THE BIOSPHERIC EMERGENCY, ANTHROPOCENE SYNDROME
Gone is the relative stability and predictability of the past 12,000 years as the established patterns and regularity of Holocene phenology begin to fall into chaos. While some cosmic constants remain such as the cycles of day and night, the moon’s influence on the tides, the date of the solstices and the length of time the Earth takes to go around the sun, many other patterns and rhythms of Earth phenology are undergoing major change.
Culturally, the Anthropocene is generally recognized to be an era in which human activity has grossly disturbed the natural environment. Although the origins of the Anthropocene can be traced to our ancient ancestors (paleo-pollution through intentional combustion has been documented at Neanderthal sites, picking up pace during the industrial revolution, for many scientists its true commencement is mid-20th century, a point at which the aforementioned environmental changes began rapid acceleration. The Anthropocene serves as a multi-disciplinary descriptor for human-induced Earth System change and life will be characterized by uncertainty, unpredictability, genuine chaos and relentless change. Earth distress, as manifest in global warming, changing climates, erratic weather, acidifying oceans, disease pandemics, species endangerment and extinction, bioaccumulation of toxins and the overwhelming physical impact of exponentially-expanding human development will have its correlates in human physical and mental distress.
The changes we are facing are much more significant than the familiar litany of human impacts such as climate change, species extinction, and toxic pollution. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. The most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature’s most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism.
While we have already tried to build a new and viable society around concepts such as democracy, sustainability, sustainable development and resilience, all these terms have been corrupted by forces determined to incorporate and embed them into the Anthropocene where they become business as usual. Sustainability is inadequate as a concept because it does not specify what is to be sustained and over what time frame it is to be sustained. Sustainable development, equally, fails to define what it is about development that is to be sustained … except perhaps a global-scale development which is diametrically opposed to micro-life and planetary-scale forces and puts us on the path to dislocation and extinction.
The concept of resilience has also been appropriated by forces determined to pull it into the gravitational influence of toxic industrial society on a globalized scale. Instead of helping us rebound into configurations of successful models of living after disturbance, we are now seeing complex adaptive systems and ‘resilience’ being used to justify the ongoing existence of processes and activities that are driving humans to disease and extinction. The ongoing resilience of technically non-sustainable and undesirable features of social systems, occur where pathological social relationships that are oppressive and exploitative of humans and ecosystems (life) are rendered resistant to change by economic and political subsidies, political support, and vested interests.
LIFE AND EVOLUTION ARE NOT A COMPETITIVE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE!
With the appearance and evolution of organisms, the surface of Earth has become our biosphere, which is occupied by organisms and inanimate matter. Life, information, and consciousness are entities unique to the biosphere. Each of these three entities has its own properties, physiological behaviors, and physiological functions, but they only appear together as a whole in a living being. That is, the biotic phenomena of life, information, and consciousness cannot exist individually in an organism; they are indivisibly linked, and this is reflected in an organism’s biological behavior as a result of the interaction of its internal environment with its external environment.
Life is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; the planet itself is a living, self-regulating system. Our brain, immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell is a living, cognitive system. Evolution is the constant emergence of novelty and creativity as the driving forces in terms of relationships, patterns, and context with countless interconnections between the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life.
Through the last centuries, biologists, physicists and philosophers have tried to formulate the universal principles that govern life. The biological structures of a living being are subject to physical laws; for example, an organism is an open system and must rely on its environment to complete a closed system, and it follows the second law of thermodynamics via exchanges of information (negentropy) and mass and energy (e.g. food). Additionally, thermodynamics of nonequilibrium systems resulted in the emergence of organized systems, such as organisms. However, although organisms are subject to physical laws, life, information, and consciousness are biological phenomena that are not subject to physical laws.
The relationship between life and entropy was recognized by L. Boltzmann in 1886. Living beings do not violate the second law because they keep their entropy low by increasing the disorder in the environment causing a net increase in entropy. To keep this low entropy and to perform biological work, living systems need an external energy source. Certainly, the strategy to obtain energy to keep the entropy low was one of the main conditioners of evolution. Isolated systems spontaneously evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium, the state with maximum entropy. However, living organisms are open systems and life is a far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic process; if a living being reaches equilibrium with its surroundings, then the quality of life disappears. Living organisms face changes every moment of their lives and require a constant energy input to maintain their highly ordered state. In this vital process the only thing that remains unaltered is the vital order and the nonequilibrium state; if the vital order is lost then the whole biosystem goes to an irreversibly state; death.
‘Symbiosis’ implies living together for mutual benefit is a core aspect of ecological and evolutionary thinking, symbiosis and its associated symbiogenesis, affirms the interconnectedness of life and all living things. Symbiosis also implies an overall homeostasis, or balance of interests, since domination of one part or organism over the rest would lead to functional failure.
Conflict between organisms exists, but an overall balance of interests (eco-homeostasis) is in the total interest of all life. In addition, ecology itself is a radical concept in that it requires of us all to live within the limits of nature and to live with all the other life forms that share the Earth System. The new era will be characterized by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems. Given that we have evolved as a species within the pre-existing evolutionary matrix, such intelligence lies within us as latent potential. Our culture and enterprise will be exemplified by cumulative types of relationships and attributes nurtured by humans that enhance mutual interdependence and mutual benefit for all living beings (desirable), all species (essential) and the health of all ecosystems (mandatory).
Symbiomimicry, the processes of life that make the mutually beneficial associations between different life forms strong and healthy, in human enterprise will both generate and distribute resources such that, in nurturing all humans, we nurture the life support system on which we all depend.
Given the central role of symbioses in ecosystem processes, functions, and services throughout the Earth biosphere, the impacts of human-driven change on symbioses are critical to understand. Symbioses are not merely collections of organisms, but co-evolved partners that arise from the synergistic combination and action of different genetic programs. They function with varying degrees of permanence and selection as emergent units with substantial potential for combinatorial and evolutionary innovation in both structure and function.
Central to understanding the impact of anthropogenic change on symbioses is a clear definition of terms. Symbiosis is the shared genetic fate of two or more organisms via physical association. This physical association establishes a spatiotemporal co-localization that imposes shared selective pressures for co-evolution, reduces the number of interactions with others (e.g., via endosymbiosis or by simple physical exclusion; and increases the reliability of repeated partner interactions that can bootstrap further co-evolution. In defining symbiosis from an evolutionary ecology perspective symbiotic partners: (1) must share an environment that may be uniquely co-created, and (2) do so for a significant portion of at least one partner’s life cycle (sufficient for common selection pressures to be experienced by all partners).
Homeostasis—the process of dynamic readjustment towards maintaining essential system variables that are subject to change—is a vital, emergent property of symbiotic systems that must be at the forefront of our thinking about how anthropogenic change impacts symbioses. System homeostasis relates directly to our defining condition that symbiotic partners share and co-construct a common environment (see below). How partners actively niche-construct and maintain their symbiotic association determines the extent to which they are resilient and able to buffer against the degree and timescales of environmental change
Anthropogenic change may directly interfere with the very nature of a symbiotic interaction in modifying the pay-off structure of association. Practically, this may be difficult to determine since this requires a careful accounting of costs and benefits to fitness and potentially a mechanistic understanding of how a symbiosis works.
Anthropogenic change could facilitate the birth of new symbioses: (1) through the creation of novel niches, (2) through the introduction of new partners, and (3) through the formation of new relationships and selection regimes. None of these are mutually exclusive and in fact, symbiogenesis may capitalize on a combination of these three schemes. In all schemes, serendipitous complementarity of accidental partners may lead to new and unexpected unions on timescales that may be equally rapid as those of anthropogenic change. This way anthropogenic change drives many unprecedented environmental changes that are also opportunities for life to adapt and assemble in new ways. Symbiotic holobionts (the host and all its symbiont population), may have higher fitness in new niches created by intentional human construction or unintentional anthropogenic mixing. Novel niches provide new opportunities for ecological interactions and partnerships, which may be exploited by new partner pairings. Importantly, these partnerships and potential symbioses may emerge quite quickly without extensive co-evolutionary adaptation
We are running out of time.
In the context of the environmental crisis and the Anthropocene the connections of humans and our technical culture to earth/nature must be recognized as very important. After the technological flight of modernity it is time to find a new balance for nature, humans and technology. Thus, the present-day call for preservation of the earth against damaging technology is paradoxically complicated by the concurrent philosophical questioning of what nature and culture are. Therefore the challenge for current approaches of technical mediation is to avert such a forgetting of nature, and remain attached down to earth.
Technology, which has been responsible in its early phase — until today — for the rupture of the co-evolution with our environment, is now the main driver for the recovery of this symbiosis. Many deeptech solutions can reduce the impact we have on our environment all the while boosting our planet’s capacity to restore itself and to adapt to our impact. In the end, we reach again a situation where technology enables the environment to adapt to a smaller impact of our species, and here we are, back in symbiosis, but enabled by technology this time, natural technology, explores the boundaries and collaborations between organisms and technology.
In an age of human-induced extinction on a global scale, synthetic biology is human-inflected evolution, albeit on the microbial scale, and predominantly used for perpetuating so-called human civilization rather than benefiting the more-than-human living world. The field aims to synthesize microbial organisms into ‘biofactories’, whereby their metabolism is directed towards making medicines, bioplastics, or biofuels. This applies to microbes that have already been co-opted for human benefit since the proverbial dawn of civilization, such as yeast for beer and bread, as well as microbes with much more recent human entanglements, through to currently non-existent but seriously proposed new-to-nature microbes notionally designed to fulfil specific desired outcomes. While the field is highly diverse, it is unified by a promissory zeal, which maintains that successful synthesis will allow for the prodigious productivity of the microbial world to be harnessed into biomanufacturing (such as swapping biofuels for fossil fuels, or bioplastic for petroleum-derived plastic), producing lower biophysical impacts.
Earth is entering a period in which some of its most fundamental processes are being co-opted and redesigned by engineers. Synthetic biologists, climate engineers, and nanotechnologists are reaching deeply enough into the workings of nature to alter the very metabolism of the planet we inhabit. In so doing, they promise to create an entirely new, synthetic world. The go or no-go for intentional interventions into evolution via technoscience, is based on a philosophy, or rather a worldview, for how to inhabit earth in the face of impending extinction of incalculable multitudes, including our own species. What is both heartening and horrifying about the speculative regime of intentional interventions is that it offers a technological response to very issues of the ecological crisis: heartening because its logic of maximal effects from a minimal intervention promises to bridge the temporal chasm between awareness of an environmental problem and effective action, [and] horrifying because a solution of this nature inevitably has so much in common with the problem it addresses.
Imagining a future in which humans fundamentally reshape the natural world using nanotechnology, synthetic biology, de-extinction, and climate engineering.
The development of a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth’s very metabolism: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; molecular manufacturing that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology’s potential to build, not just read, a genome; biological mini-machines that can outdesign evolution; the relocation and resurrection of species; and climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.
What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.