The Noosphere Concept

The noosphere concept is best developed before the background of the related concept of ecosphere. The ecosphere is usually understood to be the space inhabited by living beings. It comprises the living organisms (biosphere), the lower atmosphere, the hydrosphere (oceans, lakes, glaciers, etc.), and the highest layer of the lithosphere (topsoil as well as various kinds of rocky ground). The word biosphere was invented by the Austrian geologist Eduard Süß, who used it more or less in passing, in an influential textbook on the formation of the Alps. In 1911, Süß met the Russian-Ukrainian mineralogist and geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, who gave the word its current meaning. This meaning includes the fact that the biosphere is connected in space and time, that all living beings are related to each other by evolution, and that not only the biological, but also the chemical and physical, processes in the biosphere are shaped to a considerable extent by the functioning of living beings. A major example is the oxygen content of the atmosphere resulting from photosynthesis.

In the 1920s, Vernadsky was staying in Paris where he met the philosopher and mathematician Edouard LeRoy, whose lectures on biogeochemistry he attended. Through LeRoy, Vernadsky got exposed to a concept that Teilhard de Chardin, who also attended LeRoy's lectures, was developing in those days: the concept of noosphere. (The term noosphere, is derived from the Greek root nous meaning mind.)

Teilhard, a French geologist and Catholic priest, saw the emergence of the human species out of biological evolution as the beginning of a far-reaching transformation of the world we live in. The human mind would gradually learn to shape the world to a larger and larger extent, transforming the biosphere into the noosphere. Vernadsky related the concept to the historical dimension he had experienced in World War II. In his mind, this war showed that humankind was beginning to act on a global scale, but was not yet able to do so in a responsible way. The development of nuclear physics - that Vernadsky had been following already before World War I - presented the same challenge in an even more dramatic form. The transition from the biosphere to the noosphere, then, was to be the process in which humankind would learn to consciously and responsibly shape the ecosphere. This idea has been taken up in various forms by current authors interested in global environmental change.

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