May. 27, 2019

Unlimited growth is the foundation of our unsustainable civilization

Coined by US geoscientist Peter Haff in 2012, the technosphere is the system that consists of individual humans, human societies – and stuff. The technosphere system includes the world’s large scale energy and resource extraction systems, power generation and transmission systems, communication, transportation, bureaucracies, corporations, cities, factories, farms, petrochemicals and all built systems as well as computers, automobiles, cell phones and a whole lot of plastic stuff. In terms of stuff, humans have produced an extraordinary 30 trillion metric tons of things. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.

The ‘technosphere’ – operates according to a quasi-autonomous dynamics, summarized by six rules: (1) the rule of inaccessibility, that large components of the technosphere cannot directly influence the behavior of their human parts; (2) the rule of impotence, that most humans cannot significantly influence the behavior of large technological systems; (3) the rule of control, that a human cannot control a technological system that expresses a larger number of behaviors than he himself; (4) the rule of reciprocity, that a human can interact directly only with systems his own size; (5) the rule of performance, that most humans must perform at least some tasks that support the metabolism of the technosphere; and (6) the rule of provision, that the technosphere must provide an environment for most humans conducive to their survival and function.

We may have created this system, but it is not built for our communal benefit. We will not be able to slow down the growth of the technosphere even if we tried – because we are not actually in control. It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act. The workings of modern humanity are a product of a system that operates beyond our control and that imposes its own requirements on human behavior. We are subordinate parts of the autonomous technosphere, which will resist attempts to compromise its function. Like individual blood cells coursing through capillaries, humans are part of a global-scale system that provides for all their needs and so has led them to rely on it entirely.

Capitalism, with its focus on constant growth and consumption, is the perfect economic system for the technosphere. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity. The environmental writer George Monbiot argued that the root cause of climate change and other environmental tragedies is capitalism- that capitalism is incompatible with life systems on our planet. Economic growth, intrinsically linked to the increasing use of material resources, means seizing natural wealth from both living systems and future generations.

We are currently tightly bound up within a system that could, if we do not act, lead to the impoverishment, and even death of billions of people. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envision alternative futures. The most effective guard against environmental catastrophe may not be technological or economic solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life. How much stuff do we need? And we have learned that the amount of stuff we have is not directly related to happiness, meaningful lives or well-being. What’s best for achieving our personal growth and potential is also what is best for the planet. Can we resist the lure of the illusion of constant consumption and begin to stop being cogs in the wheels of the technosphere?