Understanding the Earth as a Whole System: From the Gaia Hypothesis to Thermodynamic Optimality and Human Societies
Abstract The notion that the whole is more than the sum of its parts has a long tradition in science. This, of course, also applies to the Earth system. With its myriad of processes, spanning from purely physical to life and human activity, the Earth is a vastly complex system. It may thus seem that there is nothing simple and general to say because of this overwhelming complexity. What I want to show here is that by formulating the Earth as a thermodynamic system, one can identify general directions and infer simple functioning because thermodynamics imposes fundamental limits on the dynamics. At the center of this description are energy conversions and states of disequilibrium, which are at the core of the dynamics of Earth system processes, from convection cells to living organisms and human societies. They are linked to each other and interact by their exchanges of energy and mass, and ultimately affect how much of the input of low-entropy solar radiation from the Sun is converted into free energy, energy able to perform work, before the energy gets re-emitted by the Earth as high-entropy terrestrial radiation. The emergent thermodynamic behavior of the Earth then becomes simple because the dynamics evolve to and operate at thermodynamic limits. Such behavior of Earth system processes operating at their limit can then be linked to previously described holistic theories, such as the Gaia hypothesis, with similarities in the described emergent behavior. Such a thermodynamic view, however, can go further, as it can also be used to understand the role of human societies in the Earth system and the potential pathways to a sustainable future. Thermodynamics taken together with the energy conversions and interactions within the Earth system can thus provide a basis to understand why the whole Earth system is more, and simpler, than the sum of its spheres.
Keywords thermodynamics, Earth system science, complexity, disequilibrium, holistic science, dissipation, Gaia hypothesis, life, biosphere, human activity, future