Symbiosis nature – humanity – technology

By maart 13, 2023 Algemeen

The Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago with the Sun and rest of the solar system. Life is known to have appeared a billion years later, though that may be a conservative appraisal. No matter the exact date of life’s formation, very soon after its appearance, co-evolution began in which life and the Earth began changing together. The biosphere, which is the sum-total of living organisms, began exerting strong feedback forces on the other geospheres of air (atmosphere), water (hydrosphere), ice (cryosphere), and land (lithosphere). Together, the bio and geospheres formed a coupled Earth system that has evolved as a single entity taking on many forms over time. Life was often the driver of planetary transitions as new species emerged with new functions and capacities that altered the geophysical/geochemical behavior of atmosphere, oceans, etc.

The present Anthropocene biosphere is unique in possessing four key parameters:  1) the widespread (near-global) resetting of ecosystem composition and structure, partly as a result of cross-global species invasions; 2)  a major change in the energy budget that all species rely upon, brought on by the expropriation of primary productivity, with one species (Homo sapiens) consuming some 25% to 40% of net primary production, and by the production of vast amounts of energy by Homo Sapiens primarily through burning fossil fuels, essentially fossil net primary productivity;  3) the human-directed evolution of plants and animals; 4)  the increasing coupling of the biosphere with an ever more rapidly evolving technosphere.

Looking at the history of the Earth, the biosphere moved through evolutionary stages in terms of its ability to exert influence on the other geophysical systems. The development of dense networks of feedback between living systems (like microbes) and the planet was the mechanism by which the biosphere exerted this influence. For example, the feedback loops between global populations of methane-breathing microbes and the atmospheric greenhouse effect can keep changes in planetary temperature from getting out of hand. And just as in the forest networks such feedbacks are the agents allowing something like cognition to act on global scales. Thus, as these feedbacks evolve and become more numerous, we can speak of the biosphere going from an immature to a mature stage. Once the network of feedbacks becomes dense enough, the biosphere will become self-maintaining and self-producing over long periods; a mature biosphere that exhibits Planetary Intelligence. It has become a global system of living and non-living networks that responds to global changes and continue to be self-sustaining.

If the biosphere is the sum total of all life, the ethnosphere is the sum total of humanities’ cultural and intellectual heritage that forms a complex web of human belief, meaning, and imagination as expressed in our poetry, prose, songs, dances, and human traditions. Unfortunately , our cultural, scientific and technological evolution has taken most of humanity onto a path that reduces life to isolated atoms, transforms cultural and biological diversity into homogeneity, smashes symbiotic connections between species, transgresses Earth-system boundaries, and introduces toxic elements that are beyond the evolutionary experience of all organisms. A holistic approach that takes the tension between the economic, ecological, social and technological spheres into consideration is desperately needed.

Humans have gradually constructed a binary between themselves and the natural world by surrounding themselves in the comfort and order of the technological. In other words, humans have been building artificial spheres in order to immunize – i.e. protect—themselves against the threatening outside world. This technological immunization lets us feel in control of our environment, but its order operates outside the sphere of the biological. This has forced a wedge into the biosphere and the technosphere.

The emergence of an Anthropocene biosphere is unique in that it arose from the intervention of a single species of hominid. It has developed over many millennia as a consequence of the increasingly close coupling between humans and technology, and at an accelerating speed over the past couple of centuries, to become a truly global system. The technosphere marks in fact the newly emerged system that is responsible for the growth of planetary impacts that define the Anthropocene and frames technology on the global scale as an autonomous metabolic force. Its acceleration is measured in the rate of increase of matter and energy that it uses, and in the evolution of both hardware (all our material constructions, from which the technofossils of the future are being shed) and software (social and communication systems) that support it. This process is going faster everyday, due to a constantly accelerating dynamic of permanent innovation, to such an extent that both individuals and collectives have increasing difficulty to keep up with the pace, and not only that, but also with the very characteristics of this innovation, which predominantly serves to increase the speed, codification, control and calculability of information exchange. The speed of evolution reflects the fundamentally different nature of evolution of technology and culture with respect to biological evolution.

Our technology has grown so complex and omnipresent, though, that it has developed a natural dynamism of its own, and we need to understand it better. The Anthropocene technosphere, the interlinked set of communication, transportation, bureaucratic and other systems that act to metabolize fossil fuels and other energy resources, is considered to be an emerging global paradigm, with similarities to the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. The technosphere has evolved in a superordinate regulatory layer in the hybrid Earth system, where human technology has achieved geological scales and profoundly shapes all biospheric processes, directly or indirectly, thus even emerging as a new evolutionary level in a hybrid planet.

The failed efforts to respond to the Anthropocene, however, demonstrate that our technosphere is still immature. It lacks the hallmarks of Planetary Intelligence. The biosphere became mature when it integrated into the other planetary systems in such a way that, at the very least, it did not actively degrade the Earth’s habitability. But the current version of technosphere has it backwards. It is not integrated at all into the other Earth systems. It simply draws matter and energy from them in ways that will drive the whole into a new state that likely does not include a technosphere. There is no self-production and no self-maintenance. Our technosphere is, in the long run, working against itself. In terms of a theory of planetary intelligence, it is formally immature and leaves the entire planet unguided, careening into new and uncharted territory.

The further evolution of the biosphere depends critically on both social behavior and interactions of humans on multiple scales and on the development of technology. To overcome the differences  and align the biosphere, ethnosphere and technosphere we primarely have to understand that:

  • The biosphere is a global system of living and non-living networks that responds to global changes and continue to be self-sustaining.
  • The biosphere, driven by solar energy and photosynthesis, is an essentially circular system, which is all about reproduction: organic growth, regeneration, species interdependence and communication. All wastes are recycled into new growth, assuring the continuity of life.
  • The technosphere, largely powered by fossil fuel combustion, is an essentially linear system. It is defined by production: resource extraction, mechanical assembly, chemical manipulation, and linear waste disposal, with pollution systemically undermining the continuity of life.
  • The fact that the technosphere, in its current form, clashes with the functional principles of the biosphere, an organic, ecologically defined system. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the processes at work in the technosphere are defined by entropy – erosion of quality. By contrast, in the biosphere negentropy – or sustained order – prevails.

The world is facing a poly crisis and existential risks: ecological deterioration and trespassing geo-biophysical planetary boundaries increasingly social inequality, unequal distribution of health, income and wealth in a continuously globalizing world, as well as financial upheavals and recurring economic recessions. Due to the growth of world population, continued high levels of consumption in the developed world and the rapid industrialization of emerging economies, worldwide demand for natural resources such as raw materials, energy, water and land is steadily increasing. As a consequence, renewable resources and the ecological services they provide, such as food and clean water or a healthy environment, are at great risk of degradation and collapse. These crises are interconnected and related to each other.

The Earth and its life stand at a unique moment in its many billion-year history. While, as we have seen, there have been many examples of co-evolution between the living and non-living domains in its long past, what is happening now is unique. With the emergence of the technosphere, a new kind of sentience has appeared and, with it, new possibilities.

The next years and decades will see further dramatic development in technology, society and economy driven by fast-paced technological innovation. Artificial -General- Intelligence, and neural nets are unleashing exponential increase in autonomous computational power -Symbiotic Autonomous Systems- the design of novel materials, synthetic biology, and new scientific and technological modes of controlling and managing the planet’s resources, humanity will further deepen its imprint on the Earth and create further uncertainties and vulnerabilities for its safe inhabitation. Deep tech’s profound enabling power has the potential to bring about real change. It harnesses cutting-edge technologies to create tangible societal shifts, and never has it been more relevant. The poly crisis and existential risks and the rapid expansion of global populations have placed added strain on already fragile -urban- systems, and it’s these fundamental issues that deep tech is designed to address.

Recognizing our place in the world and possibilities, its scientific narrative of co-evolution, and the possibilities of integration -symbiosis- between biosphere and technosphere allows us to get past polarization and support and build the first iteration of a regenerative, just, equitable, free, and fully inclusive human civilization. Self-maintenance of the entire Earth system, including all forms of non-human life on which it depends through feedbacks, in which the various systems of the biosphere and technosphere are fully integrated into the other planetary systems; the symbiosis between nature-humanity-technology (biosphere – ethnosphere -technosphere).

We Have An Opportunity

As a species, humanity has a unique capability to be consciously aware of our individual and our collective impact on the world around us; our actions shape the future by how we live today and we can observe these impacts in real-time. We have the capacity to make sense of our place and time in history, to reflect on where we are today in the evolution of our society and where we may be heading. When it comes right down to it, our future as a species may depend on our willingness to live in an intentionally symbiotic future.

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