The Breath Of Life: Scientific Reflections On Our Planetary Connections & Their Political Ramifications

It’s hard to escape the feeling that our societies are becoming more divided and fragmented, driven by powerful regressive and disruptive influences. Nonetheless, we remain fundamentally connected through our evolutionary history, our shared biology, and our dependence on the natural processes that constitute Earth’s life support systems.

In his keynote address at the Green Institute’s Conference, Everything is Connected, in October 2017, Professor Brendan Mackey explores how our Earth systems keep us inherently connected even in an era of neoliberal individualisation.

How and why we’re connected matters

I hardly need remind anyone here today that public policy in Australia and the world generally is dominated by short term thinking framed by the 3-4 year political cycles within which our election processes operate. While long-term strategic thinking is not unheard of in the public sphere – there is, for example, some medium term thinking apparent in public policy regarding defence and infrastructure investment – I suggest it is self-evident that short term thinking dominates. This short-term thinking makes us blind to many kinds of problems such as those that arise from activities whose harmful consequences fall on future generations. Short-term thinking also makes us blind to the solutions to our current problem that require a fundamental shift away from “business-as-usual”.

In addition to policy being dominated by short-term thinking, it is also dominated by fragmented thinking. The current nation state model and the constitutions and legal frameworks upon which nations are founded and under which they operate, lock governments into being pre-occupied with a narrow view of what constitutes the “national good”.

Philosophically, the question of what constitutes the national good depends on who we consider to be a member of the community for whom we are legally and morally responsible? Is it really only those people who are citizens and residents of Australia? What about people in other countries?  What about future generations? What about other species? Ecosystems? And for that matter, Earth itself? Do we really have no legal or moral responsibilities to these “others”?

Even if you are totally disinterested in any notion of a greater “community of concern”, and have no interest in the welfare of these “others” or in the consequences of your actions, or inactions, on their wellbeing, can you really operate as if your country is an island (to paraphrase John Donne’s famous book)? Can we really afford to conduct our affairs without consideration of those things that connect us to the rest of the world?

Of course, these two questions I have posed – “Do we have no legal or moral responsibilities to others”; and “Can we conduct our national affairs as if we are an island” – are somewhat of a “straw man” as our everyday experiences and common sense tells us that the answer to both is a resounding “no”. My purpose today, however, in raising them, even as straw men, is to provide what I hope will be a novel explanation of why the answer is “no” by drawing upon scientific insights into the nature of life, Earth, the universe, and our place in it. What does science have to say about our relationships to “others” – other people, species and future generations? What does science have to say about Earth our home, how Earth works, and the implications for how the human project is organised and conducted?

I make the distinction here between two kinds of scientific knowledge. First, that which relates to scientific knowledge of natural phenomena that are not of human design. Second, that which relates to the technology that is the product of our scientific knowledge of natural phenomena (the rapid technological innovations we witness are all enabled by scientific knowledge of natural phenomena).

My aim therefore is to step you, very briefly, through some of the ways in which science says we are globally connected. I will conclude with some reflections on the ramifications of these scientific insights on connectivity for politics and policy.

What is scientific knowledge?

First, let me say something about what is meant by the term “scientific knowledge”.

As John Dewey, the American philosopher of science wrote in his 1929 collection Quest for Certainty[1], science identifies objects based on “intellectual construction” rather than common sense. Science “converts” these intellectually constructed objects to data, and then goes on to quantify the relations between these objects and other phenomena considered to be causal factors.

So, the focus of scientific research is on theories about the causal factors that explain the relations between intellectually constructed objects, and then seeks to identify situations that can test the validity of these theories by experimentation and empirical confirmation. Often, the experiments take the form of natural rather than manipulated experiments. Scientific knowledge is quite different therefore from the other avenues by which humans obtain knowledge – common sense, practical experience, moral reflection, spiritual inspiration, and traditional cosmology.

Children of the universe

A good place to start our review of planetary connectivity is the beginning — as in the genesis of our universe according to contemporary scientific cosmology. Popularly referred to as the “big bang theory”, it was first proposed by Georges Lemaître in 1927 that an expanding universe could be traced back in time to an originating single point about 13.7 billion years ago; a universe that is still expanding today[2]. It is perhaps one of those scientific understandings that we are content to casually accept without reflection as to its implications for our understanding of reality and our place in the universe: namely, that everything in the universe emanates from the same source and consists of energy, manifesting in different forms and under constant change.

this basic idea – that all physical phenomena in the universe, physical and biological including people, are thus connected – has been considered by scientists since the enlightenment, at least in the global West

Actually, this basic idea – that all physical phenomena in the universe, physical and biological including people, are thus connected – has been considered by scientists since the enlightenment, at least in the global West. For example, Margaret Lucas Cavendish- a philosopher, poet, scientist, fiction-writer, and playwright who lived in the 17th Century – wrote[3]:

I perceive man has a great spleen against self-moving corporeal nature, although himself is part of her, and the reason is his ambition; for he would fain be supreme, and above all other creatures, as more towards a divine nature: he would be a God, if arguments could make him such…

More recently in the 1920’s, the British mathematician, educator and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, also contested the distinction we make between the physical universe and biological life, arguing these are ultimately expressions of the same underlying phenomena and are connected to the extent that the physical universe is better understand as more “alive” than “dead” [4]:

recognition that the world is organic rather than materialistic is essential for anyone wanting to develop a comprehensive account of nature… The result is that nature is no longer thought to be simply atoms in the void, but instead “a structure of evolving processes. The reality is the process…

Image: Wikipedia

Still with our gaze to the stars, but closer to home, consider the birth of our solar system and Earth. All of us are made of the same cosmic dust that was created when our planetary solar system was born from a series of supernovae implosions. The planets coalesced from this cosmic dust and from it emerged the basic elements of which everything in and of Earth is made.

Earth is formed entirely of this cosmic dust and the basic elements like carbon that were created by the red giant stars. Furthermore, materially, Earth is actually a “closed system”. This means that all this cosmic dust, and all the elements and material substances that have formed from it, have gone nowhere in the 5 billion years since Earth formed. Nothing of material substance escapes the atmosphere, nor enters (other than the odd meteorite, a tiny bit of hydrogen, and of course energy).

So the good news is, your hippy grandparents, or grandparents as the case may be, were right, science has confirmed that we are indeed all a “child of the universe”.

We are also jelly fish (in part)

Building upon the insight that Earth is materially a closed system is the scientific fact that life on Earth emerged on Earth around 3.8 billions years ago and has flourished ever since thanks to the process of biological evolution.

Biological evolution – inheritable genetic change in a population – is without doubt one of the most radical scientific theories (which are our scientific explanations of phenomena) and again one for which the implications have not really been absorbed by most people[5]. The scientific proposition that life emerged on Earth, that it unfolded from non-life, and that it has changed form and function through genetic variation and natural selection (the two basic ingredients of evolution), and that humans are but one species in the tree of life, challenges at the most fundamental level our historic understandings of the relationships between humans, the greater community of life, and the Earth system.

We give little thought or bearing to what is for many an uncomfortable truth: that we share 99% of our genes with chimpanzee, 66% with fruit flies, and 25% with a grain of rice (and 100% with all fellow humans). How extraordinary it is that we are biological organisms, born of this planet and cousins to all other forms of life?[6]

How extraordinary it is that we are biological organisms, born of this planet and cousins to all other forms of life?


To paraphrase the British philosopher Mary Midgely[7], these scientific facts of our biological evolution here on Earth have profound philosophical and ethical implications; as she wrote: “…we are not aliens on a strange planet: our history and biology, which place us here, ensure that the facts of this planet have plenty of meaning for us.”

Interestingly, there is currently no scientific theory that explains how life arose from non-life. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet in the universe filled with life. Despite the wishful thinking of Hollywood and speculative fiction, it is entirely scientifically plausible that Earth is the only living planet in the universe. In an analogous way that the universe arose from a point of singularity, it could be that life arose from a point of singularity on this planet, Earth, around 3.8 billion years ago.

Earth as a Complex Adaptive System

A key piece of scientific knowledge I need to discuss this morning about how we are all connected concerns how Earth works as a Complex Adaptive System.

Our modern industrial society is based on a model of Earth that is fundamentally flawed: the idea that Earth is like an engine, and is a simple kind of system, albeit mechanically complicated, which is amenable to our commands and wishes. If we turn the key the engine starts, if we hit the accelerator pedal, it accelerates, and if we slam the brake the car stops. Engines are designed, built and maintained by humans and when they break or wear out, human can repair them.

The idea that Earth works like a simple engine and can be managed and controlled by humans could not be more wrong and is one of the root causes underlying the global environmental crises we are experiencing. There are two scientists who have helped us understand that the reality we face is quite different.

The first is Donna Meadows, who was based at MIT and was responsible for the global systems modelling that underpinned the work of the Club of Rome’s first report in 1972. Meadows realised that systems like Earth are not simple but are complex – in fact, they are Complex Adaptive System. Such systems have non-linear responses (which means a small alteration to one component can have a big effect n the overall system behaviour), they are driven by feedback mechanisms that can amplify or dampen impacts, and they have emergent properties not apparent from their individual components. One of Meadow’s key insights was that Complex Adaptive Systems cannot be managed or controlled by humans in any normal sense of the term. Rather, they can only be disrupted and influenced through what she famously called nine system leverage points[8].

The second scientist is James Lovelock, who in 1979 proposed the Gaia Theory which conceptualises Earth as being more like an organism than a machine[9]. Lovelock’s theory arose from research he undertook for NASA where he devised an instrument that could analyse the chemical composition of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, and compare them to that of Earth’s. The results were shattering: for atmospheric concentrations of CO2, Earth 0.03% (now 0.04%), Venus 98% and Mars 95%; for N2, Earth 79%, Venus 1.7% and Mars 2.7%; and for average temperature, Earth 17o C, Venus 477 o C and Mars -47o C. These differences cannot be explained by differences in the planet’s orbital position or geological composition. The differences can only be explained by the fact that Earth is full of life and that life and Earth’s physical environmental conditions – of the atmosphere and oceans, and soil – are the result of co-evolutionary processes. Life has had as much influence on Earth’s physical environmental conditions as the environment has had on life’s evolution[10]. To a very large extent, life processes have helped created and maintain the very conditions needed for life on Earth. And, in fact, they still do.

Global techno-metabolism

Image: Ramanathan Kathiresan (Flikr)

I do not have time today to talk about another way in which we are increasingly connected: the global infrastructure networks that enable the international flow of electricity, fossil fuel, information, manufactured goods, waste, capital and human labour. Collectively, we refer to these as the infrastructure for “global techno-metabolism” by analogy to the human’s body vascular, nervous, and digestive systems. Each country’s economic security is now deeply coupled and dependent on these interconnected global techno-metabolism networks. And these networks are being continuously expanded – China’s new “silk road” initiative being a prime example of a global infrastructure and investment network with profound geo-political implications[11].

Climate change

Where all of the natural processes I’ve discussed that connect us meet and clash with our human global techno-metabolism systems is the climate change problem. Make no mistake; we have already disrupted Earth’s climate system to the extent that even if we stop anthropogenic emission tomorrow, the disruptions will continue for millennia[12]. All we can do now is limit how big the impacts and how bad the harm and damage caused will be. Will the average global temperature rise 2o C or 5o C about pre-industrial levels by 2100? Will GMSL rise 2m or 7m by mid-2150? Will the Artic be ice-free in the next 10 years or the next 30 years? By 2040 will southeast Australia experience what have been 1-in-200-year mega fire events every 50 years or every decade? And so on…

The climate change problem has arisen because of the ways in which the global carbon cycle connects the atmosphere with the oceans, ecosystems and the geosphere. The climate change problem also connects our life styles and the ways we generate and use energy – our global techno-metabolic systems – to the complex adaptive Earth system. The climate change problem connects our actions and inactions with the health and wellbeing of people in other countries, with the fate of our children and future generations, along with that of all other species with whom we share Earth as home. The climate change problem connects all nations as the problem can only be solved if anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to zero – all of them, in every country – this century. The climate change problem connects as all, rich or poor, because its impacts are now all pervasive and there is no escape. There is no Planet B.

Policy implications

I promised at the start of my presentation that I would say something about the ramifications of the ways in which we are naturally connected for our political systems of governance. Alas, I have left too little time to address this issue in any detail. However, there are two key points I would like to make.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Given the ways in which we are connected – through natural process, the ever-growing reach of our global techno-metabolic networks, and the impacts of anthropogenic climate change – we have no choice but to strengthen our system of planetary governance. This means somehow making the current system, based as it is on the nation-state and the U.N. Charter, work far more effectively[13]; as illustrated by the complex network of over 700 unilateral environmental agreements[14].

In a previous publication[15], we noted that the scale and complexity of our problems has pushed solutions beyond the grasp of current governance mechanisms. The extent of economic globalization and the aggregate impact of human impacts on the environment blur the lines between national and international responsibilities. Therefore, finding appropriate responses to reaching our objectives requires progressive reforms in governance above and beyond, for example, the market-based reforms being proposed for a “green economy”. We need responses that are framed by the reality that Earth is our common home with natural limits to its exploitation, and that people in all nations have a common destiny and shared interest in how their world is governed.

As noted in the Earth Charter[16]:

To realize these aspirations we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility, identifying ourselves with the whole Earth community as well as our local communities. We are at once citizens of different nations and of one world in which the local and global are linked. Everyone shares responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world.

We proposed establishment of a new U.N. body called the World Environment Organization mandated with a trusteeship function over global public goals and common goods. We suggested there were three broad categories of common goods that encompass the global commons – that is, those portions of the planet and its surrounding space which lie above and beyond the recognized territorial claims of any nation: (1) global obligations for the integrity of planetary boundaries and the wellbeing of the greater community of life; (2) overseeing markets to ensure that they are protective of non-market common goods; and (3) ensuring impartiality between all interests – individual, civil society, corporate, national – along with respect for human rights and concern for ecological wellbeing.

As we discussed in our paper, the notion of an international institution exercising a trusteeship function is not new. Indeed, under the auspices of the UN, a Trusteeship Council was enacted to act on behalf of States transitioning from colonization to independence. This Trusteeship Council was mandated to speak for the yet-to-be State entities, which had no legal standing or representation. An obvious parallel can be drawn between the functioning of this Council and the trusteeship-like role that a future WEO would need to have in order to be effective.  The Trusteeship Council acted on behalf of entities that are not legally recognized. Likewise, a WEO would need to act in favour of public goods that otherwise have no legal standing and no representation.

For any progress to be made in the sphere of international planetary governance, however, we also need to see complementary progress at a nationally level, and a fundamental progression in the legal principles underpinning policy and law. Somehow we need to give priority to ecological integrity rather than seeing it as something that can be traded off with economic development. One approach that could help would be to reverse the onus of proof as suggested in Earth Charter Principle 6b “Place the burden of proof on those who argue that a proposed activity will not cause significant harm, and make the responsible parties liable for environmental harm.” Think about the different it could make to how development occurs if the onus was on corporations to prove, for example, that coal seam gas mining does not damage our country’s groundwater, ecosystems and farming land?


It’s hard to escape the feeling that our societies are becoming more divided and fragmented, driven by powerful regressive and disruptive influences. Nonetheless, we remain fundamentally connected through our evolutionary history, our shared biology, and our dependence on the natural processes that constitute Earth’s life support systems. The future and survival of humanity depends on our ability to collaborative, reorganise and restructure the human endeavour so that is operates within the safe limits specified by scientifically defined planetary boundaries[17].

The concept of the Anthropocene[18] – if understood as meaning that humans are now the dominant force on Earth – needs to be interpreted carefully. We have access to great destructive powers – such as thermonuclear weapons – and we can powerfully disrupt natural processes as evidence by the reality of human forced climate change – but we are powerless to control just about anything. It is more accurate to say that our destructive and disruptive capacities are spinning the Earth system and our socio-economic-technological subsystems into uncharted waters. The only thing we have any chance of controlling and managing is the behaviour of humans, individually and collectively.

We should not underestimate the vector of change in Earth’s current environmental conditions. Human-forced climate change, from burning fossil fuel and clearing and degrading ecosystems through industrial land uses, along with destruction of Earth’s biodiversity on land and sea, and the ongoing pollution of our soil and freshwater from bio-toxins, including the wastage from the nuclear and petrochemical industries, is rapidly creating a planet unfit for humans and life as we know it. This statement I contend is not speculative fiction or scare mongering but is a scientifically demonstrable fact.

If you think about it, we are actually creating a planet whose environmental conditions are deadly for humans but to which machines are indifferent. It would be ironic indeed if the technology we use to enrich our lives ends up destroying our natural life support systems and brings about the next epoch in the history of Earth: The Machinacene.  After all, machines don’t need clean air or fresh water and don’t care if acacia bloom in spring, human rights are respected, whales flourish, or if the climate is benign.

Let me conclude with this image of a Kayapo tribal member gazing out across his traditional lands in the southern Brazilian Amazon. An area of around 8 million hectares which retains its primary forest only because of the Kayapo’s determination to keep their forest and culture intact.

At the most fundamental level, it is the breath of life that we have in common. We all enter the world with our first breath, and it is our last act on death. It is a biological act we share with all life. And all of us – humans along with the greater community of life – share the same existential imperative to keep Earth in a state that supports the breath of life that connects us all.


[1] John Dewey (1929) The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (Gifford Lectures 1929), Capricorn, 1960.

[2] See Big Bang;

[3] Margaret Lucas Cavendish, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009);

[4] A.N. Whitehead (1929) Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology. Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927–1928, Macmillan, New York, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.

[5] Ernst Mayr (2001) What Evolution Is (Science Masters Series). Basic Books.

[6] Ann Gibbons (2012) Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives. Science;

[7] Mary Midgely (1985) Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears, Routledge.

[8] Donella Meadows (1999) Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute;

[9] J. E. Lovelock (1972) Gaia as seen through the atmosphere. Atmospheric Environment 6 (8), 579-580.

[10] Robert J.P Williams (published online 2007) A systems view of the evolution of life. Journal Royal Society Interface;  doi:  10.1098/rsif.2007.0225

[11] Shannon Tiezzi (2014) China’s ‘New Silk Road’ Vision Revealed. The Diplomat;

[12] D. Archer and V. Brovkin (2008) The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2. Climatic Change 90, 283–297.

[13] K.E. Kim and B. Mackey (2013) International Environmental Law as a Complex Adaptive System. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics; Published online 23 September DOI 10.1007/s10784-013-9225-2

[14] R.E. Kim  (2013) The emergent network structure of the multilateral environmental agreement system. Global Environmental Change, 23(5), pp.980-991.

[15] K. Bosselmann., P.G. Brown and B. Mackey (2012) Enabling a Flourishing Earth: Challenges for the Green Economy, Opportunities for Global Governance. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law 21, 23-39.

[16] The Earth Charter is an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. The text can be found at

[17] J. Rockström et al. (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2), 32.

[18]  C.N. Waters et al. (2016). The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the HoloceneScience.351 (6269): aad2622. PMID 26744408.