Eigentimes in co-evolution of biosphere and technosphere: A challenge to policy design

The Corona crisis has highlighted a problem of considerable significance for the study of co-evolutionary processes: temporal dynamics and temporal coordination. In my 2002 book (in German) ‘Elements of Evolutionary Economics’ I devoted a full chapter to time and introduced the term ‘Eigentime’ that is mostly known from physics but is rarely used in other contexts. Eigentime is what biologists refer to as the specific ‘clocks’ of organismic life cycles and reproductive rhythms of species which reflect distinct adaptive performances specific to their respective niches. The Eigentime of a mosquito is radically different from the Eigentime of an elephant. Viable and sustainable ecosystems must achieve a functional coordination of Eigentimes of all organisms, and collapse of ecosystems is often caused by desynchronization, such as the explosion of algae in lakes, triggered by a confluence of various environmental conditions.

In case of the Corona, we observe a competition between the diffusion of the virus on a global scale and the speed how human populations adapt, which today involves the technosphere, where remedies are searched and developed, such as vaccines. That means, the Eigentimes of the virus and of innovation processes in the technosphere must be coordinated, expressed in many ways how procedures and rules in the pharmaceutical industries are changed, and, of course, in orchestrating a huge investment in R&D. Yet, the consequences of the virus can manifest their own Eigentimes: For example, economists have argued that the effects on human capital formation will be lasting in the ‘Corona cohort’, such as the losses of skills in the resulting unemployment or the damage to capabilities to learn and study of children who are locked out of school.

The question of temporal coordination of co-evolution of technosphere and biosphere is a neglected topic, although the problem is widely acknowledged. The current climate crisis has been triggered by a radical de-synchronization of entropy production in the technosphere via the explosive release of energy stored in fossils which needed a time much longer to build, by many orders of magnitude. The Eigentimes of the biosphere are mostly too slow to adapt, although there are also many species that may have the potential because of their short reproductive cycles. But the different potential for sustainable temporal coordination can have serious consequences for the structural stability of entire ecosystems. That applies for humans as well, as we straddle biosphere and technosphere: For example, we cannot speedily adapt to higher temperatures by genetic changes, and therefore would even rely more on the technosphere, with possible counterproductive consequences, such as intensifying energy consumption for cooling.

Therefore, it emerges as an important topic how to design the technosphere in a way so that a viable and sustainable temporal coordination with the biosphere is achieved. This does not simply mean ‘slowing down’: For example, the transition of our energy systems should happen as fast as possible to contain the worst consequences of global warming. That is a lesson from the Corona, as many measures effectively push this transition, such as the implosion of international traffic. Why don’t we respond to the climate crisis with similar urgency and speed as to the Corona? On the other hand, we certainly need to expand our time horizon considerably, together with lowering time discounting close to zero, in order to coordinate or decision calculus with the relatively slow speed of climate change, such as the slow increase of sea levels.

Alas, many of our institutions impose Eigentimes on our decisions which are out of synch with the ongoing changes. For example, the political process in democracies is governed by the electoral cycle, and in dictatorships shaped by the short-term interests of securing the power of incumbents. Our economic institutions often impose short-termism, as the reporting rhythms for listed companies. Therefore, we need to take initiative and design explicit approaches to Eigentime management, or, building a temporal architecture for coordinating technosphere and biosphere.

For example, our political systems need radical overhaul in considering this problem. Certainly, one is the problem of containing dysfunctional effects of the electoral cycle. In most systems today, the only institution that represents long-term concerns is the constitutional courts. One could imagine installing another chamber in the legislative which represents future generations; or, create a body akin to the central bank that has the same task. On the other hand, for enabling higher speed of institutional adaptations, sunset clauses for laws seem appropriate, so that automatically laws would need to be evaluated and possibly changed after a clearly defined ‘expiration time’.

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