This article was written by Alex Steffen in August 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
No corner of the planet is so remote that it hasn't felt humanity's footprint. We have become a force of nature: influencing everything, accelerating destruction. And whether we admit it or not, we're increasingly in the position of having to choose the fate of much (perhaps all) of life on Earth.
One of the most stunning scientific measurements of this fact is net primary productivity. Worldchanger David Zaks recently shared with me some of the papers arising from the research he and his colleagues have been doing on net primary productivity, and the results they came to are pretty awe-inspiring.
In short and simple terms, their work confirms that humans are now using a quarter of all of the Earth's productivity (and in the process undermining the health of the rest). More than half of this impact is from direct harvest -- reaping crops, catching fish, cutting trees. Forty percent is the result of land use changes. The remainder is the result of fires. As David himself puts it, "The importance of these studies lies in reframing previously benign numbers into a story that more effectively portrays our collective actions on the planet."
Also worth noting is the idea that we're using more of a shrinking pie: that "background productivity" has decreased. We've discussed this effect before in relation to personal planets, but it's really worth grabbing hold of -- not only is the Earth finite, not only are we using an increasing portion of all of its systems, but those systems themselves are effectively shrinking as we overuse them.
When our impacts on the planet become so extreme that they're visible at this level, of course, planetary thinking becomes not a quaint notion but a practical necessity. And as soon as the mind begins to grasp the implications of living on a small and seamless planet, it naturally jumps to looking -- at least for a period of time -- on the Earth as if it were a strange planet.
Fools jump to the wrong conclusion immediately: that Earth is merely our first planet. That we can destroy it, because our species soon to embark for Mars are from there launch ourselves across the whole universe, where habitable planets may be a dime a dozen. For a whole variety of reasons, this is idiocy. The best reasons have to do with distance. As Charlie Stross has written, the distances we'd need to travel to create an interstellar civilization are, at this point, only conquerable through the belief in non-existant magical technologies:
Here's a handy metaphor: let's approximate one astronomical unit — the distance between the Earth and the sun, roughly 150 million kilometres, or 600 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon — to one centimetre. ... Try to get a handle on this: it takes us 2-5 years to travel two inches. But the proponents of interstellar travel are talking about journeys of ten miles.
(It should be noted that this is definitely not an argument against space exploration. We need more of that, and we need better agreements about how to do it right).
The next wrong conclusion is that we can be cavalier with the planet and its ecosystems, because we'll soon be smart and powerful enough to undo whatever damage we've done. In the most ridiculous versions of this argument, you have people talking about ignoring all present-day problems in a headlong rush towards the Singularity, since after thinking machines arrive, we'll be godlike in our powers.
Some don't even think we need to wait for the brainy robots to arrive. There are those who argue already that we ought to be engaging in planetary engineering -- large-scale interventions in the working of the planet's natural processes themselves. One commonly cited example is the idea of seeding the oceans with iron to promote algal blooms that could suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. (This is not a good idea.) All of the ideas that fall into this camp share the essential characteristic of proposing to find a simple and massive answer to a set of complex and manifold problems. It's been said that this is like hoping to find a technique for planetary liposuction.
Still, it's important to remember that not all attempts to Terraform the Earth intend irresponsibility. Smart people can believe in the necessity of the Big Fix. And, if things get desperate enough, we may need to go all in on a set of Big Fixes. Jamais proposed a framework for evaluating the ethics of such efforts in his important essay on The Reversibility Principle, and we certainly hope that scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs evaluating whether to even undertake such efforts will consider the implications very, very carefully.
But the essential fact remains that we don't understand the planet very well at all, and the rate at which our knowledge is growing -- while impressive -- doesn't suggest that we'll be up to the task of safely undertaking planetary engineering any time in the near future.
Instead, two approaches suggest themselves as both sane and bold.
The first is planetary management (or planetary gardening -- the phrase that's coming to be preferred [do you have a preference? a better suggestion? I'd love to hear it in the comments.]). The basic idea here is both acknowledging that we've had a profound and ubiquitous impact on the world's ecosystems, and that no force other than humanity is now capable of preserving the functioning of those ecosystems. It'll take the humility to keep learning, a commitment to creating a restorative economy, and a fair dose of luck, but a response to this crisis based on millions of informed, small-scale efforts to preserve and restore ecosystem function seems much less likely to fail catastrophically.
The second is "colonizing" Earth: treat the limited resources the Earth offers us (without destroying natural systems) as the same sort of environmental envelope space explorers would face, and then design an amazing civilization that can live within those limits in a dynamic, creative and prosperous way. As Karl Schroeder explains,
I'm not suggesting that we all end up walking around our own planet in space suits--but I am suggesting that our industries and agriculture will ultimately need to do the equivalent. I don't expect Buckminster Fuller's domed cities to sprout up everywhere. I do think that chemical industries have to be closed-loop, taking nothing from the ecosystem and putting nothing into it. It would be fine for us to continue using coal and oil into the indefinite future, provided none of their byproducts ever enter the ecosystem. That would be equivalent to running industry under a dome.
To believe in the possibility of colonizing the Earth is to recognize that we have the ability to dramatically shrink our ecological footprints, perhaps even to leave positive ecological handprints
Both of these approaches are going to take mental transformations entirely out of the scope of the sort of actions people are now being asked to take in the name of sustainability. But that doesn't mean they can't be done. Beginning to attempt them is, properly understood, one of the boldest adventures humanity has ever imagined.
Planetary Thinking is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.