In the same way as all other multi-cellular organisms, humans emerged into an already existing biosphere. We came, as it were, to a table that was already laid. Even if western culture has had a tendency to imagine that human society develops independent of nature, on a global humanity is of course completely dependent on the possibilities and limitations of the biosphere.

Today, many factors indicate that we are at a crossroads, where we have to find new ways of thinking to meet the challenges faced by a growing human population. Biologist and philosopher Yrjö Haila looks at the place of architecture in a planetary context.

The Earth.

What the Biosphere Is

The term biosphere refers to the surface layer of the Earth influenced by life, and is thus analogous to atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere (referring to layers of air, water and rock, respectively).1 The current biosphere has taken shape over the course of 3.7 billion years or so of biological evolution.

The physio-chemical conditions on the Earth’s surface are far from being in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium; this is true of the atmosphere as well as the World Ocean and soils. In other words, both the atmosphere and the oceans contain chemical compounds that react spontaneously with other compounds, and the composition of the mixture changes accordingly.

An active force is needed to maintain such conditions. The living biosphere constitutes this necessary force. Free oxygen, which makes up some 21% of the atmosphere is a prime example: oxygen is continuously produced by photosynthesising organisms such as green plants. But the maintenance of non-equilibrium conditions requires a constant flow of energy from an external source. As is well known, the sun is by far the most important source of energy for the Earth, and the biosphere is the energetic engine that transforms the energy incoming through solar radiation into chemical energy. Photosynthesis, the production of carbohydrates (sugar) from carbon dioxide and water, is the key process in this transformation. The products of photosynthesis are then secondarily transformed into all the organic compounds that life requires.


Quantitative and qualitative energy

Energy comes in many forms, and changes spontaneously from more intensive to less intensive forms. Life is maintained by a complex network of inter-linked energy conversions. The working mechanism can be heuristically understood as energetic coupling. Energy can be temporarily stored as potential energy, and then released again as various forms of kinetic energy. In organisms, energy is stored in energy-rich organic molecules such as fats, and the stored energy can be released later on when needed. The temporary storage and tightly regulated release of energy is what drives the vital functions of living organisms. Vaclav Smil gives the following succinct assessment: ”The Earth's biosphere is an intricate, interactive assembly of energy stores and flows.”2

We need not worry about a precise definition of energy in this context. In fact, it is very difficult to give a precise definition in the first place; as Vaclav Smil notes: ”Energy is an abstract concept invented by physical scientists in the nineteenth century to describe quantitatively a wide variety of natural phenomena.” What is important is that in biological processes, energy is always expressed in qualitatively specified forms. The amount of chemical energy stored in organic compounds can be assessed by burning the object one is interested in in a laboratory equipment known as a 'bomb calorimeter', and measuring the heat that is produced. We could, for instance, place a magpie in a bomb calorimeter and read its energy content as a result. But this figure tells absolutely nothing about what magpies do in real life: where they live, what they eat, whom they interact with as either predator or prey, and so on.

An allotment. Keith's shed.

The global role of microorganisms

That life on Earth achieves the feat of regulating a planetary-scale biosphere is primarily due to the incredible efficiency of microorganisms. Microorganisms are everywhere, in unimaginable numbers and innumerable physiological types, and they react to changing conditions in real time. Whenever there is useful stuff available, they grab it, consume it, and degrade it, all with tremendous efficiency. Different microorganisms are metabolically bound to each other: waste produced by one becomes a resource for another. The overall potency of microorganisms is due to two characteristics: Their incredible capacity to increase in numbers, and the vast total area of active biological membrane across which their metabolism takes place.3

Two conclusions for a new agenda

Two agenda-setting conclusions can be drawn from the above. First, life is a planetary phenomenon. While the first forms of life originated undoubtedly in localized settings, whatever these were like, the further evolution of life into ever-more complex forms could not possibly take place in an otherwise non-living world. All permanent life forms would be destroyed by violent energetic gradients in the ambient environment. In more general terms, sufficient stability of the astrophysical environment of the Earth has been a necessary requirement for the evolution of the biosphere to its current degree of complexity.4

"Two agenda-setting conclusions can be drawn from the above. First, life is a planetary phenomenon. ... Second, everything that lives on the Earth depends on the global metabolism maintained by the biosphere as a whole."

Second, everything that lives on the Earth depends on the global metabolism maintained by the biosphere as a whole. This is particularly true of large heterotrophs, such as humans. Multicellular organisms are recent newcomers on the Earth, when viewed against the perspective of the history of life. Some three billion years of micro-organismal life were needed for organic life of multicellular complexity to take shape.

A plausible way to understand this time span is to think of microorganisms as having prepared the table for other life forms. One probable critical condition for the development of multicellular life forms is a high enough concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere. This is required in order for metabolism to be efficient enough in every single cell of multicellular organisms. There is recent evidence that early forms of multicellular plants and fungi colonized the dry land of the Earth’s continents some 850 million years ago. The subsequent increase in the total volume of photosynthesis quite possibly triggered an increase of oxygen concentration in the atmosphere to something like the present level.5

What the Human Condition Is

The basic features of the biosphere are important for us humans because, like other multicellular organisms, we showed up in an already existing biosphere. The table we eat at was prepared by almost four billion years of biological evolution. Human life and subsistence are embedded in the biosphere. We humans can manage only provided we can latch on to energetic processes in the surroundings in qualitatively specified ways, and without disrupting those processes.
The stress is on qualitative specificity. As we already noticed, ecological interactions such as what magpies do for a living, for instance, are qualitatively specific. The same requirement is, or course, reflected in individual physiology of all organisms, including humans. A vanishingly small proportion of the organic stuff we are surrounded by in the biosphere is edible to us. What we eat is significant in itself. ”Der Mensch ist was er isst,” as Ludwig Feuerbach famously quipped. Feuerbach's aphorism has been much ridiculed as a slogan of vulgar materialism, but it actually makes a good point about the role of food in human evolution. The modification of the human diet after we learned to use fire to prepare food improved the energetic efficiency of the human bodily machine and facilitated the refinement of the central nervous system, of the brain, which consists of exceptionally energy-intensive tissue.6

Human-initiated modifications and their limitations

In addition and most significantly, humans have vastly modified the ecological conditions on which our existence depends. Every organism does the same: the essence of being an organism is active dependence on the environment that the organism in question has modified. Earthworms are a classic example of what is nowadays often called “ecological engineering”: They transport organic materials into burrows they dig deep into earth and thus maintain the fertility of the soil. Earthworms improve the quality of the soil primarily for themselves, but as a side effect, other organisms get benefits, too, while other organisms undoubtedly are harmed. Soils without earthworms would be very different from soils with them.

"Humans have vastly modified the ecological conditions on which our existence depends. Every organism does the same: the essence of being an organism is active dependence on the environment that the organism in question has modified."

The same is true of the effects of human: an ecological world with human life is necessarily very, very different from an ecological world without humans. For humanity, being embedded in the biosphere means being embedded in a human-modified ecological world.

Against this background, the main challenge at present is to realize what the limits of possible modification are. For starters, the enormity of the scale at which the global environment has been already modified by human actions must be noted. Humans are transformers of the biosphere on a geological scale. George Perkins Marsh originally drew this conclusion almost one and a half centuries ago on the basis of extensive data he had collected from various historical sources, particularly on the havoc caused by the ruthless exploitation of biological resources. Marsh was particularly interested in the consequences of soil erosion in the Mediterranean world and the destruction of forests in both New England where he grew up and in central Europe. In his historical studies he came across amazing parallels in Asian cultures, for instance. Marsh has been rightly acknowledged as a pioneer in the historical ecology of human societies.7

Yrjö Haila digging a well.

The great success of humans

Human material success, thus far, has been spectacular, whatever quantitative measure is used to characterize it: the size of the total human population, the volume of the economy, and the diversification of material production all offer themselves as criteria.8 The growth of the global human population during the last couple of centuries, from 790 million (1750) to just over six billion (2000) cannot possibly be viewed as anything but an explosion.

An important side effect of this material success has been an obstinate tendency to deny all realistic assessments of the material constraints of human societies. An unwavering belief in eternal human progress has been an underlying cultural belief in the Western world since the early modern period. Until recent times, this was supported by a belief in Divine Providence – and still is, in many quarters of the world.9

Sources and sinks

It is time to abstain from such a belief. Worrisome trends abound. There is no shortage of competent overviews of current environmental problems. Instead of trying to summarize the trends, I make a conceptual point: It is useful to draw a distinction between source problems – side effects at the sites where resources are extracted, including the availability and sufficiency of the resources – and sink problems – where waste goes.10

The signs of resource depletion are serious enough. Current problems directly reflect the pressure that the sheer scale of human activity exerts on the biosphere – for instance, farmland erosion, the depletion of fish stocks, and the shortage of potable water. In the long run, however, sink problems will dominate. The basic scheme of production is: take high-quality energy and materials from the environment, modify the materials with the help of the energy, and shovel diluted, low-quality waste back into the environment. That diluted waste can have large effects in the long run has become manifest in the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the warming of the global climate.
It is often thought that human material success has brought about increasing independence from the environment. On a personal, mundane level this is largely true – that is, on average and in the developed world. We contemporary Westerners are less vulnerable to immediate environmental hazards than past generations. On the other hand, however, our material success has increased dependencies on the societal and global scales. Globalization of the economy helps to hide environmental dependencies, but it does not remove our ultimate dependency on the biosphere.

How We Got to Where We Are

The chain of events that has brought about the incredible material affluence of present humanity had no original point of origin. The success sprang from a long history, during which the human ability to modify the environment accumulated. It is worth our while to pay attention to the key stages in the history of the human ability to modify nature. Past experience is the only empirical material we have on offer for constructing images of possible futures. We had better learn from past experience, and learn fast.

Claiming a space: Construction and cultivation

In a fundamental sense, the human condition is not that different from the condition of other organisms. All creatures that make a living in the biosphere have to claim a space.11 Claiming a space means recognizing relevant potentialities that are available in the ambient environment, both positive and negative, and utilizing the former while avoiding the latter.

Kalle is unhappy about the hole in the garden.

"All creatures that make a living in the biosphere have to claim a space. Claiming a space means recognizing relevant potentialities in the ambient environment, both positive and negative, and utilizing the former while avoiding the latter. ... Familiarity and safety are key words."

Our domestic and pet animals offer plenty of examples of how this happens. Familiarity and safety are key words. For instance, our dog, an eight year old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, feels perfectly safe in the garden of our summer house he has familiarised himself with since he was a puppy. But he was completely horrified when I was digging a well on the yard a few summers back: he could not understand the point in someone digging a hole in the ground and climbing inside. He had to be taken gently inside for the time of digging.

Two different images offer themselves to describe what claiming a space has meant for us humans: construction and cultivation. A dominant trend in human history has been making and constructing material artefacts of ever-larger scale. Humans changed themselves as they learned to change their environment. The story of construction can be accommodated with a linear view of historical progress.

However, nothing in our history – and human success – was ”preordained.” The historical trajectory has proceeded in steps. It is impossible to describe the process in any detail in this context, but I venture to take up two summarizing facets of deep history. First, we ought to pay attention to major material transformations and concomitant changes in human skills and predilections such as [1] the use of tools and the improving hand–eye–brain coordination12; [2] permanent dwellings and the house as a ”domestication device”13; and [3] the origin of political order in cities and other permanent communities.14 Second, we ought to recognize social stability as a necessary condition of material progress. Social stability has been built up in tandem with material progress itself. This is what Cornelius Castoriadis characterized as ”the institution of society”.15


Abundant energy has allowed humanity to claim a considerable role in the biosphere as a whole. What has been claimed has to be maintained. It is through this maintenance that humans have acquired a functional role – the role of constantly modifying conditions in their surroundings. This gives rise to the mutual interdependence of humanity and the rest of nature.

Cultivation is the keyword for mutual interdependence. The basic logic of cultivation is different from the logic of construction. First of all, cultivation is inherently cyclical. Cultivation means adaptation to the annual cycle to begin with. In intensive agricultural systems, there are longer cycles such as crop rotation. Cultivation also has to be tightly coupled to the surrounding world. Cultivation claims a space – concretely in the shape of a garden plot, for instance – but the boundary separating the plot from its surroundings is qualitatively permeable.

A metabolic boundary.

Kalle in the kitchen garden.

Metabolic boundary is an appropriate term, and the membrane of a living cell is a good model. A metabolic boundary both isolates and connects in a qualitatively specified way – like a cell wall. In the case of a garden plot, there is a nested pattern of boundaries which are permeable in specific ways. The outermost boundary is between the garden and the surrounding forest, and the innermost is between the inside and the outside of a greenhouse built in the garden. In between, some vegetable beds are fenced to keep hares outside, and special fabric is used to prevent the penetration of roots of perennial weeds from the surroundings.

The domination of construction

To sum up, historical experience offers two different lessons as to how our affairs have to be organized on the Earth: the linear progress of construction on the one hand, and the cyclic recurrence of cultivation on the other. These two perspectives differ in their basic logic: linear expansion and growth versus cyclic reproduction. In other words: Humankind has two different, even opposing perceptions of the basic dynamic in how society develops.

These alternative perspectives are not primarily ideological positions. Rather, they are synthetic conclusions drawn from life-maintaining, material experience. However, neither of them is purebred, as it were. Linearity breaks into cycles whenever reproduction of the underlying conditions takes priority – as has happened during the recent economic depression. On the other hand, cyclic processes can expand and intensify in such a manner that they give rise to a view of linear growth. “Forward march” has been the paradigmatic image of the frontier mentality of North America, but it has parallels in northern Eurasia (Siberia) in the shape of the colonization of the northern stretches of the continent by Russians, and in Australia, for instance.

As a consequence of the incredible material success of humanity, the image of construction is by far the dominant one. Perhaps the best indicator of this dominance at present is the range of utopian schemes that the search for ever-newer sources of energy has gives rise to. On this point, we have good reason to agree with Vaclav Smil: ”Most of our ingenuity should be devoted to the reduction of final uses rather than to the expansion of primary supply.”16

What Is To Be Done

The first task is to take the current situation of humanity seriously. Astonishing as human material success has been thus far, there are no guarantees. In particular, there are no guarantees that the social cohesion that has been a necessary condition for material success will hold up in the face of serious environmental disruptions. We already know that the plunder of coastal fisheries by fishing fleets from the developed world may give rise to piracy, as in Somalia. And the drying up of the glaciers of the Himalayans will be an imminent threat in the near future.

Cultural transformation

We are in a situation where a deep cultural transformation is needed. In the political sphere, this means that we have to realise the inherent contradiction in our idea of historical progress, where the perceived increase in human autonomy and the phantasy of unlimited expansion of “rational” (read linear, expansive” mastery have gone hand in hand. That something is “rational” increasingly means that it is “economical” in the sense of profitability in a short-term perspective. These two concepts must be uncoupled.

"We are in a situation where a deep cultural transformation is needed. In the political sphere, this means that we have to realise the inherent contradiction in our idea of historical progress."

In order to initiate such a cultural transformation, the most important task is to build up a critical capacity for assessing the conditions of possibility of ordered human societies. However, as the object we need to scrutinize is our own historical success, we have to become thoroughly familiar with the historical achievements and failings.17
In a very concrete sense, these challenges come together in structuring such aspects of the environment that are both symbolically and functionally important. The material, human-made world has shaped human societies as we know them, and future societies will be shaped in the same way. Here, architecture, and how we think when we plan and build, will play a critical role.

Ordinary environments matter.

Ordinary people have to be empowered to care for their own environments. The perception of what is possible vs. what is impossible for humanity in the future is currently seriously hampered by the tremendous burden of past techno-economic success. Architects and planners have a responsibility to develop solutions that both have a symbolic power, and that give people a clear practical influence over their own situation.

Ordinary environments matter. Ordinary environments cross-cut the temporal dimensions drafted above: they either support or hamper the empowerment of people. They can confirm existing preconceptions, but they can also give rise to and support particular images of what kind of futures are possible. This is the challenge facing architects today.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” (Albert Einstein)
This article is based on Yrjö Haila's lecture at the 2010 Alvar Aalto Symposium.

  1. For a comprehensive recent overview, see Vaclav Smil, The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change (MIT Press, 2002). 

  2. Vaclav Smil, Energy in Nature and Society. General Energetics of Complex Systems. MIT Press, 2008. 

  3. Tyler Volk, Gaia's Body. Toward a Physiology of Earth (Copernicus, 1998). 

  4. Smil (2002, 43-46) presents an interesting discussion of this point. 

  5. L. Paul Knauth & Martin J. Kennedy (2009), ”The late Precambrian greening of the Earth”, Nature 460, 728-732. 

  6. This view is known as ”the expensive tissue hypothesis” (see Leslie C. Aiello & Peter Wheeler (1995), The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis: The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution, Current Anthropology, 36, 199-221). 

  7. George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature. Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (Belknap Press, 1965; original in 1864). A famous centennial symposium organized in Chicago (William L. Thomas Jr., ed., Man's Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, The University of Chicago Press, 1956) brought his work back from historical oblivion. 

  8. Eric Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth. Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics (Harvard Business School Press, 2006) provides estimates of the number of stock keeping units (which is a measure used by retailers to count the number of types of products sold by their stores) used in the material life of the Yanomamö tribe of the Amazon Basin and New York City: the former counts in the several hundreds, or at the most in the thousands, the latter is in the order of ten thousand millions (10 000 000 000). 

  9. The belief in progress – the postulate of human self-flattery (Chuck Dyke, ”Natural Speech: a Hoary Story” in: Yrjö Haila & Chuck Dyke, eds, How Nature Speaks. The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition, Duke University Press, 2006) – is well charted; on the belief in Providence, Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought. An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2002) is particularly insightful. 

  10. Chuck Dyke has led me to realize the importance of this distinction (manuscript ”Ecosocial economies”). 

  11. Yrjö Haila, ”Claiming a Space.” Framework, the Finnish Art Review, Issue 8/April 2008, 26-29. 

  12. André Leroy-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech, MIT Press, 1993 (French original 1964). 

  13. Ian Hodder, The Domestication of Europe, Basil Blackwell, 1990. 

  14. The Greek polis represents the key phase in European history. M. M. Austin & P. Vidal-Naquet (eds), Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction (University of California Press, 1977) is a useful source book; on the architectural-symbolic dimensions of ancient cities, Joseph Ryckwert, The Idea of a Town. The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World, (The MIT Press, 1988), is unsurpassable. 

  15. Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Polity Press 1987; French original 1975). 

  16. Instead, our techno-scientific culture is hooked on imaginary magic bullets which include the collecting of solar energy in space and transmitting it to the Earth, the massive use of geothermal energy (with nonchalance concerning the risk of earthquakes!), the harnessing of nuclear fusion, and so on; see Smil (2008), 363. 

  17. Castoriadis has this to say about philosophical criticism: “Critique of course presupposes the most painful and disinterested attempt to understand the work criticized. But it requires also constant vigilance as regards its possible limitations – which result from the almost inevitable closure of any work of thought that accompanies its breaking of the previous closure.” Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy. Essays in Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 17-18). “Closure” is a technical term that refers to the preconditions of understanding of a particular issue. Closure is necessary, but it can also be misleading and deceptive. 


Yrjö Haila studied ecological zoology, with philosophy as his main secondary subject, at the University of Helsinki, and defended his PhD thesis on the ecology of land birds in the Åland Archipelago in 1983. In his later research, he specialized in ecological changes in environments intensively modified by humans, such as cities and commercially managed forests. He has been a professor of environmental policy at the University of Tampere since 1995. His main research interests have centred on the nature–society interface, from several complementary perspectives. He has published Humanity and Nature (with Richard Levins; Pluto Press, 1992), and How Nature Speaks. The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition (co-edited with Chuck Dyke; Duke University Press, 2006), as well as several books in Finnish.

Scan this story for the road