Shaping a sustainable world

Updated: 6 days ago

Listen to Sensat CEO, James Dean speaking during his session, ‘Digital twins: how industry can shape a sustainable future’ at TNW2020, here.


The human story


If you compressed the whole of Earth's unimaginably long history into a single day, the first humans that look like us would appear at less than four seconds to midnight. The industrial age which has formed the world we know would last less than the blink of an eye. From our origins in Africa, we spread and settled on all the continents except Antarctica. Earth now supports 7.5 billion people living, on average, longer and physically healthier lives than at any time in our history. In this brief time, we have created a globally integrated network of cultures of immense power.


On this journey we have also exterminated wildlife, cleared forests, planted crops, domesticated animals, released pollution, created new species, and even delayed the next ice age. Although geologically recent, our presence has had a profound impact on our home planet.


We humans are not just influencing the present. For the first time in Earth's 4.5 billion year history, a single species is increasingly dictating its future. In the past, meteorites, super-volcanoes and the slow tectonic movement of the continents radically altered the climate of Earth and the life forms that populate it. Now we are a new force of nature changing the delicate Earth system.


The influence of human actions is more profound than many of us realise. Globally, human activities move more soil, rock and sediment each year than is transported by all other natural processes combined. The total amount of concrete ever produced by humans is enough to cover the entire Earth's surface with a layer of two millimetres thick. We have manufactured so much plastic that it has made its way as tiny fibres into almost all of the water we drink.


We are disrupting the global cycling of the elements necessary for life. Factories and farming remove as much nitrogen from the atmosphere as all Earth’s natural processes do. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we have released 2.2 trillion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing levels by 44%. This is acidifying the world's oceans and raising the Earth's temperature.





We are also directly changing life on Earth. Today, there are about 3 trillion trees on Earth, down from 6 trillion at the dawn of agriculture. This farmland annually produces 4.8 billion head of livestock and a further 4.8 billion tonnes of our top five crops: sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat and potatoes. We also extract 80 million tonnes of fish a year from the oceans, with another 80 million tonnes being farmed. Almost every living creature is affected by human actions. Populations of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals have declined by an average of 58% over the last forty years. Extinctions are commonplace, running at 1,000 times the typical rate seen before humans walked the Earth. On land, if you weighed all the large mammals on the planet today, just 3% of that mass is living in the wild. The rest is made up of human flesh, some 30% of the total, with domesticated animals that feed us contributing the remaining 67%. In the oceans, low oxygen dead zones have appeared across 245,000km2 of coastal waters. We live on a human-dominated planet.


The implications of these statements are profound. The cumulative impacts of human activity rank alongside other planetary-scale geological events in Earth's history. And for us, the unusually stable environmental conditions that began about 10,000 years ago, when farming emerged and increasingly complex civilizations developed, are over. We have entered a time of greater variability and extremes, the repercussions of which are only now beginning to be understood. Can humans flourish on a rapidly changing planet, growing in balance with the natural resources available to us?


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How we became a force of nature


There is no single entity called 'humanity' that drives the changes to our home planet: specific groups of people cause each impact. Although anatomically modern humans had emerged by about 200,000 years ago, it wasn't until 1804 that our numbers reached one billion. It then took only a single century to pass two billion people. The sixth to seventh billion was added in just twelve years. Over the long run, the human population has grown faster than exponentially - the amount of time taken to double the population has been getting shorter (although rates have slowed since the 1960s).


Of course, our impacts also relate to what, and how much, people produce and consume. In the past fifty years the global economy increased six-fold, whereas the human population only doubled. The resulting explosion in resource use and environmental impacts is out of all proportion to our numbers. So can the human enterprise, the economy included, continue to expand indefinitely given the vulnerabilities of the land, oceans and atmosphere that constitute our planetary life support system?


As we trace human societies from our march out of East Africa through to today's globally connected network of cultures there are four major transitions - a pair relating to patterns of energy use and a pair relating to the scale of human social organization - that fundamentally altered both human societies and our environmental impacts on the Earth system.


Human societies spread worldwide as hunter-gatherers. The first transition, beginning roughly 10,500 years ago, resulted from learning to farm. By domesticating other species to serve human ends people captured more of the sun's energy. Within a few thousand years foraging had been replaced by agriculture almost everywhere. These farmers transformed landscapes, and over time changed the chemistry of the atmosphere so much that they stabilized Earth's climate. Serendipitously, farming created environmental conditions across our home planet that were unusually stable. This gave time for large-scale civilizations to develop.


The second of the four transitions was organizational: in the early sixteenth century Western Europeans began colonizing large areas of the rest of the world, creating the first globalized economy. A new world order driven by the search for private profit was born. These new trade routes linked the world as never before. Crops, livestock and many species just hitching a ride were moved to new continents and new oceans. Called the Columbian Exchange, this cross-ocean exchange of species began an ongoing global re-ordering of life on Earth. This reconnecting of the continents, for the first time in 200 million years, has set the Earth system on a new developmental trajectory. Beginning in 1492, the collision of Europe and the Americas was a watershed event resulting in a new global economy and new global ecology. Like the original agricultural revolution, this newly emerging capitalist mode of living would spread and eventually encompass almost all of humanity.


The third transition was driven by another leap in the energy available: people learned to mine and use large quantities of old concentrated stores of the sun's energy. These fossil fuels were a key component of the late eighteenth century Industrial Revolution. Large-scale production could be centralized around factories, and humans became an increasingly urban species. One critical planetary change was the rise in emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. For 2.6 million years Earth has cycled through cool glacial and warm interglacial phases, but over time human actions have done something remarkable: delayed the next scheduled ice age and created a new planetary state, a state warmer than an interglacial - a super-interglacial. Fossil fuel use has pushed Earth outside the environmental conditions that every human culture evolved within.





The fourth, and so far final, transition was driven by a further globe-spanning organizational change. After the Second World War, a suite of new global institutions was created, resulting in major increases in the productivity of the global economy alongside improvements in human health and material prosperity. Environmental historians describe these changes and the resulting step-change in the size and variety of environmental impacts as the ‘Great Acceleration’. Since 1945 changes to the global cycling of elements and the energy balance of Earth have departed from the nominal range of the past 10,000 years, with major consequences globally. A dangerous experiment with the future of human civilization is now underway.


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Complex and adaptive systems


Human societies are complex adaptive systems, the product of economics, science, technology, politics, culture, and engineering. Such systems change from one state to another when they are gripped by feedback loops where change reinforces further change. Looking over our history we see these self-reinforcing loops creating the emergence of new states:


  1. Agricultural societies

  2. Mercantile capitalism

  3. Industrial capitalism

  4. Consumer capitalism

  5. Knowledge enabled


Each new form of human society that emerges is always reliant on greater energy use, greater information availability and an increase in collective human agency, and has greater environmental impacts. Understanding the non-linear history of human societies and the dynamics of additional energy and information availability begins to explain how we have become a force of nature like no other.


Since the early modern world of the sixteenth century two interlinked self-reinforcing feedback loops - the investment of profits to generate more profits, and the production of ever-greater knowledge from the scientific method - have increasingly dominated the world's cultures. These forces have unleashed ever-increasing rates of change, including environmental change. At its root, this is an outcome of the exponential growth of the global economy, which, growing at 3% per year, is expected to more than double in size every twenty-five years. When the economy was small, doubling its size had little impact and the change experienced over a human lifespan was typically modest. But as a very large economy doubles in size, and soon doubles again, ever-more dramatic changes to society and the Earth system become the norm. These rising social and environmental changes point towards either a new configuration of human society or its collapse. Yet, just as the post-war settlement improved lives, a new transition to a higher-energy, greater-information state could radically increase human freedoms and even undo much environmental damage.


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Changing the tide


With all we now know, it is clear that the culmination of our current practices is incompatible with long term sustainability. Growing sustainably is difficult; a multi-disciplinary approach is required. Growth and sustainability transcend the fields of economics, science, technology, politics, culture, and engineering. Like it or not, the future will require cross-discipline collaboration to ensure the viability of planet Earth.


In the 1970s Earth surpassed the carrying capacity of human societies. Today, we use the resources of our planet at 1.7x the rate for which they can naturally replenish, and this number is expected to grow to 3.0x by the 2050s. The time to address this is now, and the mission to address this rests with us. More concretely the changes we are making to the planet needs a response, and that response must emphasise with the complex system of human society to forge a better, more sustainable future.


We believe one answer is to turn to technology to facilitate a future of balanced growth with our environment. Another could be to use geoengineering - deliberate major interventions in how our planet functions - to stabilize Earth's climate. But might such intentional large-scale interference with Earth's natural processes, such as reflecting some of the energy coming from the sun back into space, have severe unintended consequences? Could other solutions that stabilize Earth's climate, with differing planetary impacts, be better? There are no easy answers, but increasingly society will be confronted with questions like these. Now we recognise ourselves as a force of nature, we will need to address who directs this immense power, and to what ends.


Our (Sensat’s) answer is therefore to turn to technology as a means of understanding the world. Encouraging a higher-energy, greater-information state will underpin a future economic response that is not only considerate to but equipped to reduce our environmental impacts. Understanding the cause and effect, implications and feedback loops of our complex and adaptive systems we believe is the key to shaping a more sustainable world.


Our home planet functions as a single integrated system: the oceans, atmosphere and land-surface are all interlinked. This ‘Earth system' can be thought of as consisting of physical, chemical and biological components, and now to the human fields of culture, politics, technology, economics and engineering. To grow sustainably we must build a system of systems to meet the demands of each of our collective knowledge fields. The problem has been however that the real world is offline; it cannot connect with computers or other devices and has remained outside the scope of large scale high accuracy computer simulations - the kind of which are needed to truly answer our most important questions.


This poses a considerable hurdle when developing Artificial Intelligence for real-world use, something that can help us to live our lives more sustainably. And as global growth surges, it is important to acknowledge, understand and react to the strains which the industry can place on our environment – an impossible task without the help of computer-aided analysis. By 2040, the global population will grow by almost 2 billion people, requiring a combined $94 trillion of new Civil Infrastructure investment.


As an inherently physical industry, Civil Infrastructure, like many of its peers, lacks the automation and transparency that has transformed online industries. This has left it as the only sector to see no productivity increase since the dawn of the digital age and contributor of a staggering 61% of total UK waste. At the same time, the construction and operation of Civil Infrastructure creates over 74% of global emissions and forms the bedrock of societies and economies. If there was a single place we could begin to create the technology for analysing and understanding the world better whilst having a material impact against our mission on day 1, this is it.


Allowing computers and AI to analyse the real world’s innumerable daily interactions may be the most important challenge ever faced by humanity in order for us to grow more sustainably.


Our vision is to build a sustainable world where human development is in balance with the natural environment. In practice, this means creating an intelligent eco-system that translates the real world into a version understandable to AI. On this platform, all things and places will be machine-­readable, subject to the power of algorithms to allow us to analyse, and better understand the world in which we live.


This new platform will create the foundations for a higher-information society, more conscious of how it can live in balance with the natural environment. It will unleash the prosperity of thousands of more companies in its ecosystem tasked with sustainable growth and a million new ideas that were not possible before machines could read the world.


“The environmental changes caused by human activity have increased to a point that today human actions constitute a new force of nature, increasingly determining the future of the only planet known to harbour life”

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Acknowledgements:


This essay is largely an excerpt taken from the excellent introduction to ‘The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene’ by Mark Maslin and Simon L. Lewis, whose words portray the status of today's sustainability challenge better than I ever could have. Understanding context and how we got here is as important to solving our sustainability crisis as is data or algorithms - the lessons of history must be applied to the future we want to create.



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