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7 – The Anthroposphere

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What is in this Section?

A brief description of the Anthroposphere

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Index to the ‘Anthroposphere’ Page

  1. Introduction
  2. Human Activities
  3. Perspectives on the Anthroposphere
  4. Systems Hierarchy
  5. Change, Continuity and Crisis
  6. Gaia: the Earth as a Super-System

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Introduction

Humans and their activities are fully part of the Earth System, interacting with other components. The anthroposphere encompasses the total human presence throughout the Earth system including our culture, technology, built environment, and activities associated with these.

The anthroposphere complements the term anthropocene – the age within which the anthroposphere developed. Some mark this with the advent of agriculture, others with the industrial revolution.

In physical terms, the anthroposphere is comprised of the cities, villages, energy and transportation networks, farms, mines, ports, as well as the books, software, blueprints, and communication systems – the mark of civilization.

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Human Activities

Significant human (anthropogenic) activities include:

  • Conversion of land to agriculture
  • Food production
  • Energy generation
  • Urban sprawl
  • Infrastructure development
  • Tropical deforestation
  • Transport extension
  • Aviation
  • Road transport
  • Harvesting natural resources for industrial production
  • Mining
  • Logging
  • Trawling

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Perspectives on the Anthroposphere

A key perspective of the Anthroposphere is of six component systems aggregated into three major sub-systems, representing human life on Earth:

The Human System, comprising of:

  • Individual development (civil liberties and human rights, equity, individual autonomy and self-determination, health, right to work, social integration and participation, gender and class-specific role, material standard of living, qualification, specialization, adult education, family and life planning horizon, leisure and recreation, arts)
  • Social system (population development, ethnic composition, income distribution and class structure, social groups and organisations, social security, medical care, old age provisions)
  • Government (government and administration, public finances and taxes, political participation and democracy, conflict resolution (national, international), human rights policy, population and immigration policy, legal system, crime control, international assistance policy, technology policy)

The Support System, comprising of:

  • Infrastructure (settlements and cities, transportation and distribution, supply system (energy, water, food, goods, services), waste disposal, health services, communication and media, facilities for education and training, science, research and development)
  • Economic system (production and consumption, money, commerce and trade, labour and employment, income, market, inter-regional trade)

The Natural System, comprising of:

  • Resources and environment (natural environment, atmosphere and hydrosphere, natural resources, ecosystems, species, depletion of non-renewable resources, regeneration of renewable resources, waste absorption, material recycling, pollution, degradation, carrying capacity)

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Systems Hierarchy

What is becoming clear is that the component subsystems of living systems exist in nested hierarchies, each subsystem contained within a larger system. From this perspective, we can see that there is a hierarchy of nested living systems associated with all forms of human activity including economic activity – and schools.

Individuals form work groups, work groups form the foundations of business organisations, and business organisations together with their consumers represent the economic system. A similar hierarchy and can and should be evolved for thinking about schools as part of larger social, economic and natural systems.

The economic, political, religious, educational and social systems together constitute societies, and these societies exist within the confines of the supranational system called earth.

Because of this supranational position, the earth cannot be defined simply as the sum of the individuals, organizations, economies and societies that comprise it. Rather, it is a qualitatively distinct entity which supersedes and transcends any of its economic subsystems, thus constituting a “system of systems” in which economic activity takes place.

Therefore what we think of as the “economic system” must function within the biological and physical limits of the planet. These limits are largely defined by the planet’s morphogenetic processes, which operate on an evolutionary time-scale.

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Change, Continuity and Crisis

Contrary to much popular belief, the long history of our world and of evolution has been characterised more by radical discontinuity than by reassuring predictability or slow, gradual change.

Rapid change is the norm, not the exception.  Since the start of the Holocene period, however, about 12,000 years ago, the Earth has provided a remarkably stable life support system that has allowed human societies not just to survive but to thrive, and human civilisations to develop and flourish.

So far so good for the human species but, in just the past two hundred years – a blink of an eye in geological terms –  human development has become so pervasive and so profound in its consequences that it is affecting System Earth at a global scale in complex, interactive and accelerating ways.  Humans now have the capacity to alter conditions on Earth in ways that threaten the very processes and components upon which the future of humankind itself depends.

The best available evidence says that human activity is now pushing at this stable envelope and crossing boundaries in ways that the earth has not experienced for millions of years.  The result is that the stable state upon which human development has depended is now in acute jeopardy.

The earth itself can and will renew itself, as it has been doing for some 4.5 billion years. It simply cannot accomplish this feat in human time-frames. For example, the planet will renew the topsoil and the petroleum that humankind is so rapidly depleting in its economic activities; unfortunately, it will take hundreds of thousands of years to accomplish this regeneration, regardless of the economic consequences.

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Gaia: The Earth as a Super-System

The basic contention of Gaia theory is that the earth is a living super-organism which can be accurately understood only from an interdisciplinary geological-physiological perspective.

Although living-systems processes such as self-regulation, homeostasis, and morphogenesis form many of the foundations of Gaia theory, Gaia theory goes beyond systems theory in hypothesizing that the earth is a living organism which has evolved from purposive (and possibly purposeful) interactions between the planet’s biological and physical processes.

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