Sphere of Influence

P. K. Haff, “Purpose in the Anthropocene: Dynamical role and physical basis,” Anthropocene (forthcoming)

This is the latest in a series of papers that Peter Haff has published in the last couple of years on the Anthropocene and the “technosphere.” I don’t think that those two concepts necessarily go hand in hand; in some formulations they can even be at odds with one another. But Haff seems to me one of the most exciting and creative thinkers currently working under the sign of “the Anthropocene.”

Haff defines the technosphere in an earlier paper: “a global apparatus that searches for, extracts, and does work with (mostly) fossil energy resources to provide support for its own existence as well as that of its essential parts.” The apparatus is composed of the global network of human technology, and human beings are the most notable of those essential parts. But Haff’s starting point is the dynamics of the technosphere itself, rather than human agency:  we need to study the technosphere at the level of the system and its functioning, not just at the level of its components, he urges.

Thus, in another recent paper:

It is natural for humans to see the technosphere from the “inside” and to think of it as a purely derivative phenomenon, dependent entirely on humans for its creation and continued existence. However, that is only half the story. The human population, at anything like its current size, is deeply dependent on the existence of the technosphere. Without the support structure and services provided by technology, the human population would quickly decline towards its Stone Age base of no more than ten million individuals.

In other words, around 99.9% of living humans owe their existence to their having been entrained by the technosphere. Their implicit deal with the technosphere works both ways. They serve their own subjective interests, sure, but they also serve the requirements of the quasi-autonomous system—manifested in pipelines, road networks, power grids, tax systems, legal codes, farms, and office buildings—within which they belong like organs within a body.

So it’s not the case that the global network of technology is subservient to the wishes of a human population by which it was created and which it exists to serve. The technosphere is an emergent system dedicated most fundamentally to its own survival. It’s not like a self-aware Skynet of sci-fi dreams (though per Bronislaw Szerszynski, sci-fi might help us to understand it). Even so, talk about the interests and demands of the technosphere isn’t just metaphorical: the network constitutes a quasi-autonomous system with its own internal dynamics.

Haff deduces six (or so) laws that describe the workings of the technosphere. There’s the rule of performance, which demands that most components of the system contribute to its upkeep (though it can cope with a few broken parts, like hermits and criminals); the rule of provision, that the system must enable and encourage the work of its parts (just as a car must ensure that its wheels can spin freely); the rule of inaccessibility, that larger components can generally resist disruption by smaller ones (my single letter of complaint won’t bring down a corporation); and so on.

This interview is a good way in to Haff’s thinking—partly because it makes implicit connections between the origins of the concept on the one hand, and debates about the Anthropocene and conservation on the other:

During our [geological] field season in the summer, we often went off to an undisturbed place on the globe to look at how the earth really worked. These are harder and harder to find … so what kind of frame could you build up to try to bring more coherence to thinking about society, humans, technology as part of the earth’s systems?

The technosphere, for Haff, is a new phenomenon of the Earth system. Its closest analogue is the biosphere (“one might say that technology is the next biology”). One difference is that many millions of years of feedback have taught the biosphere to recycle its own wastes, on pain of destroying itself. The technosphere doesn’t do that yet. It’s quite good at reusing gold, for instance, which circulates as currency, but bad at recycling carbon emissions.

Haff’s published work has focused on characterising the current state of the technosphere, not on deducing its history or its future. Just figuring out this new Earth system at the level of the system is challenge enough. But he’s willing to draw a few conclusions.

Technology is not passive but has evolved mechanisms for its own defence—a requirement of any dynamic system whose longevity is measured in a large number of internal clock cycles, such as the time between cell phone bills or elections. … Policies that are based only on a consideration of future human wellbeing and do not take into account the needs of technology, especially the need to continue metabolizing at a high rate—which is the source of the constraints and incentives that channel human behaviour towards technology-friendly activities and is thus the sine qua non of technology—are likely to fail or be slow to implement because they consider the implicit two-way compact between system and parts only from the viewpoint of the parts.

The implication is that all attempts to reduce the overall energy consumption of the technosphere (currently running at around 17 terawatts) face, at best, a tremendous uphill struggle.

And the new paper itself? Its aim is to “[analyze] the role of purpose in the Anthropocene without building in from the start avoidable anthropocentric bias.” The argument is one that’s been implicit in Haff’s earlier papers, but it gets spelled out here with full force for the first time:

The anthropocentric assumption of the primacy of human intention as the driving force of the Anthropocene represents the same kind of scientific error that believers in a divine designer make in explaining the creation of the natural world by appeal to an extra-physical force. Namely it starts with a metaphysical assignation of purpose, rather than starting from dynamical considerations and then identifying any purpose(s) that may arise as a consequence of that dynamics.

Dynamic systems (cars, universities, forests) that stick around for a significant number of their own internal cycles necessarily display a property of “acting-as-if-to-survive.” That’s true of the technosphere as well. To think of it as passively subordinate to human will is to overlook the presence of its own dynamic properties.

So in the new paper Haff develops an intricate taxonomy of types of purpose, a taxonomy that privileges the “non-intentional purpose” of the technosphere itself. That property of acting-as-if-to-survive constitutes the intrinsic purpose of any system, in his terminology. The technosphere’s single intrinsic purpose, together with the things it actually does in order to survive (its functional and provisional purposes, as Haff calls them), together make up its fundamental or regulative purpose.

That whole class of fundamental purposes are (in effect) contrasted with the imputed + personal + intentional = constitutive purposes characteristic of individual human subject-components of the system. People might end up with the “impression” (Haff doesn’t think of it as an “illusion”) that the local shop exists in order to sell them things they want, that they’ve gone to university merely to please their parents, and so on. All those subjective purposes are real enough, and indispensable for enabling the technosphere to work (there’d be no universities without subjective incentives to study and work there). But despite our “close-up impressions” that our “personal goals” have little or nothing to do with maintaining the technosphere’s metabolism,

at the larger scale, the integration of human actions and personal goals helps support an autonomous system with its own, intrinsic purpose which is carrying humans on a great excursion beyond their direct control.

None of this is uncontroversial, obviously. The technosphere featured prominently in this paper, “The Anthropocene Biosphere,” co-authored by Haff and some other AWG members. But one of the actual co-authors of that paper has gone on the record as disagreeing strongly with the whole notion of the technosphere. That author is Erle Ellis, the most prolific representative of the ecomodernist/Breakthrough Institute/“good Anthropocene” tendency within the AWG.

Ellis claims that humans and their species-level eusociality should properly be recognised as the (sole) cause of Earth System change:

“I am a dissenter on the use of this term … I would have eliminated it if it were up to me alone. I find the term ‘technosphere’ neither appropriate nor accurate … It makes it appear that technology is the defining element of human alteration of the Earth system,” Ellis said, adding that “humans and societies create and sustain technologies, not the other way around – though of course there is a tight coupling of societies with technologies.”

Ellis called such an idea not only “inaccurate,” but defeatist.

“[The concept of the technosphere] is politically and socially disenfranchising and alienating people and societies—and their potential to guide, at least to some degree, this global human force behind the anthropocene.”

To Ellis the key is not the rise of technology, but rather humanity’s incredibly rich social life. He maintains that our “ultrasocialness” is the major driving force behind the changes on the planet we are witnessing today. … “Technology is not the driver of Earth system change – social change is the cause of this.”

Ellis’s argument that Haff’s systems-level thinking unduly depoliticises the current crisis is bound to strike a chord even (especially?) with many people whose political orientation is very different from that of the ecomodernists. But there are two big holes to pick at. First, as quoted here, it sounds as if Ellis is making the flat claim that it’s not true that “technologies create and sustain humans and societies,” which seems hard to credit. Second, to make the “ultrasocialness” of humans in general the ultimate driver of ecological change can hardly be any less “politically disenfranchising” than the notion of the technosphere.

I don’t think that Haff’s work is politically disenfranchising anyhow. But rather than get into that, I’d like to finish on the question of the relationship between the Anthropocene and the technosphere.

The “Anthropocene Biosphere” paper is probably the crucial document for thinking about that relationship. It’s a close cousin of a later paper that I treated sceptically on this blog back in May. Haff co-authored both papers. Both of them argue that we’re witnessing the emergence of a new Earth-system phenomenon that’s more or less comparable in its significance to the biosphere itself. If that’s so, then we’re not living through an epoch-level transition, a transition from the epoch called the Holocene to a different one. We’re living through something far larger than that.

In that earlier post I was mostly dubious about whether it’s possible to sustain so bold an argument without relying on qualitative rather than quantitative claims. That is, without making claims about the exceptional qualities of human beings as a species, and claims about human intentionality as a qualitatively new physical force, that run great risks of anthropocentrism. I wrote that doing so seemed like a retreat to a line of thought that’s relatively familiar from Buffon, Vernadsky, and others: a line of thought that eliminates some of what’s most distinctive and fruitful about the recent stratigraphic conception of the Anthropocene.

So the question is: does Haff’s new paper answer those concerns? In other words, does “Purpose in the Anthropocene” succeed in showing that the technosphere, in its global dynamics (its acting-as-if-to-survive), has introduced a new factor into the Earth system that can’t simply be identified with human intentionality—and if so, does that justify (even to people who suspect the “noösphere” and suchlike of a fundamental human-centredness) his co-authors’ view that it’s not mere human bias to regard the technosphere’s emergence as one of the five all-time great transitions in the history of all life on Earth so far?

That’s both a long question and a difficult one, and now isn’t the time to try to answer it. Though for what it’s worth, I think my answer is “maybe, but probably not.”

Coming up next week: what are we to make of the “Capitalocene”?

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