Humanity has embarked on a grand planetary experiment, bringing about progress while disrupting the Earth’s systems. While nobody knows the path to a more sustainable future, we must stop pitting humanity against nature. Belgian geologist Manuel Sintubin considers the options.
Photo: Valentin Antonucci/Pexels
My view of the world and of humankind has its roots in the natural sciences, especially geology and cosmology. The study of our planet has taught us that life on Earth has shaped planetary conditions from the beginning. The biosphere made the planet as we know it today. Without the biosphere, the Earth would have been just another hothouse planet.
And people? Humanity is just a ‘member’ of that planet-forming biosphere. Nothing new here. Just like the blue algae more than 2 billion years ago, just like the lichens some 450 million years ago, humans are tinkering with planetary conditions.
This earthly perspective now puts humans at the centre of the story. But that does not mean that humanity is next to, let alone above, nature. No, humanity is nature, and everything we make or do – from smartphones to Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas oratorio – is an expression of nature.
What makes us special is that we have become aware of our role in the earthly story. We have revealed the secrets of planet Earth. We are the first generation to have figured out how the planet really works, so we are also the first generation to picture the impact of our actions on Earth’s systems. We are the first generation that can take control and consciously guide the future of humankind and the planet. Spaceship Earth now has a captain on board.
As Barack Obama said when he was US President: ‘We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.’
Humanity is just a ‘member’ of our planet-forming biosphere, tinkering with planetary conditions, just like the blue algae more than 2 billion years ago
The realisation that we have become a geological force goes hand in hand with a crushing responsibility. ‘We are as Gods and have to get good at it’ is the unmistakable appeal of self-proclaimed ‘ecopragmatist’ Stewart Brand. We are now the stewards of this unique cosmic experiment, planet Earth.
That cosmic perspective has another clear message. The arrow of time is inexorable. We are embroiled in an eternal battle against entropy, well aware that in the end, entropy wins out anyway. Cosmic evolution leads to increasingly complex systems, consuming more and more energy to maintain just that island of complexity in a sea of entropy.
We are caught in a cosmic rat race towards greater complexity, propelled by more and more energy flowing through the system. Inevitably, the moment comes – the bifurcation – where the complex system either leaps to a higher form of complexity or collapses into chaos, with entropy eventually winning out.
That is where ‘human Earth’ has now arrived. The 21st century is the century of bifurcation. Do we bump into the wall of increasing complexity? Or do we manage to leap to a higher form of complexity? It’s a choice now largely in human hands.
The arrow of time also forces us to focus our gaze primarily on the future, on the world we can still help shape ourselves. Nostalgia for a world that will never return does not help us move forward. From Earth’s past, we can only learn about what the future may bring.
Probably the most important lesson is that planet Earth does not work on human timescales. This is a call for time literacy, for long-term thinking – deep time reckoning, where we learn to think systemically on Earth’s timescales.
What makes us special is that we have become aware of our role in the earthly story. We are the first generation that can consciously guide the future of the planet
Traditional environmentalist thinking is essentially based on the confrontation between humans and nature. In an influential report, the Club of Rome, a think tank that shaped the movement from the late 1960s, wrote: ‘The earth has cancer and that cancer is man.’ And, years later: ‘The real enemy (...) is humanity itself.’
With such hostile comparisons, early environmentalists drew on an anti-humanist view reminiscent of how Friedrich Nietzsche, in Also sprach Zarathustra, compared humanity to a disease. In a conversation, Zarathustra says: ‘The earth, said he, hath a skin; and this skin hath diseases. One of these diseases, for example, is called “man”.’
Too often, humankind is seen as the enemy of nature. And so humans are placed alongside nature, resulting in the division ‘natural’ – seen as good – and ‘artificial’, or human-made – seen as bad.
This has led to what has been called ecodicy – ‘ecological justification’. Dressed up in war rhetoric, a fine example of ecodicy came from none other than António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who said in 2020, in the context of COVID-19: ‘Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury.’
Nature strikes back with disasters – viruses, hurricanes, floods, climate change, you name it. Humanity must pay for its hubris. The only solution, it seems when looking at it this way, is for us to live once again in harmony with nature.
Too often, humankind is seen as the enemy of nature. Humans are placed alongside nature, resulting in the division ‘natural’ – good – and ‘artificial’ – bad
But what does it really mean to live ‘in harmony with nature’? Have we ever lived in such a way? Is that the life we dream of, not just green-leaning, educated urbanites in Europe, but also women in rural Africa who toil in the fields all day to provide for their families? Besides, in a biosphere dominated by evolution, survival of the fittest applies. Members of the biosphere best able to adapt to changing conditions end up pulling out the rug from under the rest. So what exactly is this ‘harmony with nature’?
And does ‘again’ really apply? Which point in time is the reference for traditional environmentalists? Has there ever been a sustainable world in the past – a world that meets the needs of the generation of the past without compromising the needs of future generations, including us, as the original definition from the 1987 Brundtland report goes?
In truth, the world of our ancestors was primarily a world of poverty and disease, of a struggle for survival, a world with no future prospects. Sustainability still lies in the future, and for the first time in human history.
To me, then, traditional environmental thinking is rather conservative, steeped in nostalgia for a world that never existed, whereas now we have everything we need to build a sustainable world for the first time.
Nature strikes back with disasters. Humanity must pay for its hubris. And so, it seems, we must live once again in harmony with nature. But what does that really mean?
By pitting humanity against nature, I sense in traditional environmental thinking an aversion to progress, modernity and technology. And thus also to technological solutions to climate challenges, such as negative emission technologies, in which carbon is removed from the atmosphere, captured and then sequestered, usually in the form of limestone.
The derogatory term ‘technofix’ often crops up. A prominent member of Oikos, an ecosocialist think tank in Belgium, has complained about ‘the techno-optimists of triumphant modernity’ who keep telling themselves, ‘with tiresome persistence, that only fighting the symptoms via modern technology will solve everything.’ Such ‘technological optimism’ has been catalogued as one of the ‘discourses of climate delay’.
Technological solutions are seen as symptom-fighting, because for traditional environmentalists the cause lies elsewhere – with humans. Whoever argues progress has been made, and is still possible, often gets blamed for staring blindly at the ‘hockey stick of human prosperity’ while not noticing the ‘hockey stick of global warming’.
Traditional environmentalists see the solution rather in social changes. They lean toward social engineering of people and society. Let’s call it a ‘sociofix’. According to this sociofix, all of us have to live differently, which usually means eating less meat, having fewer children, flying less, et cetera.
Surveying the landscape, this makes me wonder whether the ‘progress intellectuals’ and the environmentalists may share a similar form of delusion – the first think of themselves as ‘rulers of nature’, the other as ‘rulers of humanity’.
‘Progress intellectuals’ and environmentalists may share a similar form of delusion – the first think of themselves as ‘rulers of nature’, the other as ‘rulers of humanity’
In the end, there’s only one question that matters: what is the fastest and most effective path to net zero? Is it the road of the technofix? Or that of the sociofix? Or ultimately a bit of both, somewhere in the middle?
From my own experience, I know how difficult, and agonisingly slow, personal behaviour change can be. It took me several years to turn from a meat eater into an ultra-flexitarian. If such a change already takes so long for someone who considers himself a Green and who can afford the luxury of more expensive meat substitutes and fresh salads, how long would behavioural change take among the wider population, not just here in the affluent West, but also in the Global South?
Also, as a psychologist once explained, it may just be that people want to change, but don’t want to be changed.
So if you ask me the fastest way to net zero, I choose the technofix. The technological path seems to me the only guaranteed way to decarbonise the world’s metabolism as quickly as possible. Counting on global societal system change seems a gamble we cannot afford. The sense of urgency simply no longer allows it.
First and foremost, let’s make sure we decarbonise the global economy as soon as possible. Once net zero is reached, then we can reflect on global societal system change.
If you ask me the fastest way to net zero, I choose the technofix. Counting on global societal system change seems a gamble we cannot afford
Honesty dictates we should acknowledge that nobody knows what the right path is. More than 200 years ago, humanity embarked on a grand planetary experiment, like accomplished apprentice magicians, by pumping the carbon dioxide gas that planet Earth plucked from the atmosphere over millions of years back into the atmosphere.
Yes, it has brought much progress, but for too long we have remained blind to the disruptions to Earth’s systems brought about as a result. Now we realise that things have to change. That insight, too, is progress, based on growing scientific understanding.
We face huge challenges, perhaps the greatest humanity has ever faced – ensuring global modernity on a healthy planet. The road ahead will be long and difficult. Neither technological optimists nor traditional environmentalists can predict how solutions to those challenges can be brought to fruition, or even whether we will succeed.
As apprentice wizards, we will continue to try to the best of our ability now and in the future, by trial and error. Sometimes we will succeed, other times we will fail. Success is not guaranteed. But we have no choice.
There is only one way – the way forward.
Neither technological optimists nor environmentalists can predict how solutions to our challenges can be brought to fruition, or even whether we will succeed
Today, the Anthropocene – the age in which humanity has overwhelmingly become a geological force helping determine the future of our planet – is often associated with humanity’s destructive power. It is mainly human action in the 20th century that leaves its mark on the way this Age of Humanity is framed.
Hence, the ideologically coloured term ‘Capitalocene’, the Age of Capital, sometimes crops up to make it clear that the rise of capitalism is the underlying cause of Earth’s destruction.
By focusing on the destructive power of humans, we would reduce the Anthropocene to a geological event, just like the Chicxulub impact, which marked the end of the Age of Dinosaurs some 66 million years ago. Is that really how we want to enter Earth history, as a planetary catastrophe?
Opposed to that is the ideal image of ‘a good, or even great, Anthropocene’, as the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto advocate. A good Anthropocene, they write, ‘demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilise the climate, and protect the natural world.’
Some see this as true long-term thinking.
However, Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton calls this anthropodicy. Hamilton argues that the progress of humanity has taken on divine allure. Whereas theodicy assigns divine justification to human suffering, and ecodicy assigns ecological justification, according to Hamilton, anthropodicy justifies suffering from the perspective of a ‘good Anthropocene’.
By focusing on the destructive power of humans, we would reduce the Anthropocene to a geological event, just like the Chicxulub impact, which marked the end of the Age of Dinosaurs some 66 million years ago
The 20th century is the century of Great Acceleration, of unbridled growth, of both the ‘hockey stick of progress’ and the ‘hockey stick of global warming’. Numerous positive feedbacks have led to exponential growth that has brought much good to humans, but has undeniably had a destructive impact on terrestrial systems. Science teaches us that such exponential growth is unsustainable. That road is a dead end.
The 21st century will be the century of chaos, of transition, in which constructive destruction is central. An important holdout in the demographic transition, as a harbinger of a new equilibrium. The demographic transition inevitably continues, causing the world’s population to peak in the second half of the century. By the end of the century, global population decline kicks in. Degrowth then becomes a reality. Underpopulation, not overpopulation could become a big challenge.
We could accelerate the demographic transition by speeding up the leap to modernity for the Global South. All other societal and natural systems are inherently unpredictable. No one can foresee what social upheavals are still ahead of us this century.
Who could have seen the COVID-19 crisis coming?
Who could have predicted the war in Ukraine?
And what surprises does planet Earth itself still have in store? A super volcanic eruption?
An unforeseen carbon burp, like the one 55 million years ago, that completely disrupts the climate?
Science teaches us that exponential growth is unsustainable. That road is a dead end. The 21st century will be the century of chaos, of transition
In the meantime, then, it is important to be resilient and, above all, adaptive. What we must not do is limit our toolbox through ideological convictions. All that human ingenuity has to offer, we must deploy. Moreover, we must work on that toolbox every day. The more tools in that box, the more resilient we are to unforeseen twists and turns.
Here, I’m thinking of ideologically controversial tools, such as advanced nuclear power, genetic engineering, negative emission technologies, and yes, even geo-engineering as a ‘break glass’ emergency solution. Better safe than sorry!
We should commit to a proactive approach, closely monitoring the impact of technological developments and neutralising the negative impacts as much as possible.
And who knows, maybe then, sometime in the 22nd century, the glorious Age of Humanity – the ‘good Anthropocene’ will dawn, the age when we can be proud of the ‘human Earth’ we created. A new island of complexity may then have come into being, a real living planet, in which humans have taken up the role of planetary stewards.
Are we, then, living in what David Korten, former professor of the Harvard Business School, calls the ‘ecological civilisation’, which secures ‘material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all – in balance with the regenerative systems of a living Earth’?
All that human ingenuity has to offer, we must deploy. Moreover, we must work on that toolbox every day
How do I imagine this Earth of the 22nd century? It will be a warmer world, but one with a stabilised climate, probably below 2°C of warming. Therefore, more extreme weather and steady sea level rise cannot be avoided. But because a global modernity has been achieved, the impact will remain manageable.
It will be an urban world, with most of the population living in green cities. Those cities will form islands in a resilient and biodiverse natural environment. That will be humanity’s new, self-created safe operating space. It will be a high-tech, high-energy world, in which the economic metabolism is completely decarbonised and extensively dematerialised. As our understanding of terrestrial systems improves, nature-based solutions – working with nature – will become the norm.
A shrinking and ageing population will create major socio-economic challenges. Some of us will watch over the new balance between humanity and nature.
In a ‘good Anthropocene’, might we finally live in an ‘ecological civilisation’, which secures ‘material sufficiency and spiritual abundance for all – in balance with the regenerative systems of a living Earth’?
Between 1.8 billion and 800 million years ago, planet Earth experienced a remarkable period of tectonic stability, climate stability and incredibly slow biological evolution. Geologists call that period, when hardly anything was happening, the Boring Billion. Marcia Bjornerud writes in her book Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world that planet Earth had at that time ‘understood’ the fundamental principles of sustainability:
‘The Proterozoic Earth somehow “understood” the fundamental principles of sustainability; geochemical trading flourished, but all commodities flowed in closed loops – the waste products of one group of microbial manufacturers were the raw materials of another.’
Perhaps with the ‘good Anthropocene’, a new Boring Billion is dawning, in which the ‘human Earth’ has once again understood the fundamental principles of sustainability.
Manuel Sintubin is a professor of Geodynamics at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the University of Leuven, Belgium. His research focuses on tectonic processes in the Earth’s crust. This is an edited excerpt of his book Wij, aarde (we, Earth), which came out December 2022.