed material cycles appears preferable. Such a system is possible in principle. The co-generation of electricity and of biochar (which stores about half the carbon of the biomass feedstock and is a powerful ingredience to re-vitalize depleted soils, even make healthy soils still more productive and has the potential for long-term carbon storage) is such a system. Of course, this only works if societies’ total electricity demand allows for such extensive land usage.

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  3. “Making the Earth system thermodynamically more productive” – this is an absolutely fascinating point, and I think this lies at the heart of a fruitful approach for finding suitable guiding principles for navigating the technosphere. And of course, it’s not something where the hope for expanding the (exergy) pie will in itself enable some fractions to still further increase their share of it. On the contrary, there might even be a systemic argument in this against such accumulation.

    I think the nature-culture (or nature/tech) dychotomy isn’t really a helpful wayy of looking at the world. Even the question of whether or not the technosphere is growing and engulfing the biosphere might not be the most productive way to frame the challenge. Which technosphere? Can we imagine different ones? How long can which path last?
    This leads me to a field I more recently discovered as very much interwoven with technosphere science, permaculture.
    Even though this probably makes a fine post by itself, I’ll try to sketch some of the basic ideas right here.
    As an underlying idea one can claim that permaculture (sometimes labelled as “revolution by gardening”) believes in human agency in so far as it is indeed possible to shape the world in a desirable/desired direction – interestingly, the direction of a thermodynamically more productive overall system.
    David Holmgren’s 12 princples even include Lotka’s maximum power principle.
    (find a good list here (with explicit reference to Lotka) https://www.live-native.com/the-12-principles-of-permaculture/, and another one here, in a maybe less academic-sounding version https://holmgren.com.au/essence-of-permaculture-free/ ).
    I don’t think these principle fully suffice (as, for instance, they do not adress aspects of economic or political power, and do not explicitly discuss heterogenous (or, “cross”) rebound effects, yet they are an essential building block and many of these aspects can be considered as being implicitly incorparated within these principles.
    (e.g., “Use small and slow solutions” and “Do not produce waste” together with “Use renewable resources and services” and “Apply self-regulation and learn from the feedback” is a pretty good set for both avoiding undesirable kinds of rebound effects, and to check and control (economic/political) power.
    The ideal of autonomous and self-regulating systems calls for a specific kind of emanzipation: enabling processes to “mature” in the way that (sub) systems become as self-sustaining and self-regulating as possible. All of this is not a purely altruistic strife, as “Obtain a yield” is still at the core of it, and the optimization runs toward maximum efficiency in terms of output per unit of input in terms of both external resources and work, the latter at least compared with a less thouroughly- designed system.)

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