The recent publication of studies highlighting the role of mankind as a powerful geological force, referred to as the “Anthropocene,” serve as a good opportunity to clarify how this concept overlaps and differs from Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of the noosphere (and a great way to honor him just before his upcoming birthday on March 12th!).
Going from the most general definition we can find of each of these terms, they seem to be close to synonymous. But what is most important is to remember that the same term can be used by different people who have different intentions and hence different shades of meaning can be implied. This is most clear in recent use of the term “anthropocene.”
While there is debate about when exactly the “anthropocene” began, in fact this is the subject of one of the recent studies entitled, “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”, in general the term anthropocene refers to “a proposed epoch which begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.” In general, Vernadsky defines his “noosphere” in a more succinct way, such as “the reign of reason in the biosphere” but clearly there is some overlap in conception.
Some of those currently referring the the Anthropocene Epoch are geologists and stratigraphers who think that it is time to formally acknowledge this new period, providing various metrics to substantiate their view, some of which Vernadsky himself was already interested in, such as the creation of new materials by man, referred to in the study as “technofossils.”
Vernadsky, who already in 1938 wrote of “scientific thought as a geological force” would certainly be involved in such a discussion were he alive today. And thinking along similar lines as some of the authors of this study, despite having much less evidence at hand when he was alive, Vernadsky clearly thought that the noosphere began to fully come into being during the period of World War II, as he wrote in “Some Words on the Noosphere,” one of his last writings from 1943.
One of the co-authors of the above referenced study, Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, further reflects a Vernadskian view in his 2013 Op-ed, “Overpopulation is not the Problem.” While mankind’s population growth implies increased use of resources and effect on the planet, Ellis points out that there is no inherent problem with this, having realized the flaws of Thomas Malthus’ theories on the subject, and that when it comes to Homo sapiens as a species, there is no “carrying capacity” to speak of. Vernadsky himself has written, in the referenced 1938 work: “There is no corner on Earth inaccessible to mankind. There is no limit to our possible population growth. Theoretically, we cannot foresee a limit to mankind’s potential.”
But others who use the term “Anthropocene” don’t share this view. They may acknowledge the “geological force,” but, in a sense, they argue that the Anthropocene is a marker for how much mankind as a species has caused deviation from the ideal, natural state of the planet. Notable among this group is Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, himself a co-author of another recent study which uses the term Anthropocene and the phrase “humanity as a geological force.”1 It’s likely that Paul Crutzen, who technically coined the term Anthropocene, aligns with Schellnhuber’s views.
Schellnhuber has spoken publicly regarding his outlook, as cited in this article:
“...for his Nobel Prize holders’ conference “on global sustainability” that year , Schellnhuber wrote in a statement, “Unsustainable production, consumption, and population growth endanger the carrying capacity of the planet to sustain human activity.” And under the subhead, “Reducing the Pollution of Human Beings,” this Schellnhuber document continued, “Consumption, inefficient use of raw materials, and inappropriate technologies are the main reasons for the growing human burden on the planet. Population growth must be addressed.”
Vernadsky wouldn’t agree with this. He even wrote explicitly against the early proponent of population reduction, Thomas Malthus:
“Malthus doesn’t realize that his fundamental results lead to entirely different conclusions. You might say that they are simply not true, because he did not take into consideration the fact that, estimating accurately the long-term growth of human population geologically, as regards food and the necessities of life, the expansion of plant and animals comprising it, must inevitably increase with greater force and speed, expressing a more rapid rate of reproduction, than that of the population . It’s necessary to always have this correction in mind. Only the irrational elements historically in our social system make it difficult to clearly observe the effect of this natural phenomenon.’’
Since his death, Vernadsky’s ideas have unfortunately been misrepresented and distorted, with Vernadsky, of course, being unable to explain his outlook. This is reviewed in an excellent article by William Jones. Usually, this is done by taking bits and pieces of his work out of context. At its worst, someone might simply cite the use of a term such as “biosphere” as some kind of argument that as only a modern day environmentalist would acknowledge the existence of a biosphere, Vernadsky would fall into this category, too. He himself was a far more rigorous thinker than that.
One thing is abundantly clear from a thorough review of his writings: Vernadsky did not think that the noosphere would, let alone that it should, be reversed.
Due to this wide variation in the overall intention of those using the term “Anthropocene,” this author will continue to refer to “the noosphere.” Although Vernadsky would certainly want to acknowledge this new geological era, it’s safe to say he would have a bone to pick with some of the characters using this term for their own “anti-noosphere” purposes.
That said, it is a great opportunity to clarify what Vernadsky’s noosphere was, and not just how he imagined its past and present, but its future.
A USGS Field Mapping Camp in the 1950s
Refresher on Vernadsky’s Noosphere
Vernadsky’s discussion of the noosphere can be found throughout his life’s work, but it became more of a focus towards the end of his life. Here, we’ll focus mostly on some of his thoughts as they are presented in his 1938 work, “Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon.” While the currently available English translation of this work leaves much to be desired (though there exists a much better translation of an excerpt of the full thing by William Jones), even with a poor translation, the spirit of Vernadsky’s views shines through (here, when we quote from the translation by B.A. Starostin, only glaring syntax errors will be removed so as not to blur the lines between quoting and paraphrasing).
Vernadsky did not equate the noosphere with the existence of Homo Sapiens per se. Much like some of the recent talk of the Anthropocene, he thought that the noosphere came into being when human cognition began to transform the biosphere in a significant way, and hence the exact point when this occured could be debated. He thought perhaps this was best indicated with the widespread use of agricultural practices tens of thousands of years ago. But he was also clear about the precursor to this, the point at which man began to demonstrate his unique cognitive powers: the discovery and use of fire. Here we quote from William Jones’ cited translation:
“I believe that Homo sapiens or his closest ancestors were formed not long before the onset of the period of glaciation, or in one of its warmer periods. Man survived the severe cold of that period, possibly due to the great discovery that was made at that time in the Paleolithic age ‑ the mastery of fire.
That discovery was made in one, two or possibly more places, and was gradually spread among the population of the Earth. I feel that we have here an example of the general process of great discoveries, in which it is not the mass action of mankind, smoothing and refining the details, but rather the expression of separate human individuals. As we'll later see, we may investigate this phenomenon more carefully with many more numerous cases in periods closer to our own.
The discovery of fire appears to be the first instance in which a living organism masters, and makes himself the steward of, one of the forces of nature. Undoubtedly that discovery lies, as we now see, at the basis of the subsequent future increase of mankind and the forces now in his possession. And yet that increase comes about extremely slowly, and it is difficult for us to imagine the conditions under which it may have occurred. Fire was already known to the predecessors of Man, or by that forerunner of the species of hominid, which built the Noosphere.”
Vernadsky also indicated that the concept of a “Psychozoic Era,” a term he attributed to Joseph LeComte and Charles Schuchert, was similar, as well as Academician A.P. Pavlov’s (not of Pavlov’s dog fame) discussion of an “Anthropogenic Era.”
In his 1931 writing, “The Study of Life and the New Physics” Vernadsky’s comments on the “special psychozoic epoch” we are living through:
“... the action of life on our planet develops and changes by the effect of [mankind’s] intelligence to such an extent, that it becomes possible to speak of a special psychozoicepoch in the history of our planet, analogous to other geological epochs in the change effected in living nature on Earth, as during the Cambrian or Oligocene, for example. With the appearance of a living being on our planet gifted with intelligence, we pass into another stage of its history.”
Ultimately it appears that he preferred to use the term noosphere, which, as a term, does help to give an image of the biosphere actually being completely subsumed by another “sphere,” but he used both terms in his writings. As has been mentioned already, Vernadsky’s psychozoic epoch, or noosphere, was also referred to even more descriptively by him as “scientific thought as a geological force.” He had a couple of ways of measuring the power of the effect, one clear metric being what he called the biogenic migration of atoms, which he believed had a distinct yet parallel expression in the activity of mankind.
In his 1928 writing “The Evolution of Species And Living Matter” Vernadsky discussed different types of migration of atoms, movement of material through the biosphere and the bodies of organisms, which he said unquestionably increased through time and in fact appeared to be a characteristic and even a driver of evolution-- he even asserted that perhaps species went extinct because they failed to augment the migration of atoms. The first type of migration involved the quantity of material, and the second the actual speed of migration. While these types both involved metabolism directly, he also said there was a third form which was expressed in the biosphere, but had a much more powerful analogous effect in the “psychozoic epoch:”
“This third form begins to take on, in our epoch, the psychozoic epoch, an extraordinary importance in the history of our planet. It is the migration of atoms, also sustained by organisms, but which is not genetically or immediately related to the penetration or to the passage of atoms through their body. This migration is provoked by technological activity. It is, for example, determined by the work of burrowing animals, of which we notice traces since the most ancient geological epochs, by the consequences of the social life of building animals, termites, ants, and beavers. But this form of biogenic migration of chemical elements has taken on an extraordinary development since the appearance of civilized humanity, since tens of thousands of years ago. Entirely new substances have been created in this way, as for example, metals in a free state. The face of the Earth transforms itself and virgin nature disappears. This migration does not seem to be related directly to the mass of living matter; it is conditioned in its essential traits by the work of the thought of the conscious organism.”
He wrote more about the significance of this in his work “Essays on Geochemistry:”
"Man always increases the number of atoms leaving the ancient cycles- the geochemical "eternal" cycles. He intensifies the breach of these processes, introduces new ones, and interferes with old ones. With Man, an enormous geological power had appeared on the surface of our planet. The balance of the migrations of elements that had been established in the course of geological time is being broken by the reason and activities of man. At present we are changing the thermodynamic equilibrium inside the biosphere in this way".
Importantly, he also indicated that this power was not limited in potential to the surface of the Earth, foreshadowing the significant forays into space which would come in the decades following his death:
“..everything indicates that the progress of the geochemical action of intelligence, of the life of civilized humanity, goes beyond the limits of the planet. We see here a manifestation of life which, although being located on our planet, indicates properties of living things seemingly not bound to it.” --Vernadsky, The Study of Life and the New Physics
What sets Vernadsky’s noosphere apart
More than simply commenting on the fact of the noosphere, as some of these recent studies have done, Vernadsky strongly believed that it was not a reversible process, and it would be absurd to think that we could return to a pre-noosphere era. In the referenced 1938 piece, he wrote:
“As a manifestation of living matter, scientific thought cannot be in essence a reversible phenomenon-- it can stop in the course of its motion, but, once created and manifested in the evolution of the biosphere, it carries in itself the ability of unlimited development in the course of time.”
Would Vernadsky envision that in 2016, all the nations of the world would gather in Paris to, in a sense, discuss how we could reverse the noosphere?
As he well knew, however, the progress of the noosphere could be slowed and stagnate for even hundreds of years at a time. While acknowledging it, he did not accept it. He said that there was a moral imperative to develop the noosphere. He believed that we had a duty to continue to bring it into being, and he wrote extensively about this in “Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon.” The scientist could not sit idly by, but had an important “moral responsibility for his work.”
He wrote of the “the democratic ideal of the scientist” being:
“...the idea of state unification of all humanity for the creation and realization of the noosphere-- for all the strength of science for the good of all mankind.”
He wrote that the noosphere was the only sane basis for relations amongst nations. Similar to the views of economist Lyndon LaRouche expressed in his book The Earth’s Next 50 Years, Vernadsky believed that the noosphere, and the identity of each person potentially acting as a geological force, was the best way to unify various nations and cultures. In this way, defining the obligation to advance the noosphere is the standard against which to judge the actions and cultural characteristics of different nations.
“It is clear that in our time the creation of such a unity [of humanity] is a necessary condition of the organized state of the noosphere, and mankind will inevitably come to this unity.”
"Science is the main, principal source of the wealth of the people."
"The state which gives maximum freedom to research and raises minimum obstacles to it achieves the maximum strength in the noosphere."
Vernadsky thought that, at that point, the United States was an especially good reference point. He spoke specifically about the FDR era, in addition to reflecting upon the amazing growth of our country in less than two-hundred years of existence after a trip he made here in 1913:
“At the present time we have the example of another country comparable to us in extent of territory, the United States. It is with a feeling of shame that we compare our knowledge and theirs concerning the resources of our respective countries and the methods of their utilization. And yet, we began work in this direction almost a whole century earlier… We spent very little for this work, which was done largely through the volunteer efforts of private individuals and societies, who were conducting investigations in their spare time. The Americans had all this, of course, perhaps even to a larger degree. But they also had the colossal assistance of both the federal and state governments, especially during the last 40 years… And such expenditure of government means was the most proper method of spending this money. It has paid for itself many times, for it rendered extremely efficient the productive forces of America, given to her by nature. Our productive forces, which are most probably greater than those which were granted to the United States, are dead capital, almost unknown even to their possessors."
To reiterate the point, in addition to confirming the existence of the noosphere, and supporting the idea of further defining it as an actual “psychozoic epoch,” he was not ambivalent about its future, and of course he was not hostile to it. The United States has suffered from the many years of stagnation of which Vernadsky wrote; other countries, including his own country of Russia, which he was much less confident about at the time he was alive, have increasingly advanced the cause of the noosphere. If we take it as a mission, as he thought it was, where do we go from here?
Building the future noosphere
While we have much work to do on our planet per se, it is certain that Vernadsky would view the further expansion of the noosphere into the cosmos as not only imperative, but something too exciting to neglect! He died before the era of space exploration, which itself has been cut short. Today, it is a natural point of collaboration between those countries like the United States, which have suffered from stagnation yet still harbor scientific skills and valuable history, and those countries which have emerged in the recent years possessing an intense desire to progress, such as Russia and China.
Vernadsky himself wrote of the idea of Human Autotrophy, of mankind surviving, existing, and thriving in areas which could not support life or human life “naturally.” There is a lot of overlap here with the economic ideas of Lyndon LaRouche.
The words of German space pioneer Krafft Ehricke also have a clear resonance with those of Vernadsky. In his Anthropology of Astronautics, Ehricke wrote of three fundamental laws:
“1. Nobody and nothing under the natural laws of this universe [can] impose any limitations on man, except man himself.
2. Not only the Earth, but the entire Solar System, and as much of the universe as he can reach under the laws of nature, are man's rightful field of activity.
3. By expanding throughout the universe, man fulfills his destiny as an element of life, endowed with the power of reason and the wisdom of the moral law within himself.”
While we may be far from having a stratigraphically measurable effect in space, it is the clear point to pick up from after the decades of stagnation which Vernadsky understood could occur, but did not accept. It is also fitting as a Vernadskian mission because Vernadsky was eternally bold and optimistic, despite the worst of circumstances. He never lost faith in the potential of mankind:
“At present we cannot afford not to realize that, in the great historical tragedy through which we live, we have elementally chosen the right path leading into the noosphere. I say elementally, as the whole history of mankind is proceeding in this direction.” --Some Words on the Noosphere, 1943
"A great personality, whether a scientist, an inventor or a statesman, can be of fundamental, decisive, directing importance, and can manifest himself as a geological force." --Problems of Biogeochemistry II, 1938
The conclusion here is fairly simple: start acting like the potential geological force that you are!
1. This was invoked to argue that we’ve postponed the next Ice Age, while admitting that “even without man-made climate change” the Holocene is already “an unusually long period in between ice ages.”↩