Big Ideas: Finding the best path to saving the world

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

Human activity now disrupts many of the global-scale systems upon which our survival depends. People around the world are working to find the best way of understanding and responding to this situation, but disagreement is widespread.

The need is urgent to find a way forward that takes proper account of the full range of relevant knowledge and values.

A new and promising approach to understanding and managing Earth systems – what we call the ‘geo-functions perspective’ – has emerged over recent decades, and is now being taken up by different groups of researchers, activists and policy-makers. This perspective sees Earth systems as functioning in an integrated way, and focuses on the role living organisms – including humans – play in these systems. It highlights the importance of nonlinear interactions between processes, the distinctive kinds of dangers and opportunities these may create and the need to share understanding across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

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Some scientists have marked the scale of recent and ongoing human impact on Earth-systems’ behaviour by recognizing a new epoch – the Anthropocene. The Holocene, the ‘modern’ epoch, is now looked back upon as the brief period during which Earth systems remained unusually stable in a configuration advantageous for human life, making possible the establishment of agriculture and the kinds of human social organization that agriculture supports.

The Anthropocene is the new epoch of massive human disruption of those global patterns characteristic of the Holocene.

Scientists, as well as environmental activists, farmers and policy-makers, have pointed out how important it is to find ways to correct or improve the operation of interconnected Earth systems. But they have different ideas about what this means.

Two main approaches dominate the debate, shaping how people understand both the problems and possible solutions.

One approach – the most common – treats Earth systems mechanistically, focusing on physical and industrial processes. It sees human activity and natural processes as fundamentally distinct, and aims to develop ways for humans to control the global ‘machine.’ Mainstream strategies of climate change mitigation and radical geo-engineering plans both take this approach.

Research and planning efforts that use this approach take for granted the values that make economic growth and industrial development central social aims, and seek ways of intervening in Earth systems that will ensure these values can continue to be satisfied. This approach has a characteristic epistemic style – it is reductive, and tends to foster confidence that current science already has the key factors well in view. It does not expect big surprises, and seeks to control of Earth systems so as to keep surprises from cropping up.

We agree with the numerous critics who argue this approach is inadequate on many counts to provide guidance through the crises of the Anthropocene.

A different approach – increasingly visible in public discussions – focuses on the role in Earth systems of organisms, ecosystems and human activity. It pays attention to the rich interconnections between biological systems and their abiotic environments and aims to restore or improve the integrated functioning of Earth systems. Many ecologists and environmentalists, and some economists, farmers, geologists and hydrologists (among others), take this approach.

Planning and research projects using this approach express diverse values, but tend to seek resilient functioning rather than mechanical control, and to question the goals of traditional industrial development. This approach also looks for complexity, non-linearity and interdependence. As a result, it expects a great deal of important information yet to emerge. It expects surprises, and recognizes the need to integrate them into its models and plans.

The problem of how to understand and manage Earth systems is multifaceted, involving questions about facts, values and knowledge.

The factual questions are about how global-scale systems are structured and interconnected. The questions about values include difficult ethical problems about justice, individual freedom and collective goods. The questions about knowledge arise because many different kinds of knowledge are relevant to these decisions, and premature closure may be reached in important debates when not all the relevant voices are heard.

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Together, this array of questions calls for contributions from many different areas of academic research, as well as from practical experts who are often remote from academic networks, as well as legal and policy experts, aboriginal authorities, and diverse community stakeholders and innovators. Tackling these questions will thus require an unusual kind of inquiry – one that brings together researchers from a wide array of academic disciplines as well as non-academic experts.

Gillian Barker is a Philosophy professor who explores the research areas of early modern science, biology and environmental philosophy.