Cities in the Technosphere


Two recent special sections of the journal The Anthropocene Review offer a set of interdisciplinary reflections on the “technosphere.”[1] In this post, I will discuss several of the contributions in order to ask what potential the technosphere concept holds for understanding cities in the Anthropocene.

The technosphere idea has existed since the 1970s, but has not enjoyed broad currency until its recent revival by geoscientist Peter Haff. As guest editors Christoph Rosol, Sara Nelson, and Jürgen Renn explain in their Introduction to the special sections, the technosphere is defined as the totality of human artifice, the earth’s “archaeological strata,” including landscapes, technologies, and material culture. For example, as Gabrielle Hecht and Pamila Gupta recently wrote, “there’s now enough concrete on the planet to produce a 2mm thick, full-scale replica of Earth, and enough plastic to completely wrap that replica in cling film.”

According to Haff, this human-made sphere displays three important characteristics—autonomy from human action, global integration, and a systematic character. Thus, the term raises the question of whether the things that humans produce can take on a “meta-ecological” role analogous to other spheres (biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, etc.) that are self-organizing, -preserving, and -replicating, while exerting a structuring or limiting effect on human activity (Rosol et al., 3-7). These structural forces help explain how human-generated processes like climate change cannot always be controlled. (Haff thus raises familiar concerns about path dependency and technological momentum, leading some of his harsher critics to suggest that he is committed to metaphysical (perhaps Aristotelian or Hegelian) teleology.) And just as water is an important medium of interaction between the bio-, hydro-, and atmospheres, so material produced in the technosphere can have effects that feed back into the other spheres. Haff could thus explain anthropogenic climate change as the technosphere’s impact on the other planetary spheres.

Infographic: The Weight Of Human Influence On The Earth | StatistaWe can begin to apply the technosphere concept to cities in a strictly material way. The first contribution to the special section, co-authored by a large interdisciplinary group of prominent scholars including Haff himself, Erle Ellis, Naomi Oreskes, John R. McNeill, and Will Steffen, provides an initial quantitative estimate of the technosphere’s mass: 30 trillion metric tons (Tt). More than 60% of this mass constitutes the human-built environment, including 11.1 Tt of urban construction, and 6.3 Tt of rural structures. Cities thus make up 36.9% of the technosphere, with rural buildings forming another 20.9% (Zalasiewicz et al., 12-13). The technosphere’s development is therefore deeply connected with another global process: urbanization.

Recently, we have turned our attention on this blog to cities in the Anthropocene; a recent post by Lynn Soreghan refers to the notion of “urban metabolism.” Two aspects of the technosphere concept are particularly relevant to this discussion: first, the technosphere’s production of waste, and second, the questions of human agency and scale in the Anthropocene.

1. The “Waste Layer”

Among the technosphere’s most distinctive aspects is its significant “waste layer.” While the biosphere and hydrosphere can (at least in principle) endlessly recycle all their materials, the cyclical character of the technosphere is compromised by the fact that humans cannot reuse all that we produce. The remainder we call “waste.” (In this sense the technosphere is not genuinely “spherical”—it is not self-contained.) Johan Gärdebo et al.’s contribution on the “orbital technosphere” outlines how aging satellites become space junk, orbiting debris that threatens to block the sight lines, transmission lines, or orbital path of working satellites. Their piece thus reminds us of the system dynamics by which useful technology (the “active technosphere”) becomes junk—cumbersome and risky—that can feed back to threaten the smooth functioning of the active technosphere. Similarly, Miriam Diamond’s contribution argues that toxic chemicals are both “enablers and poisoners” of the technosphere. Certain chemicals are useful, even necessary, for the function of our technological world, despite their toxicity. But because of their toxicity, after they are used they remain as threats to both the technosphere and the biospohere. Satellites and chemicals demonstrate, much like plastic and nuclear materials, how parts of the technosphere’s active layer cannot be maintained indefinitely, but ultimately revert to the waste layer. Though producing waste is a “normal” part of the technosphere’s function, it also threatens the sphere’s normal operation.

Acknowledging the waste layer feeds smoothly into the idea of metabolism. The waste layer points to systemic inefficiencies—materials produced by the technosphere’s own metabolic processes which cannot be re-metabolized. Some basic facts and figures about New York City’s solid waste management illustrate how cities can concentrate the technosphere’s metabolic inefficiencies. In 2012, New York City’s 300 square miles of land housed 8.361 million people and produced up to 14 million tons of waste annually (by one internal estimate).

But civil engineer Christopher Kennedy et al. found in a major 2015 study of urban metabolism in megacities that New York was the world’s “dirtiest” megacity, producing nearly 33 million tons of waste annually, almost tripling the 12 million tons produced by second-place Mexico City. New York City also topped the lists of per capita energy and water consumers. 76% of New York City’s residential waste must be sent out-of-state, as far as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina. Some of NYC’s recyclable paper, metal, and glass travels as far as China and India to be recycled.

Bottle, Tire and Brick walls of Earthships

Bottle, tire and brick walls of earthships

As the waste piles up or travels farther, we see, in light of the contributions from Diamond and from Gärdebo et al., how urban-technological metabolic inefficiency can threaten sustainability and even survival. Discussions of the technosphere’s waste layer provide a powerful reminder that ethical action in the Anthropocene requires both producing less waste and finding new ways to realign metabolism through recycling, for example through construction with recycled materials, which actively transforms mass from the waste layer into mass in the active layer.

2. Human Agency and the Question of Scale

Several authors in the Anthropocene Review’s special issue, Jonathan Donges et al. and Jol Thomson & Sasha Engelmann, raise particular concerns about the technosphere’s relative autonomy from human action and agency. Haff’s rendition of the technosphere may seem to imply that humans have set in motion powerful processes that cannot be steered or reversed, which seems to degrade the “Anthropos” in the Anthropocene, and leave humanity relatively weak and hopeless when it comes to repairing the technosphere, increasing sustainability, and ensuring long-term survival. Haff himself responded to these criticisms by arguing that the technosphere operates on such a large scale that it cannot monitor or control what all its component or constituent parts (including individual human beings) do. This leaves some wiggle room for human agency, creativity, initiative, and change. But the question remains whether this “wiggle room” is enough to compel significant large-scale changes in the function and outcomes of the technosphere.

If individual human agency seems puny compared to the technosphere’s brutal bulk, urban history hints at ways to amplify human impact through collective action. Citizen groups, municipal institutions, non-profit organizations, and industry groups—these forms of cooperation show how we can scale up human action to address larger-scale problems. Returning to the example of New York City waste, it was a combination of citizen pressure, expert study, local government action, and the waste-management industry that birthed New York’s 2006 Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan and 2011 comprehensive sustainability plan, “PlaNYC,” and 2015 “One NYC,” Mayor Bill De Blasio’s move to integrate strategies for growth, sustainability, resiliency, and equity, leading to a goal of zero waste by 2030.

New York’s dogged refusal to accept its rank as “dirtiest” megacity on Earth thus points broadly to possible strategies for remediating a techno-environmental crisis of planetary proportions. As the expanding technosphere scales up, so must we scale up collective human action to meet these challenges, to steer “Spaceship Earth” away from a crash course.

In sum, the ethical challenges of the technosphere are to think big, to think inclusively, and to imagine collective actions (such as divestment from fossil fuels) that can shut down portions of the technosphere and transform them from “active” into components that can then be recycled, as opposed to unusable waste. To put this in the language of urban metabolism, the challenge is to locate existing undigested materials and invent new ways to digest them without creating new undigested materials. This could mean, for example, shutting down current production of nuclear material, plastic, other toxic materials, and fossil fuels while we figure out what to do with the massive amount of residue that already exists. Here again, the question of scale is important: if the entire technosphere is too massive a beast to wrestle, cities—even megacities—may be a more feasible point of entry for thinking globally while acting locally, in a process of “chipping away” at the technosphere, inching toward zero waste. Cities and their metabolism are central to this project.

[1] The Anthropocene Review, “Special Issue: Perspectives on the technosphere,” vol. 4, nos. 1 and 2 (2017), pp. 2-52, 72-108.

8 thoughts on “Cities in the Technosphere

  1. I have read the article and think it as very generous effort on part of Peter S to make use of the technosphere concept in order to further understand urban metabolism (which I am not too familiar with).

    Since Peter cited our contribution at some points in the article, I will address what we believed to be two arguments in the article. For the first part of the argument I want to add that apart from considering space junk as part of the technosphere, we wanted to pick satellites because although the longevity of satellites might be questioned (the speculation is that satellites could remain in orbital space from 300 to over 10,000 years) they are quite distinguishable from the rest of human-generated waste. Space junk would not be there unless we had put it there, is I guess what we were trying to say.

    Since it is a salient feature of human waste, it allows us to analyse politics involved in the making of the technosphere. Someone put it there, and did so for a set of reasons. The challenge with the technosphere-concept is otherwise,as Peter S points out, that human agency disappears and we are left with determinism. But if we analyse the technosphere in specific settings it is possible to start telling stories about how certain people in particular ways have contributed to its making, and then we can ask questions of “why?” and “how could it be different?”.

    So one new principle that we can take away from the technosphere is that “environment was made when someone was doing something else”. The US and Soviets did not set out to put junk into space, they tried to beat eachother in the space race. But space junk they made all the same.

    The second part, which is what I did not see in the review by Peter S, is a more claustrophobic point, which is that the technosphere is a global concept. It requires that we depict the earth as a planet. Satellites can depict a planet, that is the net gain of having satellite remote sensing continually sensing earth’s surface and from each orbit we can then stitch together a global dataset that quite literally is global.

    Satellites are then, in a communicative sense, allowing us to make concepts like the technosphere visible and easier to communicate. But since that sensing is part of making space junk, the knowing of the technosphere is also part of making the technosphere. Nothing can be known without, in the process, having that thing undergo change, is the argument that we tried to make.

    It would be interesting to see what Peter made of this second part of our argument, which in short is “knowing the technosphere is part of making the technosphere”.

    • Thank you for reading, Johan, and for some very stimulating comments! I had not focused on questions of knowledge in my post, but they could extend our discussion in fascinating new directions. Knowledge is an important concern across several of the contributions to these special sections.

      Donges et al. approach knowledge through the language of “reflexivity” because “humans reflect on their relationship with the world and adapt their actions accordingly” (p. 26). This suggests that another unique property of the technosphere is human knowledge (aka the “noosphere”), which is not part of the other planetary spheres, but is a necessary and intrinsic part of the technosphere.

      The satellites you discuss in your paper are perfect examples of the “knowledge infrastructures” theorized by Paul Edwards in his preceding piece, as well as in his book A Vast Machine. Edwards shows how knowledge infrastructures relate to metabolism, asking “What kinds of knowledge infrastructures might help to account for and ultimately to refashion the techno-metabolic processes currently pushing Earth systems past the the limits of a ‘safe operating system for humanity’?” (p. 35). How we metabolize knowledge is thus as crucial ethically as how we metabolize waste.

      Like Edwards, you and your co-authors are interested in accounting for the large-scale knowledge infrastructures that both (a) form part of the technosphere, and (b) allow us to grasp and ultimately know the techno sphere through observation, monitoring, measurement, and aggregation.

      An important ethical/metabolic challenge would be identifying which parts of the techno sphere could be shut down without damaging the knowledge production that we need to effectively manage the technosphere. As Zev commented in person earlier today, “it takes the technosphere to know the technosphere,” which suggests the depth of human dependence on the technosphere. Satellites are among the large-scale equipment required to understand the techno sphere, but they are also part of it.

      When we create socio-technical systems, we change standards of living and technical expectations in ways that create path dependence. In Karl Marx’s famous quote, “the production of new needs is the first historical act.” In this sense, we need satellites more than ever; but we also need active satellites to be free from disruption from space junk. I think we can also understand this nice paradox in metabolic terms–i.e. in terms of the relationship between “active” or “useful” technology, and the left-over junk that piles up to threaten it.

      • Thank you Peter!
        I learned a lot from your response. Will definitely return to studying both Edwards, Marx, and Donges et al to take this further.
        Also, give my regards to Zev who more succinctly than me an my co-authors summarised the second part of the article’s argument, “it takes the technosphere to know the trechnosphere”.

  2. Pingback: Cities in the Anthropocene | urbanculturalstudies

  3. Thanks Peter, I’ve been thinking along similar lines re ‘chipping away’ at global problems. The need to act is existential, more than urgent. How can we as citizens of Earth care for our planet despite forces resisting change. We need a way to coordinate all our chipping.

    • Thanks for reading, Nigel! I can only agree that a way to coordinate all our chipping actions is needed. Such a way would also help with the project of scaling up human action that I mentioned in my post.

  4. Yes, we need strategies that scale, that help us see where and what to chip, and then a system to support us as we chip away (to maintain culture; to harvest and winnow actions, to message actions to chippers; to pay, resource and protect those chipping…). A movement of millions is urgently needed but even small orgs fail due to burnout from maintaining culture, resourcing and management. While lots of grass roots actions are occurring, far far more could be accomplished if all could pull together.
    Blockchain methodologies seem ideal for some of this and I will be exploring more of this in the near future on my blog.
    Do you know if anything like this is occurring on a transnational / global scale in any domain?

  5. Pingback: Urban Planning of Technosphere Gone Wrong: Solving the Plastic Problem by the Top-Down Approach – World Cities

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