Mechanisms and Institutions

As Vernadsky realized, the concept of the noosphere implies a causal chain from human thoughts to large-scale physical effects. This poses two challenges for research. First, there is the question of how the movements of human hands, legs, and bodies can be amplified so as to have effects that are observable at a planetary scale. And second, there is the question of how human thoughts can cause movements of hands, legs, and bodies.

As for the first question, fire has been a key amplification mechanism of human action since prehistorical times. Clearly, the burning of fossil fuels with the resulting emission of greenhouse gases is a related mechanism today. Vernadsky was particularly impressed by an amplification mechanism that was developed during his lifetime. The human capability to think had led to an understanding of subatomic processes that enabled human beings to build atomic bombs as well as to generate electricity from nuclear power plants. Vernadsky had studied radioactive materials already before World War I; during World War II he played a key role in triggering the nuclear weapons program under Stalin, and he forcefully supported the Soviet nuclear energy program. It is noteworthy that Lovelock, champion of the Gaia concept, strongly advocates nuclear power as the way to meet the challenge of anthropogenic climate change.

Nuclear physics is a prime example of human thoughts whose material impacts - while clearly being huge -depend mainly on political decisions. However, it is clear that the market institution is one of the most effective mechanisms to enlarge the range of human actions. The market economy has enabled human beings to develop global patterns of division of labor, of cooperation and competition. So far, research drawing directly or indirectly on the noosphere concept has not paid much attention to the economic links in the causal chain from thoughts to material impacts. This clearly is a major research challenge for the future. It includes the task of distinguishing those impacts of the market economy that change our global environment without impairing it from those that jeopardize properties of our environment that we value and need. Will the noosphere concept be helpful in new discoveries about how markets work and how key instances of market failure can be addressed?

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