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The anthroposphere—we humans together with our environment—addresses the degree to which we, as opposed to other life forms, have impacted and penetrated the biosphere. The concept, introduced in the late twentieth century, proposes that monopolies of human power throughout history, such as agrarian and industrial regimes, have deeply affected the relations between humans and the nonhuman world.
The concept of anthroposphere, like the concept of biosphere from which it derived, was first introduced in the natural sciences in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The term refers to that part of the biosphere that is affected by humans—just as the part of the biosphere that is affected by elephants could be called elephantosphere. Such terms are all predicated on the idea that there is a two-way relationship between every living species and the environment in which it lives. All life is part of an ecosystem, all ecosystems together constitute the biosphere—the total configuration of living things interacting with one another and with nonliving things. Every form of life continuously affects, and is affected by, its ecosystem—and human life is no exception.
Anthroposphere is an open concept, containing suggestions for research and reflection, sensitizing us to the problem of how far and how deeply the impact of human activity has penetrated into the biosphere. By reminding us that human societies are embedded in ecosystems, the concept helps to bridge the gap between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities. Moreover, it can be used to formulate and elucidate the simple but far-reaching proposition that many trends and events in human history, from its earliest beginnings to the present day, can be seen as functions or manifestations of the expanding anthroposphere.
Extensive and Intensive Growth
The anthroposphere emerged with the evolutionary transition from hominids to humans. Initially, expansion must have been very slow and replete with regressions. In the long run, however, the human population grew in numbers from modest beginnings to 6.79 billion in 2010, and it spread from its origins in northeastern Africa over increasingly more territory, until it was a significant presence on every continent except Antarctica. Together these two forms of expansion represent extensive growth. Extensive growth can be defined as sheer extension of biomass, physically and geographically. It is a matter of proliferation: more of the same, reaching farther and farther—like rabbits in Australia or cancer cells in a human body.
In the expanding anthroposphere, extensive growth has always been accompanied, and in all likelihood even driven, by intensive growth. If extensive growth can be defined in terms of more and more, intensive growth refers to the emergence of something new. In the case of the anthroposphere, it arises from the human capacity to find new ways of exploiting energy and matter by collecting and processing new information. If the key word for extensive growth is proliferation, the key word for intensive growth is differentiation—its primary effect always being to add new and different items to an existing stock or repertoire. Once an innovation has been accepted, it may then be copied in multiple forms and grow extensively. Thus intensive growth and extensive growth intermingle. (Like the concept of anthroposphere and other central concepts used in this article, such as agrarianization and industrialization, the concepts of intensive and extensive growth are intended not to express any value judgments.)
Learning as a Source of Power
Human life, like all life, consists of specific combinations of matter and energy structured and directed by information. Two particular features distinguish human life from other forms of life and hence are important in understanding the anthroposphere. First, humans rely much more strongly on learned information than any other species. Second, most of the information that human individuals learn comes from other individuals: it is information that has been pooled, shared, transmitted—it is, in a word, culture.
The most important vehicle for human communication is language, composed of symbols. Symbols therefore constitute a vital dimension of the anthroposphere. Information conveyed in symbols can be handed down from generation to generation and used to aggregate and organize matter and energy in the service of human groups, thus strengthening the position of those groups in the biosphere. The development of language made it possible for humans to adopt new forms of behavior that made them increasingly different from other animals. A strong reason for maintaining the new forms of behavior must have been that they gave humans the advantage of greater power over those other animals.
This seems to be one of the clues for understanding the course of the long-term development of the anthroposphere. Again and again, innovations occurred, like mutations in biological evolution, and again and again, of those innovations, those tended to be retained that helped increase the power of the groups that maintained them. As humans increased their power through such innovations as language and the mastery of fire, other animals inevitably declined in power. Some became extinct, while all surviving species had to adjust their ways of life to the newly gained superiority of human groups. At later stages, similar shifts in power relations occurred within human society itself, compelling defeated groups to adjust to the dominance of more successful groups. Many innovations in the history of human culture were adjustments to power losses.
The domestication of fire culminated in the establishment of what may be called a monopoly—a monopoly of power that was held by the human species and in which eventually all human communities of the world shared. The formation of this monopoly affected the relations between humans and the nonhuman world so deeply that we may call it the first great ecological transformation brought about by humans, which was followed much later by two similar transformations—generally known as the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and more precisely characterized by the long-term processes of agrarianization and industrialization.
Each of the three transformations marked the formation of a new socioecological regime (that is, a form of social organization and a way of life attuned to a specific level of control over matter and energy): the fire regime, the agrarian regime, and the industrial regime, respectively, marked by the utilization of fire and elementary tools, the rise and spread of agriculture and animal husbandry, and the rise and spread of large-scale modern industry. The later regimes did not make the earlier regimes obsolete; rather, they absorbed them and, in so doing, transformed them.
With each new regime, new monopolies of human power were formed, opening up new opportunities for control, security, comfort, and wealth. All these benefits, however, involved costs. This was already evident when the fire regime exerted pressure on people to collect fuel and to tend their hearths; it became even more evident when the strains of the agrarian and industrial regimes were added to the fire regime.
Four Phases of Human History
The most convenient backdrop for writing history is undoubtedly chronology. When it comes to dealing with such encompassing long-term processes as the expansion of the anthroposphere, however, one can also speak fruitfully in terms of broad phases. By taking as benchmarks the successive formation of the three major socioecological regimes, we can distinguish four phases in human history:
- The phase before the domestication of fire. In this phase all human groups subsisted on foraging; there were no groups with fire or cultivated fields or factories.
- The phase when there were at least some groups with fire, but none yet with fields or factories.
- The phase when all human groups had fire and some also had cultivated fields, but none had factories.
- The phase we have reached today, when all human societies have fire but are also using products of fields and factories.
Of course, it would make a great deal of difference for a group of foragers whether it found itself living in the first, second, third, or fourth phase, as in the first it would come in contact only with other groups that had basically similar skills. In any of the subsequent phases, however, it might come in contact with groups whose skills made them more powerful than the foragers. As a further elaboration of this simple model of four phases, we may subdivide each phase into three subphases: a phase when there was no group with the defining technology (fire, agriculture, or industry), a phase when there were both groups with and groups without the defining technology, and a phase when there were only groups with the defining technology. Making these finer gradations in the four phases raises the intriguing problem of how to account for the transitions from one subphase to the next. How was a particular regime first established, how did it spread, and—most intriguing—how did it become universal?
The last question in particular brings out the world-historical import of the phase model. Besides being applicable to the three major socioecological regimes, the questions also apply to the adoption of other innovations, such as metallurgy, writing, and the development of cities.
The history of the past ten thousand years may be read as a series of events accompanying the agrarianization of the anthroposphere—a process whereby human groups extended the domain of agriculture and animal husbandry all over the world, and in so doing made themselves increasingly more dependent upon this very mode of production.
The agrarian way of life was based on a new human monopoly—the monopoly of control over pieces of territory (fields)—in which people more or less successfully subjected vegetation and animal life to a human-directed regime. The result was twofold: elimination of competing species (parasites and predators) and concentration of resources and people in ever-greater densities. Although agrarian regimes sometimes suffered decline, their overall tendency was to expand.
Expansion did not take place in a uniform and even fashion. In fact, the unevenness of its development was a structural feature of agrarianization. From its very beginnings, agrarianization was marked by differentiation— initially between people who had adopted agriculture and people who had not. Eventually, in the phase of industrialization, the last nonagrarian peoples vanished, and with them this primary form of differentiation.
Still, various forms of differentiation within the agrarian (or, rather, agrarianizing) world continued. Some agrarian societies went much further than others in harnessing matter and energy for human purposes, for example, by means of irrigation or plowing. In societies that grew accustomed to higher yields of agrarian production, competition to control the wealth thus generated usually led to social stratification— the formation of different social strata marked by huge inequalities in property, privilege, and prestige. Another closely related form of differentiation typical of this phase was cultural diversification. In Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, northeastern China, Egypt, the Mediterranean basin, Mexico, the Andes region, and elsewhere, agrarian empires developed that are still known for their distinct cultures, each with its own dominant language, system of writing, religion, architecture, dress, methods of food production, and eating habits. In the heyday of agrarianization, the anthroposphere was marked by conspicuous differences in culture or civilization—differences resulting to a large extent from the interplay of gains in power by some groups and accommodation to power losses by others.
Around 1750 the immense deposits of fuel energy that had lain virtually unused by any living species began to be exploited for human purposes. A series of innovations provided the technical means for tapping these supplies and for using them to generate heat and mechanical motion. No longer were people completely dependent on the flows of energy that reach the Earth from the sun and that are partly converted into vegetation by means of photosynthesis. Just as at one time humans had been able to strengthen their position in the biosphere by learning to control fire, they now learned the art of using fire to exploit the energy contained in coal, oil, and gas.
These innovations stimulated great accelerations in extensive growth. According to a rough estimate, the total human population must have reached 1 million at some time in the Paleolithic, 10 million at the time when agrarization began, 100 million during the first stages of urbanization, 1,000 million at the beginning of industrialization. The next tenfold increase, to 10 billion, is expected to be completed within a few generations. Along with the increase in human numbers, networks of production, transport, and communication have grown worldwide so that the anthroposphere is now truly global. Universal acceptance of a common system of time measurement, based on Greenwich Mean Time, is a telling example of how common standards of orientation are spreading all over the world. At the same time, the inequalities between and within human societies that arose as structural features of advanced agrarian regimes persist in industrial society. Those inequalities now also exert disturbing global pressures, as do imminent ecological problems such as global warming, which are generated by the way in which the anthroposphere is currently expanding.
Toward a Synthesis
In the eras of agrarianization and industrialization, the anthroposphere gave rise to social regimes that were only indirectly related to the natural environment. The money regime and the time regime may serve as illustrations. Both exemplify how people turned their attention away from the natural environment, and from ecological issues, toward a more purely social aspect of the anthroposphere, represented by the clock and the calendar or the purse and the bank account. Those regimes thus supported the illusion that the anthroposphere is autonomous. That illusion was furthered by the concomitant intellectual tendency to separate the social sciences from the natural sciences and to cultivate discrete and seemingly autonomous social-science disciplines, such as psychology and sociology.
Today there is a growing awareness that as the anthroposphere encroaches upon ever larger portions of the biosphere, it absorbs more and more nonhuman elements. The notion of ecological interdependence is gaining ground. A classical theme in the social sciences has been the interweaving of planned actions and unplanned consequences. All human activities have unintended consequences; recognition of that fact is now being combined with the insight that the anthroposphere (itself the product of unplanned evolutionary processes) has become an agent in the evolution of the biosphere. Human life has become a formidable co-evolutionary force. Sociocultural processes are channeling and steering the course of biological evolution.
Without using the word anthroposphere, the world historians William H. McNeill and J. R. McNeill, the ecological historian Alfred Crosby, the biologist Jared Diamond, and several others have shown that it is possible to write about the history of the anthroposphere. Further theoretical inspiration can be drawn from the traditions of sociology and anthropology inaugurated by Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer and continued by such scholars as Norbert Elias and Marvin Harris, in combination with the geological and biological study of the biosphere as launched by Vladimir Vernadsky in the early twentieth century and taken up again by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock from the 1970s onward. The names mentioned are but a few among many authors whose works contribute to our understanding of the history and dynamics of the anthroposphere.
- Baccini, P., & Brunner, P. H. (1991). Metabolism of the anthroposphere. Berlin, Germany: Springer Verlag.
- Bailes, K. E. (1998). Science and Russian culture in an age of revolutions: V. I. Vernadsky and his scientific school, 1863–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Crosby, A. W. (1986). Ecological imperialism. The biological expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Christian, D. (2004). Maps of time: An introduction to big history. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- De Vries, B., & Goudsblom, J. (Eds.). (2002). Mappae Mundi: Humans and their habitats in a long-term socio-ecological perspective. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
- Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, germs and steel. The fates of human societies. New York: Random House.
- Elias, N. (1991). The symbol theory. London: Sage.
- Elvin, M. (2004). The retreat of the elephants. An environmental history of China. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Fischer-Kowalski, M., & Haberl, H. (2007) Socioecological transitions and global change. Trajectories of social metabolism and land use. Cheltenham, U.K. and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
- Goudsblom, J. (1992). Fire and civilization. London: Allen Lane.
- Goudsblom, J., Jones, E. L., & Mennell, S. J. (1996). The course of human history: Economic growth, social process, and civilization. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
- Margulis, L., Matthews, C., & Haselton, A. (2000). Environmental evolution: Effects of the origin and evolution of life on planet Earth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- McNeill, J. R. (2000). Something new under the sun: An environmental history of the twentieth century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- McNeill, J. R., & McNeill, W. H. (2003). The human web. A bird’s-eye view of world history. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- McNeill, W. H. (1976). Plagues and peoples. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Niele, F. (2005). Energy. Engine of evolution. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Richards, J. F. (2003). The unending frontier. An environmental history of the early modern world. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Samson, P. R., & Pitt, D. (Eds.). (1999). The biosphere and noosphere reader: Global environment, society and change. London: Routledge.
- Sieferle, R. (2001). The subterranean forest. Energy systems and the industrial revolution. Cambidge U.K.: The White Horse Press.
- Simmons, I. G. (1996). Changing the face of the earth: Culture, environment, history (2nd ed.). Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.
- Smil, V. (1997). Cycles of life: Civilization and the biosphere. New York: Scientific American Library.
- Trudgill, S. T. (2001). The terrestrial biosphere: Environmental change, ecosystem science, attitudes and values. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Vernadsky, V. I. (1998). The biosphere. New York: Copernicus. (Original work published in Russian in 1926)
- Wright, R. (2000). Nonzero. The logic of human destiny. New York: Random House.
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