Changing the Story:

The Planetary Physiology

Changing the Story:

Prof. Hans-Peter Plag, PhD
Mitigation and Adaptation
Research Institute 
Old Dominion University
Norfolk, Va.

It surprises me again and again how much we know, or could know, and how much we choose not to know. Behavioral economy and cognitive psychology have taught us much about human biases and how they impact the reflections we have of the world and the decisions we make.

The discussion about climate change is a good example of our ability not to see the obvious and to reason against it. In an attempt to explain the ice ages, Svante Arrhenius in 1896 published a paper that explains the basics of how, and how much, atmospheric Greenhouse gases impact global temperature.1 The data collected since then has consistently confirmed what he derived more than 120 years ago. In 1906, he suggested that human emissions of carbon dioxide could be a means to keep the planet from entering a new ice age.2 The scientific knowledge developed since then has provided a deep understanding of the fragility of the stable homeostasis humanity had the pleasure to experience during the Holocene, the last geological epoch that started about 11,700 years ago.

Instead of eagerly listening to the experts and asking them for guidance of how we can prolong this great time of climate stability for the benefit of us and those that come after us, too many of us engage in denial and ignorance of the knowledge readily available for short-term economic bene ts with little consideration for the harm and injustice this is causing. The discussion about climate change, its extent and its causes has developed into an unreasonable dialog, a confrontation where the parts keep exchanging their positions without reasoning.

At the Conference on the Future of Engineering Software (COFES)3 in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 6-8, 2017, I engaged in such an unreasonable dialog. I participated in COFES as a member of the “Earth Energy Monitoring System” (E2MS) working group.4 This group originates from the CTO Design Challenge addressed at the Future in Review (FIRE) conference held in September 2016 in Park City, Utah.5 The topic of the 2016 FIRE was “flows” – flows in all forms and of all different elements. The CTO Design Challenge focused on the conceptual design of a monitoring system for the ow of energy in all its forms through the Earth system. Looking at the world in terms of flows changes the story from arguing about the symptoms and phenomena to a dialog about the processes and causes. By changing the story, the focus of our societal discourse, we can change the future.

In the Technology Suite Brie ngs at COFES, new initiatives can be presented to, and discussed with, a small highly interested audience in a somewhat unusual setting. In our briefing on the E2MS, it was my task to illustrate the challenge humanity is facing and to explain how the E2MS would provide information helpful to decision makers. In the last 250 years, we have increasingly accelerated flows in the Earth system, and these accelerated ows have changed the overall balance – or imbalance – in the Earth system. During this period, humanity increasingly had access to energy and technologies that could be used to make large-scale change to our planet.

Energy flows in the earth system cover a wide range of spatial and temporal scales. Knowing the ow of energy is key to understanding the dynamics of the evolving, non-stationary complex system and its emerging properties. Leveraging the abundant data from rapidly growing networks of sensors from the traditional Earth observation system to crowd-sourcing and the coming Internet of Things, the E2MS aims at a detailed picture of all ows in the Earth system. Source: E2MS.

Since about 1950, when we achieved easy access to nearly unlimited energy, our species was able to modify flows in the Nitrogen and Phosphorous cycles and thus could produce the food for the rapidly growing population. We change flows and storage in the water cycle to support the production of food and more energy and to provide access to water for other purposes. The flow of humans increased with millions on the move, both voluntarily for business or pleasure, or involuntarily as migrants fleeing unlivable conditions. The flow of material resources into products and from there into waste accelerated to satisfy the greed of a growth-addicted economy. The flow of wealth escalated with more and more of it concentrated in the hands for fewer and fewer. The flow of data from sensors is exponentially increasing without necessarily turning into knowledge and wisdom. Information flows inflated both with and without the consent of the owners.

In January 2017, an atmospheric river brought a flow of water to the drought- stricken Southwest of the U.S., causing problems with a sudden overload of water. Source: NASA.

The strength of the jet stream has an important impact on weather and climate, particularly on the northern hemisphere. The rapid warming in the Arctic could significantly change the atmospheric dynamics and weaken the jet stream with severe impacts on weather extremes. Source: Washington Post, “One of the most troubling ideas about climate change just found new evidence in its favor,” March 27, 2017.

We changed land use by taking away forests and pastures to make room for agriculture, sprawling human settlements and extensive infrastructure. In 1700, a mere 650 million people used on the order of 1% of the land surface. Today, close to 7.5 billion people occupy on the order of 50% of the land surface. On the way, we changed the carbon cycle and by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and oceans, we changed the energy flow and amplified the imbalance of the energy that comes from the sun and is radiated back into space.

Over Earth’s history, this imbalance is very small, probably less than 10-9, but just enough to build considerable energy reserves in form of fossil fuels over hundred of millions of years. Considering the additional energy that is currently stored in the atmosphere and oceans as part of global warming, the imbalance is now closer to 10-3, a million or more times larger than on average during millions of years.

This change in the flow of energy is changing the characteristics of the planetary system.

We also changed the biosphere and how the biosphere is utilizing solar energy. We eliminated the 30-60 million buffalos that populated North America when the first migrants from Europe arrived. Each of them has a metabolic rate of more than 400 W, summing up to a total of 12.5-25 GigaWatt (GW). The buffalos used this amount of basically solar energy to process a huge amount of biotic material and to enrich their environment with the remains. In Africa, the 20 million elephants that once roamed this continent used on the order of 40 GW to do the same there. We have removed
these “ecosystem services” almost completely.

Similarly, we have changed the energy flow in many other parts of the Earth’s life-support system. Importantly, we have added our extended metabolic rate of almost 3,000 W per person on global average into the system’s energy flow. In order to understand how these changed flows change the characteristics of the system, it is mandatory to focus on flows, measure ows, and to have an E2MS.

In our first briefing at COFES, we presented our initiative to a very observant group eager to hear what E2MS might contribute. During the Design and Sustainability (DAS) Symposium the previous day, there was agreement that we as a global society are not in good shape and need to make significant changes to face the economic, social and environmental challenges and to avoid potential looming disasters.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, an estimated 65 million people are currently displaced and many of them are moving along major flow lines between continents.

Like doctors who want to improve the health of a patient, decision makers who want to address these challenges need up-to-date and comprehensive information about the degrading Earth’s life-support system. This was well understood by our audience, and the idea of developing an E2MS was well received. It was acknowledged that changing the story and talking about the physiology of the planetary life-support system and the flows between us and this system could provide a basis for a reasonable dialog about our future and what we want this future to be. It was also realized that we have a huge amount of data that could be used to extract information about flows with a system like the E2MS.

The afternoon briefing session turned out very different. In all the material we were presenting, one person only heard one thing: “climate change,” and he forcefully tried to negate every statement we made. He reproduced the well-known false arguments of NOAA having manipulated data, of the effect of Greenhouse gas on global temperature not being proven, of climate having changed always, and he went so far as to claim that Jupiter is warming over the last 20 years without anyone driving a car there. His antipodal attitude was actually beneficial because in the end, the audience understood our reasoning about the changing flows and saw the importance in our new story even better than in the morning, when nobody challenged our message.

Behavioral economics tells us how we make decisions and how our cognitive biases impact these decisions, but it doesn’t answer the question why humans are the only species to develop reason as one of our cognitive senses. Reading Mercier and Sperber’s new book on “The Engima of Reason”6 brings us closer to an answer to this question of fundamental importance. They argue that reason was not developed and is not geared for solitary use with the goal to arrive at better beliefs and decisions on our own. It rather helps us to justify our beliefs, positions, and actions to other members of our communities, to convince them with argumentation, and to evaluate the arguments of others in an open dialog. Reason gave us an advantage as social beings and allowed us to have deliberations about the future we want to create together.

It hurts to see that in our modern society we seem to forget what reason was meant to be. Decisions are no longer made by communities after careful reasoning about the impacts these decisions might have on our common future. Like the climate change denier at our briefing, who had no interest in considering our reasoning, many of our leading decision makers up to the highest level are not interested in careful reasoning about the future we want and how to get there but rather make decisions for the benefit of short-term effects, including their rating on whatever rating system they are addicted to.

“Sense is the song you sing out into the world, and the song the world sings back to you.” In Ari Berk’s and Loren Long’s book, “Nightsong,”7 the bat-mother of Chiro uses these words to send him for the first time alone out into the fearful dark of the night, and she tells Chiro to use the “good sense” to nd his way through the dark and back home. Bats use their unique “good sense” of ultrasound to cope with their specific conditions. Humans have reason as what could be our “good sense.” But it is not enough to sing our song into the world, no matter how well reasoned; we also need to listen to the song the world sings back to us. “Listening” to the ows may be what is key to understanding the world.


1. Arrhenius, S., 1896. On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground.
Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science,
Series 5, Volume 41, pages 237-276.

2. His 1906 book on “Vaerldanas utveckling” was published
in English in 1908 under the title Worlds in the Making.




6. Mercier, H. and D. Sperber, 2017. The Enigma of
Reason. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

7. Berk, A., L. Long, 2012. Nightsong. Simon and
Schuster, New York.

Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative / Old Dominion University Norfolk, Va. /