Earth Viability: Safeguarding the Health of Earth's Life-Support System

Earth's Life-Support System
Earth's Spectrum of Possible Futures

The Earth's Life-Support System

Note that the following text is slightly modified from Plag (2020).

The planetary system can be viewed as a life-support system for a very large number of fine-tuned subsystems of species interacting with each other within this system and slowly changing it. The concept of a planetary life-support system of systems has been utilized recently in scientific assessments of the interaction of humanity with the planet (e.g., Young and Steffen, 2009; Pearce, 2010) and in communications of the anthropogenic degradation of the system to the public and world leaders (e.g., Wallström et al., 2004, Barnosky et al., 2014).

The concept of the Earth's life-support system was used by Griggs et al. (2013) to operationalize the principle of sustainable development by defining sustainable development as “a development that meets the needs of the present while safe-guarding the Earth's life-support system on which the welfare of current and future generations depends.” Communities of human and non-human animals embedded in the planetary system interact with this life-support system through flows of matter and energy (Figure 1). In many aspects, the Earth's life-support system is similar to the organism of an animal, in which many fine-tuned processes generate flows that keep the organism in homeostasis. Like the planetary system, the animal organism provides a life-support system for many other organisms that are crucial for the generation of the flows that maintain homeostasis. Central to the understanding of the physiological functioning of a body system is the integrated nature of chemistry and physics, coordinated homeostatic control mechanisms, and continuous communication between cells (Widmaier et al., 2016). Central to the understanding of the functioning of the Earth's life-support system is the integrated nature of chemistry and physics and the coordinated functioning of homeostatic control mechanisms provided by the continuous interaction of the “web of life” (Capra, 1996) embedded in, and integral to, the planetary life-support system.

Figure 1: Earth's life-support system and humanity. Human and non-human communities embedded in the Earth's life-support system interact with it through flows of energy and matter (right). Unlike other animals, the flows between the life-support system and human communities are regulated by ethics, social norms and the mainstream economic model. In modern society, virtually all interactions between humans and the Earth's life-support system are part of the economy (left). Modified from Plag and Jules-Plag (2017).

Life has impacted the physiology of the planetary system from the start by creating and changing flows. To some extent, life determined many chemical and physical system variables throughout time and impacted climate. The flows manipulated by life kept the system in homeostasis and provided long stable states for life to evolve and occupy large regions of the planetary surface layers. Changes in the flows were slow and allowed species to adapt to equally slow changes in the mean state of the system, as well as most of the fluctuations around the mean.

In the case of human communities, the flows between the Earth's life-support system and society are regulated not only by human needs but also by ethics, social norms, and economic rules and practices. The modern growth-dependent economy has facilitated growth by increasing most of the flows by several orders of magnitude, and these rapid changes in the planetary physiology have resulted in major changes in the biological, chemical, and physical conditions in the Earth's life-support system. Among them is modern climate change.

Fever in a homeothermic species is a symptom of a malfunctioning of that system and often part of a syndrome of changes in the organism resulting from disruptions in the physiology of the organism. These disruptions can result, for example, from a break-down of homeostatic control mechanisms, alterations of flows, or the attack of viruses or bacteria. The effectiveness of an external cure depends upon an accurate diagnosis of the disruption.

Similarly, a rapid increase in the global ocean and air temperature, which is indicating a rapid increase in the energy stored in the coupled atmosphere-ocean system, is a result of a disruption in the planetary physiology. The symptom of global warming indicates that the homeothermic processes in the Earth's life-support system no longer are functioning to keep the system in homeostasis. Consequently, only by considering the full planetary physiology can the symptoms of global warming and modern climate change be fully understood and traced back to the underlying cause, the “sickness.”

An alien outside observer would not characterize the syndrome as anthropogenic but rather aim to see it as a distortion in the planetary life-support system that could have come from any individual or group of species. Having access to the very large database humans have compiled in the last few centuries, the alien observer would see the obvious: The distorting modern global change is the result of a single species that in a very short time of less than 200 years released a very large pulse of energy into the environment by tapping into energy resources stored in the planetary system over hundreds of million years. This species is using this energy pulse to re-engineer the planetary physiology by changing its chemical and physical state and modifying crucial flows by several orders of magnitudes. To capture the main aspects of this distortion, the alien might denote it as a “single-species high-energy pulse” syndrome. The species causing the pulse acts as a virus in the Earth's life-support system, a virus that found the means to change almost all flows to sustain its population growth at an unprecedented rate, invasively occupy all regions of the planet's surface, and eliminate many other potentially competing species. By doing so, it destablized the homeostatic mechanisms and initiated a rapid transition of the planetary system towards a new and currently unknown homeostasis.

Scientific evidence pointing to an ecological breakdown has become ubiquitous, and concerned scientists have issued warnings to humanity (Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992; Ripple et al., 2017}. Major newspapers, including The Guardian and the New York Times, have picked up the alarming scientific findings concerning soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. There is a growing consensus that these crises are driven by an economic model focused on unlimited growth of production and consumption, which is fundamentally reorganizing the flows in the Earth's life-support system.

Modern climate change is extensively documented in scientific literature and assessment reports at national, regional and intergovernmental levels, and there is little benefit in adding another summary here. However, considering modern climate change as a symptom of the larger single-species high-energy pulse syndrome is a novel contribution. Looking at the Earth's life-support system from a medical point of view to assess its health, these five questions seem crucial:

  • What is the baseline for a healthy planetary life-support system and what are the normal ranges of essential variables of this system?
  • What characterizes the syndrome of the single-species high-energy pulse that the system is showing recently?
  • What is the diagnosis of the underlying cause of this syndrome?
  • What foresight can be developed with respect to the full spectrum of possible futures of the system and what are the likelihoods of these futures to realize?
  • Is there a therapy to address the cause of the syndrome?

The Lab sheet aims to give answers to these questions.


Capra, F., 1996. The Web of Life, Random House Publishers.

Griggs, D., Stafford-Smith, M., Gaffney, O., Rockström, J., Öhman, M. C., Shyamsundar, P., Steffen, W., Glaser, G., Kanie, N., and Noble, I., 2013. Sustainable Development Goals for people and planet, Nature, 495, 305-307.

Pearce, F., 2010. From ocean to ozone: Earth's nine life-support systems, New Scientist, Feature, 24 February 2010.

Plag, H.-P., 2020. Modern Climate Change: A Symptom of a Single-Species, high energy pulse. Chapter in Miller, D. E., Egglestone, B.: Moral Theory and Climate Change: Ethical Perspectives on a Warming Planet. Taylor and Francis/Routledge, 2020, pages 6-34.

Plag, H.-P. and Jules-Plag, S.-A., 2017. An economy for humanity: Transition to an economy for a thriving humanity and planetary future, ApoGeoSpatial, 32(2, Spring 2017), 30-35.

Ripple, W. J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T. M., Galetti, M., Alamgir, M., Crist, E., Mahmoud, M. I., Laurance, W. F., and {15,364 scientist signatories from 184 countries}, 2017. World scientists warning to humanity: A second notice, BioScience, 67(12), 1026-1028.

Union of Concerned Scientists, 1992. World scientists warning to humanity, Tech. rep., Union of Concerned Scientists USA.

Wallström, M., Bolin, B., Crutzen, P., Steffen, W., and International Herald Tribune, 2004. A global crisis: The Earth's life-support system is in peril, The New York Times.

Widmaier, E. P., Raff, H., and Strang, K. T., 2016. Vander's Human Physiology: The Mechanisms of Body Function, McGraw-Hill Education, New York, NY.

Young, O. and Steffen, W., 2009. The earth system: Sustaining planetary life-support systems, in Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship, edited by C. Folke, G. Kofinas, and F. Chapin, Springer, New York, NY.

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