This Part is arranged in four sections, or “spheres” – personal, governance, economic, and environmental (the “biosphere”). The choice of four spheres is slightly arbitrary, but a convenient way to arrange the material. They are pictured above and described below.
I have also seen these spheres presented as concentric circles (from the biosphere in to the economic sphere), but prefer the “Venn diagram” approach which shows human activities as overlapping within their overall environment.
I will draw an arbitrary distinction between the “affluent” world (broadly Europe, the wealthy Middle East, North America, East Asia and Australasia), and the non-affluent world. Of course there is a continuum of affluence around the world and within countries, but in broad terms, the countries and 1.5 billion people in the named regions are those who have benefited most from industrialisation to date.
The “personal” sphere is where and how we organise our personal and family lives. It is where we are when we are not in the governance or economic spheres. So it includes our time alone or with family and friends, our leisure time, and our “self-maintenance” time, when we look after our own physical and mental health.
The “governance” sphere is where and how we organise our relationships within our communities, and with other parts of the world. The centre of current governance arrangements is the nation state (the “country”), although in certain regions of the world this model is breaking down through sectarian and tribal violence. Most countries have tiered governance structures within them – various combinations of regions, provinces, states, cities, towns, boroughs and districts for example. And at a higher level than countries are the regional and global arrangements entered voluntarily – or semi-voluntarily – by individual countries. The European Community and ASEAN are obvious examples of regional arrangements, and the United Nations is the peak global arrangement, with numerous subsidiary or related bodies which also have global reach. At the local level, many citizens are directly engaged with local government, or with voluntary or other enterprises, aimed at contributing to their fellow citizens and societies.
The “economic” sphere is where and how we organise the production and distribution of goods and services to sustain and (hopefully) enrich our lives. The centre of current economic arrangements is the corporation, which is basically a contractual arrangement between people and with the governance sphere to do economic tasks as described above. There are also many production and distribution arrangements which are not formally corporations, including voluntary, family and individual arrangements. The economic sphere creates most of our material wealth.
The “biosphere” is the thin envelope of air, land and water which generates and sustains life on Earth. Breathable atmosphere goes up to about 10 kilometres above the surface of the Earth, and accessible material and resources go down about 10 kilometres to the bottom of the oceans and into the crust. This is a very thin envelope – most adults could walk the 20 kilometres in well under a day (admittedly they would have to do it on a horizontal rather than a vertical surface). But the Earth is 25,000 kilometres in any horizontal direction – this takes a commercial jet 2-3 days to fly round, and overall amounts to about 2 hectares (5 acres) of land area, and 5 hectares of sea, for every one of us. This is what gives us our illusion of abundance, as most of us are crammed into pretty small areas on the land, with open or forested spaces surrounding us.
All life – not just human life and the three human spheres, but all life – is nurtured by, and totally dependent on, the biosphere.
The energy that sustains us comes from the sun, which should keep shining for a few billion more years, and which we have little influence over. But our resources – the elements which combined to create life, and which now sustain it through our breathable atmosphere, and our fertile soil and waters – come from the biosphere. Life generates and regenerates – it is the creative force on our Earth. Some elements renew themselves quickly – the wind and the endless cycle of water in particular. If we interfere in a substantial way with the generative or renewable cycles, we put ourselves at risk, because the complexity of life and the systems which support it are largely beyond our understanding, except in the crudest of ways. Four billion years of evolution do not open themselves fully to only 400 years of scientific enquiry, nor does the infinite nature of the universe lay itself open to finite human comprehension.
Some elements are either non-renewable or take huge time spans to renew themselves – many rare elements and fossil fuels in particular. Once we have used or broken these down, we will not be able to renew them.
And once we have degraded our biosphere enough, human life on Earth will cease. And on the way, there will be plagues of frogs and hellfire.
Well, actually, the plagues of frogs have been plagues ON frogs so far, as the various species of frog are dying out at increasing rates from human-transported diseases[i]. And the hellfire is already with us, with the increasing intensity of summer heatwaves and wildfires in Europe, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere.
Strictly speaking, the biosphere does not include human or non-human life (plants, fishes, other animals, birds, and insects). It is technically defined as the regions of the Earth which support life. My diagram of the spheres would have more accurately included another concentric circle inside the biosphere called “life”, with the three circles of human activity inside them again.
However, to avoid multiplying spheres, and because the book is primarily about human behaviour and how it needs to change, I have chosen to treat non-human life as part of the biosphere. “Our environment” or “everything else on Earth” might perhaps have been more accurate terms than “the biosphere”. But the first carries a lot of widely varying emotional baggage, and the second is just not very attractive as a term.
The spheres all overlap, and interact with each other, the most obvious interaction being the use of the biosphere by the economic sphere to generate useable resources for the personal and governance spheres. The arrangements we make also cross over between the spheres. The best example of this is governmental and non-governmental arrangements which redistribute resources or goods and services in the name of fairness. The economic sphere has extracted or created the wealth, and our governance arrangements redistribute some of it.
[i] “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”, Kindle Loc 270-74