From the Big Bang to Sustainable Societies

From the Big Bang to Sustainable Societies by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt.

A series of events in the history of cosmos has created the prerequisites for life on Earth. With respect to matter, the earth is a closed system. However, it receives light from the sun and emits infrared radiation into space. The difference in thermodynamic potential between these two flows has provided the physical conditions for self-organization. The transformation of lifeless matter into modern life forms, with their high degree of order and complexity, has occurred in the context of the earth’s natural cycles, including the water cycle and the biochemical cycles between plants and animals. Primary production units, the cells of green plants, can use the thermodynamic potential of the energy balance in a very direct way, i.e. in photosynthesis. Plant cells are unique in their ability to synthesize more structure than is broken down elsewhere in the biosphere. The perpetuation of this process requires the recycling of wastes. However, modern industrial societies are obsessed with the supply side, ignoring the principle of matter’s conservation and neglecting to plan for the entire material flow. As a result there has been an accumulation of both visible and invisible garbage (pollution), which disturbs the biosphere and reduces stocks of natural resources. Furthermore, due to complexity and delay mechanisms, we usually cannot predict time parameters for the resulting socio-economic consequences or the development of disease. To continue along this path of folly is not compatible with the maintenance of wealth, nor with the health of humans or the biosphere. Rather than address the millions of environmental problems one at a time, we need to approach them at the systemic level. It is essential to convert to human life-styles and forms of societal organization that are based on cyclic processes compatible with the earth’s natural cycles. The challenge to the developed countries is not only to decrease their own emissions of pollutants but to develop the cyclic technology and life styles needed by the entire human community.