“All life on earth requires nutrients to survive. Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential macronutrients for the growth of plants and animals. Some phytoplankton also require silicon for building their cell walls. Metals, such as iron, are needed in much smaller amounts and are considered micronutrients. Excess input of nutrients to the environment, often induced by human activity, can cause algae blooms resulting in eutrophication in the ecosystem.”

What comes next after the Noosphere?
by Esther Inglis-Arkell / 10/04/12

“We’re living in the era of the noosphere: a term that describes how humans fundamentally change the world around them. Just like the atmosphere or the biosphere, the term “noosphere” describes a feature of our entire planet — except that this feature is us. But it won’t stop there. What other “spheres” will we discover or create as we keep expanding our knowledge and technology? Here’s our speculation about all the spheres to come. No one entirely knows who came up with the idea of the noosphere. It was definitely used by geologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his 1922 book about the development about the universe. It was also mentioned, and considerably fleshed out, by Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. Others ascribe the idea to a lecture by Édouard Le Roy, a French mathematician. Whichever man can claim to have had the idea first, they all circle the same concept: The noosphere admits human cognition as a part of the environment of the Earth.

De Chardin described the process best. First there was the geosphere, the inanimate matter that made up the rock of the world and the gas around it. Then there was the biosphere, the ever-changing biochemical make-up of life and its effect on the world around it. Finally there was the noosphere, when one of these biological creatures developed the mental and practical power to change the world in ways that no other creature could. But where does this change start? Single-celled organisms and plants, by pumping out carbon dioxide, respectively, have changed the atmosphere far more than humans have. Insects, especially in swarms, can transform the landscape as dramatically as humans can. Animals can burrow and excavate more territory than humans can. So what’s so special about humans? Proponents of the noosphere lived at the dawn of the nuclear age, and so they declared that the noosphere emerged when humans gained the power to “transmute the elements”…”


“…Similar to Plato‘s “government of the wise,” a noocracy would be, in the words of “biosphere” popularizer Vladimir Vernadsky, “a social and political system based on the priority of the human mind.” Think of it as a kind of futuristic global brain configured for governance. Coined by the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin, it would be the evolutionary outgrowth of democracy, a flexible and adaptable system comprised of conscious, systematic, and institutionalized elements which will operate in decentralized autonomous subsystems. One manifestation could see the rise of the Noosphere and the application of the “syntellect” — a unified or hive-like civilizational mind that integrates all individual minds, both natural and artificial, likely through the cumulative effects of informational networks…”

Vladimir Vernadsky, 1863-1945

Vladimir Vernadsky and the Disruption of the Biosphere
by Ian Angus  / June 5, 2018

“As we’ve seen, metabolism, a defining feature of all life, always involves exchanges with the world outside the organism. Life cannot exist without ingesting matter and excreting waste. The fact that the Earth is a sphere surrounded by a vacuum, and that we have access only to its outer few kilometers, means that the amount of matter available for life to use is finite, and that life’s wastes have nowhere else to go. If metabolisms were linear, if inputs were simply consumed, the nutrients needed by living organisms would soon be depleted. Plants could consume all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in about 8,000 years, and all the nitrogen in a million years. Life has lasted far longer than that because its support systems are circular. Vast recycling operations endlessly reprocess and reuse essential elements and compounds. Radical biologist Barry Commoner described the Biosphere as “a closed, circular system, [in which] there is no such thing as ‘waste’; everything that is produced in one part of the cycle ‘goes somewhere’ and is used in a later step.”[1]

This permanent recycling regime would be impossible if Earth were a totally closed system — because, as the second law of thermodynamics says, totally closed systems eventually run down. Entropy (disorder) increases until everything comes to a stop. Fortunately for us, while the Earth System is closed to external matter apart from occasional meteorites, it is open to external energy.[2] The constant inflow of light and other radiation from the Sun, combined with the existence of organisms that can convert solar energy into chemical energy, makes endless recycling — and thus all life — possible. All biogeochemical cycles are ultimately powered by photosynthesis. The nineteenth century scientists who discovered the circular metabolic processes that make life possible tended to view them as local or regional. The idea of global metabolism wasn’t even considered until the twentieth century — and even then it was a minority view until almost the twenty-first.

The first scientist to undertake a serious study of the dynamic relationship between life and the Earth as a whole was the Russian geochemist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky. Born in 1863 and educated in St. Petersburg, Munich and Paris, by 1900 he was well-known both as a geologist and as a liberal opponent of Tsarist autocracy. A founder of the Constitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party and member of its central committee for many years, he represented the universities’ constituency in the Duma (Parliament) from 1906 to 1911, when he resigned to protest government attacks on academic freedom. In 1915, he founded the Commission for the Study of the Natural Productive Forces of Russia (KEPS), to identify sources of strategic raw materials: its work continued under the Soviet government until 1930. Although he opposed the Bolshevik revolution, he resigned from the Kadets when the party supported military action against the new government. After the Civil War, he returned to Petrograd and resumed his position as head of the Academy of Sciences.

In the early 1930s, Vernadsky criticized the government’s takeover of scientific institutions, and objected to attempts to impose dialectical materialism as an official and mandatory philosophy. He frequently intervened privately to aid scholars who faced official censorship or persecution. But for the most part he refrained from publicly opposing Stalin’s policies, to avoid endangering his scientific work. He wasn’t a Marxist, but he was a Russian patriot, eager to contribute to the country’s development, and that probably saved him from the fate of many other scientists in the purges. As his biographer notes, “it was not uncommon for Stalinists to worry more about Marxists with whom they disagreed and whom they distrusted, than they did about non-Marxists who worked loyally for the regime, did not intrigue, and were no real threat to Stalin’s position.”[3] In 1922, while studying and teaching in Paris, Vernadsky wrote “A plea for the establishment of a biogeochemical laboratory,” and sent it to scientific bodies in Europe and the United States, hoping to get international funding, but only the Soviet government responded positively.[4] He established his laboratory — really a small research institute — in Leningrad in 1926. Vernadsky’s focus on biogeochemistry — he created both the word and the science —reflected his conviction that the composition and principal characteristics of our planet could not be explained by geology and chemistry alone.

“I realized,” he later wrote, “that the basis of geology lies in the chemical element — in the atom — and that living organisms play a prominent role, perhaps the leading one, in our natural environment — the biosphere.”[5] He summarized his views in 1926 in the pathbreaking book Biosfera (The Biosphere). Geologists had long recognized the existence of three “envelopes” surrounding the Earth’s crust — atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (water), and lithosphere (soil and rock). The biosphere was a fourth, “a specific, life-saturated envelope of the Earth’s crust,” comprising all living matter on Earth, and all parts of Earth where life exists, from the crust to the upper atmosphere.[6] His argument was revolutionary in two major respects: it treated the entire planet as an object of study, and it identified life itself as a major factor in creating shaping the planet.

“No chemical force on Earth is more constant than living organisms taken in aggregate, none is more powerful in the long run. The more we learn, the more convinced we become that biospheric chemical phenomena never occur independent of life.  … “Life is, thus, potently and continuously disturbing the chemical inertia on the surface of our planet. It creates the colors and forms of nature, the associations of animals and plants, and the creative labor of civilized humanity. And also becomes a part of the diverse chemical processes of the Earth’s crust. There is no substantial chemical equilibrium on the crust in which the influence of life is not evident, and in which chemistry does not display life’s work.”[7]

He described organisms as “transformers” that use solar energy to power their metabolic relationships with the rest of the planet. “This transformation of energy can be considered as a property of living matter, its function in the biosphere.” … “The radiations that pour upon the Earth cause the biosphere to take on properties unknown to lifeless planetary surfaces, and thus transform the face of the Earth. Activated by radiation, the matter of the biosphere collects and redistributes solar energy, and converts it ultimately into free energy capable of doing work on Earth. “The outer layer of the Earth must, therefore, not be considered as a region of matter alone but also as a region of energy and a source of transformation of the planet. To a great extent, exogenous cosmic forces shape the face of the Earth, and as a result, the biosphere differs historically from other parts of the planet. This biosphere plays an extraordinary planetary role. “The biosphere is at least as much a creation of the sun as a result of terrestrial processes.”[8]

He identified recycling as a central feature of global metabolism. “The biosphere’s 1020 to 1021 grams of living matter is incessantly moving, decomposing, and reforming. The chief factor in this process is not growth, but multiplication. New generations, born at intervals ranging from tens of minutes to hundreds of years, renew the substances that have been incorporated into life. “Because enormous amounts of living matter are created and decomposed every 24 hours, the quantity which exists at any moment is but an insignificant fraction of the total in a year. “It is hard for the mind to grasp the colossal amounts of living matter that are created, and that decompose, each day, in a vast dynamic equilibrium of death, birth, metabolism, and growth.”[9]

In a 1938 article, he described the intimate connection of living organisms with their environments through metabolic processes. “Living organisms are connected with the biosphere through their nutrition, breathing, reproduction, metabolism. This connection may be precisely and fully expressed quantitatively by the migration of atoms from the biosphere to the living organism and back again — the biogenic migration of atoms. … There is no natural phenomenon in the biosphere more geologically powerful than life…. “Between the living and inert matter of the biosphere, there is a single, continuous material and energetic connection, which is continuously maintained during the processes of respiration, feeding, and reproduction of living matter, and is necessary for its survival: the biogenic migration of atoms of the chemical elements, from the inert bodies of the biosphere into the living natural bodies and back again.” [10]

Until his death in 1945, Vernadsky and his co-workers conducted cutting-edge research on the composition and dynamics of the biosphere. A recently-translated selection of papers he wrote in that period includes articles on the oxygen and carbon cycles, the organic origins of coal and petroleum, the sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and more. I was particularly struck by one that showed that “the Earth’s atmosphere itself, consisting primarily of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, is the creation of life.”[11] In these areas and others, Vernadsky’s work was well ahead of science in other countries.

Vernadsky insisted that biogeochemistry was not concerned with life as such. Science could not explain life, so discussions of it tended to be “permeated with philosophical and religious concepts alien to science.”[12] Nor did biogeochemistry study individual organisms: that was the domain of biology. Biogeochemistry addressed planetary questions, so its concern was with the planetary impact of “living matter as a whole — the totality of living organisms.”[13] He did not, however, adopt the artificial holism that is sometimes invoked as an alternative to dualism. As the research topics listed above show, Vernadsky was fully aware of the need to investigate parts of the biosphere in order to build a picture of the whole. He was certainly aware that many planetary cycles can’t be understood without knowledge of the differing metabolisms of the species involved — for example, his work in the 1930s included consideration of the different planetary impacts of autotrophs (organisms that live by photosynthesis) and heterotrophs (organisms that live by directly or indirectly consuming autotrophs).

Above all, he was very aware of the unique biospheric impact of one particular species: homo sapiens. Long before he developed his views on the biosphere, Vernadsky’s practical work as a geologist made him aware of the destructive effects of extractive industries on the environment. In 1913, for example, after visiting the nickel and cobalt mines in Sudbury, Ontario, he wrote home to his wife: “This new technology — American technology — which has given so much to mankind, has its dark side. Here we see it in everything: a beautiful land has been made ugly, the forest burned out; for tens of miles the land turned into a wasteland, all plant life poisoned and burned out, and all of this in order to achieve a single goal: the quick mining of nickel.”[14] After the revolution, he and two of his former students convinced the Bolshevik government to ban mining and other commercial activity in a geologically significant region of the southern Urals. On May 4, 1920, Lenin signed a decree establishing that area as the first territory anywhere in the world to be protected for scientific study.[15]

In the 1920s, Vernadsky began to consider whether intelligent matter (humans) might be overwhelming the impact of the rest of living matter. In his 1926 book The Biosphere, he noted that human intelligence had enabled the species to “reach places that are inaccessible to any other living organisms,” which made it difficult to determine what the limits of the biosphere might be.[16] What’s more, humanity was making unprecedented changes in the “film of life” that covers the land. “Civilized humanity has introduced changes into the structure of the film on land which have no parallel in the hydrosphere. These changes are a new phenomenon in geological history, and have chemical effects yet to be determined. One of the principal changes is the systematic destruction during human history of forests, the most powerful parts of the film.”[17]

More research into biogeochemical cycles made it evident that economic activity was changing the global metabolism in measurable ways. This passage, from an essay Vernadsky wrote in the 1930s on the carbon cycle, has a very modern feel. “The release of carbonic acid [carbon dioxide] by Man in the process of his technical work is considered biogenic, such as the release occurring in factory furnaces, calcinating lime, fermentation, and in many other processes.  Is a very interesting and characteristic fact in the history of carbon that the quantity of carbonic acid released by mankind in this way increases with the progress of civilization. It has already reached such an order that it must be taken into account in the geochemical history of the biosphere. “Thus, according to A. Krogh’s calculations, the quantity of carbonic acid released by the consumption of coal reached 7×108 tons in 1904, and rose to 1×109 tons in 1919 (F. Clarke). This amounts to as much as 0.05% of the entire mass of carbonic acid existing in the atmosphere. Such an increase acquires the status of an important geochemical phenomenon. In this way, civilized Man breaks the established terrestrial balance. With the civilization of Homo sapiens, a new geological power has appeared….”[18]

In the 1930s, Vernadsky concluded human activity was creating a new planetary envelope that he dubbed the Noösphere (pronounced no-osphere), from nous, the ancient Greek word for mind or intelligence. He borrowed the word from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and geologist he met in the 1920s in Paris. That borrowing has been a source of confusion, since the two men defined the word in radically differently ways. Teilhard, a Catholic mystic, defined the Noösphere as the spiritual realm that humanity would achieve when it evolved out of the material world, out of the biosphere — the “omega point” where humans would meet Christ. Vernadsky, an atheist and materialist (he called himself a “cosmic realist”) viewed the Noösphere as the part of the Biosphere that was being physically transformed by human activity. So it’s important, when the word appears, to determine which version the writer means, or if the writer is even aware of the deep difference.

Vernadsky’s most complete account of the Noösphere was a chapter in his unfinished book Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon. The new envelope, he wrote, began to take form with the invention of agriculture, which “radically transforms nature … clearing the land from other living organisms.” … “You might say that within the last five to seven thousand years the continuous creation of the Noösphere has proceeded apace, ever increasing in tempo, and that the increase of the cultural biogeochemical energy of mankind is advancing steadily without fundamental regression, albeit with interruptions continually diminishing in duration. There is a growing understanding that this increase has no insurmountable limits, that it is an elemental geological process.”[19]

Vernadsky strongly believed in evolution as an inevitable and progressive advance to a better future, that any negative side-effects caused by the expansion of the Noösphere would be overcome by human intelligence. It was already having positive social effects. “Profound social changes, giving support to the broad masses, advanced their interests into the first rank, and the question of eliminating malnutrition and famine, became a realistic option that can no longer be ignored. “The question of a planned unified activity for the mastery of nature and a just distribution of wealth associated with a consciousness of the unity and equality of all peoples, the unity of the noösphere, became the order of the day.”[20]

In one of his last articles, one of the few published in English during his lifetime, he wrote that in modern times, human economic activity was literally changing the chemical composition of the biosphere. “That mineralogical rarity, native iron, is now being produced by the billions of tons. Native aluminum, which never before existed on our planet, is now produced in any quantity. The same is true with regard to the countless number of artificial chemical combinations (biogenic ‘cultural’ minerals) newly created on our planet. The number of such artificial minerals is constantly increasing. All of the strategic raw materials belong here. Chemically, the face of our planet, the biosphere, is being sharply changed by man.”[21]

He described the Noosphere in terms that sound very like 21st century discussions of the Anthropocene. “Proceeding from the notion of the geological role of man, the geologist A. P. Pavlov [1854-1929] in the last years of his life used to speak of the anthropogenic era in which we now live … He rightly emphasized that man, under our very eyes, is becoming a mighty and ever-growing geological force … In the twentieth century, man, for the first time in the history of the earth, knew and embraced the whole biosphere, completed the geographic map of the planet Earth, and colonized its whole surface.”[22]

The Noösphere would be “the last of many stages in the evolution of the biosphere in geological history.” For him, progressive geological evolution and the democratic fight against Nazi barbarism were related. “Now we live in the period of a new geological evolutionary change in the biosphere. We are entering the noösphere. This new elemental geological process is taking place at a stormy time, in the epoch of a destructive world war. But the important fact is that our democratic ideals are in tune with the elemental geological processes, with the laws of nature, and with the noösphere. Therefore we may face the future with confidence. It is in our hands. We will not let it go.”[23]

There are obvious parallels between Vernadsky’s view that human activity was transforming the Biosphere into the Noösphere and the current view that human activity has so changed the Earth System that a new geological epoch has begun. His description of humanity’s impact on the biosphere could fit easily into any modern account of the disruption of profound disruption of biogeochemical cycles — in fact, of metabolic rifts. “Man always increases the number of atoms leaving the ancient cycles — the geochemical ‘eternal’ cycles. He intensifies the breach of these processes, introduces new ones, and interferes with old ones. With Man, an enormous geological power has appeared on the surface of our planet. The balance of the migrations of elements that had been established in the course of geological time is being broken by the reason and activities of Man. At present we are changing the thermodynamic equilibrium inside the biosphere in this way.”[24]

We should not overstate the similarities. The research that defines Earth System science, including studies of global biogeochemical cycles, didn’t even begin until years after Vernadsky’s death. What’s more, as Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald point out, he saw the Noösphere as the inevitable and progressive evolution of the Biosphere, while the Anthropocene represents “a very unwelcome rupture … a radical breakdown of any idea of advance to a higher stage.”[25] More practically, Vernadsky’s influence on the development of Earth System science was limited because until recently his work was virtually unknown outside of the Soviet Union. When he died, fewer than half a dozen of his articles had been translated into English, and only a handful more into French or German. A full translation of The Biosphere wasn’t published until 1997.

Even in the Soviet Union, most of his work was unavailable until the publication of his Selected Works in 1967. In 1970, the influential magazine Scientific American published a special issue on the Biosphere, edited by George Evelyn Hutchinson, a Yale professor who is often called the father of modern ecology. His introductory article provided an overview of biospheric science, incorporating recent advances and fully crediting Vernadsky as originator of the field. He concluded by arguing that Vernadsky’s positive view of the Noösphere is difficult to maintain now that growing environmental crises are threatening the very survival of the Biosphere.

The Scientific American article generated new interest in Vernadsky’s work, but its impact was limited, particularly because so little of his work is available in languages other than Russian. Perhaps publishers and translators don’t think his thoroughly interdisciplinary works will sell in western academia, where geologists study geology and biologists study biology and the twain never meet. As Jacques Grineveld writes, “The revolutionary character of the Vernadskian science of the Biosphere was long hidden by the reductionist, overspecialized and compartmentalized scientific knowledge of our time.”[26] Although Vernadsky’s work didn’t directly influence the development of Earth System science, it remains important as an alternative materialist approach to understanding the relationships between life and planet. Seven decades after his death, Vernadsky’s insights into the nature and development of the biosphere can still illuminate our efforts to understand global metabolism — and global metabolic rifts.

[1] Barry Commoner, Making Peace With the Planet (New York: New Press, 1992), 10.
[2] A physicist would say that the Earth System is closed but not isolated.
[3] Kendall E. Bailes, Science and Russian Culture in an Age of Revolutions: V.I. Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863-1945 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 167.
[4] His proposal was rejected by, among others, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. National Research Council, and the Carnegie Institution.
[5] Quoted in Bailes, Science and Russian Culture, 185
[6] Vladimir I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere, Trans. David Langmuir and Mark McMenamin, New York: Springer, 1998 [1926], 91. As Vernadsky pointed out, the Austrian geologist Edward Suess introduced the word biosphere in his popular 1885 textbookThe Face of the Earth.
[7] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 56, 57-8
[8] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 59, 44.
[9] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 72.
[10] Jason Ross, ed, 150 Years of Vernadsky, Volume 1: The Biosphere (Leesberg VA: 21st Century Science Associates, 2014), 39, 50.
[11] Vladimir I. Vernadsky, Geochemistry and the Biosphere, ed. Frank B. Salisbury, (Santa Fe: Synergetic Press, 2007).
[12] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 51. The science of life has made major advances since Vernadsky’s time, but non-scientific influences remain.
[13] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 58
[14] Vernadsky to Vernadskaia, May 1913, quoted in Bailes, Science and Russian Culture, 127. Later observers compared the landscape around Sudbury to the surface of the moon.
[15] Douglas R. Weiner, Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988), 29.
[16] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 142. Since Vernadsky’s time, it has become clear that living matter exists virtually everywhere on Earth, including in places that humans cannot reach.
[17] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 143.
[18] Vernadsky, Geochemistry and the Biosphere, 185-6. Vernadsky was familiar with Arrhenius’ work on the greenhouse effect, but wasn’t convinced that changes in CO2 levels could have major impacts on climate.
[19] Vladimir Vernadsky, “The Transition from the Biosphere to the Noosphere,” Trans. William Jones, 21st Century, Spring-Summer 2012, 27-28.
[20] Ibid, 30.
[21] Vernadsky, “The Biosphere and the Noösphere,” American Scientist, January 1945,  9.
[22] Ibid, 8.
[23] Ibid, 10, 9.
[24] Vernadsky, Geochemistry and the Biosphere, 221.
[25] Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald. “Was the Anthropocene anticipated?” The Anthropocene Review, Vol 2, No. 1, April 2015, 9. I would add that the Noösphere is a region of space, the part of the biosphere changed by humans, while the Anthropocene is the time when human influences are dominant.
[26] Jacques Grinevald, “Introduction: The Invisibility of the Vernadskian Revolution.” In Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 27.

Vladimir Vernadsky on the Biosphere and the Noosphere
by Irina Trubetskova

“…The term biosphere was coined in 1875 by the famous Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (1831-1914).  “In fact, Suess literally tossed the new term away, just once and without an explicit definition, in his pioneering book on the genesis of the Alps (Suess 1875)” (Smil, 2002). In his interpretation, the “biosphere” is an envelope of life, which “is limited to a determined zone at the surface of the lithosphere“. The term was never given a definition or elaborated upon until Vladimir Vernadsky.

Vernadsky developed a complete theory about the biosphere of the planet Earth in two monographs and several dozens of papers. He specified boundaries (limits) of the biosphere, explicitly defined the difference, i.e. qualities, of living and non-living matter, determined the total mass of living matter, calculated the amount of cosmic energy that is absorbed by the biosphere through trapping of solar energy by chlorophyll of green algae, developed a mathematical method for determining the pressure of different types of living matter, determined cycles of chemical elements passing through living organisms of the biosphere, etc.  In his words (Vernadsky, 1944): … a definite geological envelope markedly distinguished from all other geological envelopes of our planet. This is only because it is inhabited by living matter, which reveals itself as a geological force of immense proportions, completely remaking the biosphere and changing its physical, chemical, and mechanical properties, but also because the biosphere is the only envelope of the planet into which energy permeates in a notable way, changing it even more than does living matter. Under Vernadsky’s definition, the Biosphere is the single greatest geological force on Earth, moving, processing, and recycling several billion tons of mass a year.

Vernadsky’s The Biosphere and the Noosphere published in American Scientist in 1945, was the first publication about his revolutionary theory of the Biosphere and Noosphere in English. The paper was written in 1943 and reflects the summary of V.Vernadsky’s concept of the Biosphere and Noosphere as a planetary and cosmic phenomenon that he has been working on during the first quarter of the 20th century. His concept of the Biosphere and the Noosphere was expounded earlier in multiple and detailed publications in Russian (the book Biosfera, 1926 and others), French (La Biosphere, 1929), and German (Biosphere, 1930), and also during his research, lecturing, and discussions in Western Europe (1922-1924). However, Western scientists did not have the opportunity to read Vernadsky’s Biosphere in English until 1986 (reduced English translation, though), i.e. 60 years after the first publication in Russian, or 57 and 56 years later than in French and German. Finally, the first full English translation of The Biosphere saw the light in 1998.

In the biosphere thesis, the Earth represents itself as a small particle in a gigantic Universe, a minute oasis where under some laws the conditions for life emerged, life which the Earth protects from penetration by the Sun’s ultra-violet rays. (Arbatov and Bolshakov, 1987). The most amazing point about Vernadsky is his approach to the Biosphere as a planetary and cosmic event – a new way of looking at the Earth – as if he observed the Earth from space, although the first satellite, Sputnik (USSR), was launched only half a century later, in 1957, and the first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first human in the history of mankind to see the beautiful planet Earth from orbit on April 12, 1961. It is not surprising for us to see images of our planet taken from space, but for Vernadsky it was impossible:

The famous photos of Earth that we received as a Christmas present from NASA some twenty five years ago have affected our vision of Earth and humanity’s place in the cosmos profoundly. To understand just how much of an effect they have had, go to your attic or to the public library. Dig out a magazine or newspaper from 1969. Go through it carefully and count the occurrences of the words global and planetary. You will probably not find them at all. Yet in 1994 most of us have internalized these photographs and are beginning to understand ourselves as global or planetary citizens on a small planet in the midst of an immense cosmos (Gonzalez, 1995)

I wonder what grand and dynamic pictures Vernadsky saw in his mind, as early as at the beginning of the 20th century, when he came to the understanding that the biosphere, in fact, is a great geological and cosmic force, changing the face of the unique, living planet Earth through space and time. Vernadsky defined the future evolutionary state of the biosphere as the Noosphere, the sphere of reason. The term “Noosphere” was first coined by the French mathematician and philosopher, Edouard Le Roy (1927).

“Le Roy, building on Vernadsky’s ideas and on discussions with Teilhard de Chardin [they both attended Vernadsky’s lectures on biogeochemistry at the Sorbonne in 1922-1923], came up with the term “noosphere”, which he introduced in his lectures at the College de France in 1927 (Le Roy, 1927)… Vernadsky saw the concept as a natural extension of his own ideas predating Le Roy’s choice of the term” (Smil, 2002, p. 13). Le Roy understood the noosphere as a shell of the Earth or a “thinking stratum”, including various components, such as industry, language, and other forms of rational human activity (Arbatov and Bolshakov, 1987). Le Roy’s concept was developed by De Chardin, who considered the noosphere as something external to the biosphere – a progression from biological to psychological and spiritual evolution. Teilhard based his conception based on philosophical writings, and was completely ignorant of Vernadsky’s biogeochemical approach.

Vernadsky developed his concept of the noosphere out of his theory of the biosphere, combining his biogeochemical works with his own work in philosophy of science (Grinevald, 1998, p. 24-25): Both Vernadsky and Teilhard were cosmic prophets of globalization. If Teilhard was a “cosmic mystic”, Vernadsky defined himself as a “cosmic realist”… They shared a belief in science and technology as a universal, peaceful and civilizing force… But in The Biosphere and in all his work, Vernadsky’s scientific perspective is radically different from that of Teilhard. The divergence is perhaps best expressed as an opposition between the anthropocentric view of life (Teilhardian biosphere) and the biocentric view of the nature’s economy (Vernadskian Biosphere)…


According to Vernadsky, the biosphere became a real geological force that is changing the face of the earth, and the biosphere is changing into the noosphere. In Vernadsky’s interpretation (1945), the noosphere, is a new evolutionary stage of the biosphere, when human reason will provide further sustainable development both of humanity and the global environment: In our century the biosphere has acquired an entirely new meaning; it is being revealed as a planetary phenomenon of cosmic character… In the twentieth century, man, for the first time in the history of earth, knew and embraced the whole biosphere, completed the geographic map of the planet earth, and colonized its whole surface. Mankind became a single totality in the life on earth… The noosphere is the last of many stages in the evolution of the biosphere in geological history.

“Vernadsky y profesores de la Universidad Imperial de Moscú (1911)”

Vernadsky made an important contribution to science in general, and in ecology in particular.  It is essentially Vernadsky’s theory of the biosphere, expounded in his work “Biosfera” (1926) that is embodied in the global approach to ecological problems today. To solve global ecological problems that may endanger even the very existence of humanity in the future, a cultivation of a new worldview among people, and especially young generations, is absolutely needed. I.P.Volkov (1997) puts it this way: The methodological rule of the global approach is to rise above the everyday occurrence, run up above the Earth, to become that astronaut who’s observed the Earth from the Moon, for example, as the American astronauts have done it seven times, or to become a spaceman watching (and studying) the planet phenomena from the orbit near our Earth. Though none of the globalists has visited outer space yet, nevertheless, each of them is able to do it with the help of psyche in his imagination, in his thoughts, in his imaginary view of the planet from space. That is the noospheric outlook on the phenomena of the Earth.

The best way to be acquainted with Vernadky’s doctrine of the Biosphere and Noosphere is to read his original writings as some of them are fortunately available in English now (see the reference list). It seems that it would be interesting to touch upon another, human side of this incredible personality, especially in the light of the fact that the vast literature about his life (including more than ten books in Russian) is not available in English. According to the German philosopher and educator, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), “the kind of philosophy a person chooses depends on the kind of person one is.  A philosophical system is not a lifeless piece of furniture that can be accepted or discarded, according to how we feel.  Rather, a philosophy is given its soul by the soul of the person who possesses it” (translation and personal communication by Lenore Bronson). These words are totally true for Vladimir Vernadsky, both as a professional and a personality. In addition to the importance of Vernadsky’s ideas for forming a new, scientific and holistic worldview as well as approaches for solving global problems the humanity is facing today, his character was another important component that gave a rise to such incredible appreciation from the side of his nationals.

“Vladimir Vernadsky, tout à droite, à l’Académie des sciences de l’URSS”

Under the Soviet regime, where Vernadsky lived the last 28 years of his 81-year life, communist ideology was an official philosophy and religion. It was almost impossible to succeed in any sphere of life without becoming a member of the Communist Party in the USSR. Vernadsky did. His example is unprecedented. Vernadsky was one of the few high-level scientists that consciously decided to stay in the country to save academic traditions and science. His patriotism was, in fact, conscious and free-will civic duty. He did not leave his native land when dark times of communism arose after the October socialist revolution of 1917, like the two millions of the most educated, intelligent, and cultured people of Russia did. Many of others, who decided to stay, were either killed, died of hunger during the Red terror and Civil War, or were physically annihilated later in Stalin’s prisons or labor camps.

Vladimir Vernadsky, debout à droite, en 1934 avec d’autres savants dans un sanatorium de la région de Moscou.”

Russian aristocrat by birth, Vernadsky consciously made his choice between emigrating abroad, which would mean to continue his science under favorable conditions (British Association of Science arranged that one of the Red Cross ships was waiting for him near the Crimean coast in 1920), and staying in the country. He stayed with a noble purpose, although he knew that he would have to face a hard life (Aksenov, 1993, p. 132). He received another tempting offer in 1924, when he was staying in Paris for research and read a lecture course on Geochemistry (as one of the founders and developers of this young discipline at that time) at the invitation of the Rector of the Sorbonne (University of Paris). Vernadsky was offered a permanent faculty position at the Sorbonne. He had to make a choice again – to return to Russia that survived really hard times, or to stay in the West. Take into account that Stalin already started to gain power in Russia, and both of Vernadsky’s children had emigrated. He chose to return. Every devoted scientist, and generally a creative person, can sincerely understand the hardship of Vernadsky’s sacrifice, when he refused the tempting job offers abroad that would have provided him with an outstanding research environment and peaceful civil life.

Vladimir Vernadsky et sa femme Natalia”

All of this emphasizes the high level of Vernadsky’s civil responsibility and courage. Unbelievable, but without bowing to political authorities, making foul compromises, or losing his human dignity, he miraculously succeeded to survive all turmoil and hardships of Russian history that happened during his life, which began under czarism and ended under the horrors of Stalinism. Moreover, he managed not to interrupt his creative scientific work and teaching for even one single day (thinking and developing his ideas when there was no opportunity for performing research, writing or lecturing). Against a background of dramatic historical events that impacted his everyday life (three revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century, civil war, two bloody world wars, and a deadly cult of personality), he was busy organizing research laboratories and institutes, education and libraries, founding the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, establishing new branches of science, and popularizing his revolutionary scientific view by giving speeches to the public.

It is necessary to admit that although Vernadsky was already an internationally recognized scientist since the end of the 19th century, he was not very well known in his own country during the communist era. “Following Nikita Kruschev’s secret speech of February 24-25, 1956, denouncing Josef Stalin’s brutal rule, Soviet intellectuals began to rediscover and rehabilitate the reputation of Russian scholars and scientists who had been neglected or disparaged during the Stalinist era for political reasons. Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky… was one of the Russian thinkers whose work was promoted and popularized during the 1960s and 1970s” (Kauffman, 1991). Today Vernadsky is widely recognized and respected in Russia.

1000 Hryven Banknote closeup. Portrait of Vladimir Vernadsky on the Ukrainian banknote 1000 hryvnia

All of Vernadsky’s life was an act of the highest civic courage and responsibility not only in relation to Russia and Russian people (as he contributed all his talent, power, and capabilities for the continuity and succession of Russian pre-revolutionary academic science and traditions), but as history has shown, his life was in fact a continuous service for the name of science and progress of knowledge in general, i.e. internationally, on the global scale – because science and knowledge are a phenomenon peculiar to the whole humanity.  For there cannot be a national science – science is always international.

“Vernadsky dismantled the rigid boundary between living organisms and non-living environment”

Nowadays, Vladimir Vernadsky is often compared to Albert Einstein: “His name is as inseparably linked with the biosphere as Albert Einstein’s name is with relativity” (Kauffmann, 1991). It is remarkable that two giants of scientific thought of the 20th century, Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955), lived on Earth simultaneously. Unbelievable, but it actually happened that Vernadsky and Einstein once met. It was in 1927, when Vernadsky stayed in Germany for his research at the same time when there was a week of Russian science in Berlin, in which he participated. Einstein directed a group of German scientists for this event. According to Aksenov (1993, p.161), there is an old photograph from this scientific event, with both of them among the other members of the Russian and German delegations. I wonder – did they have a chance to talk?

Both Vernadsky and Einstein, two stars of the first magnitude of the 20th century civilization, were very concerned about responsibility of those who possess knowledge. Vernadsky warned (1945, p. 8): The whole of mankind put together represents an insignificant mass of the planet’s matter. Its strength is derived not from its matter, but from its brain. If man understands this, and does not use his brain and his work for self-destruction, an immense future is open before him in the geological history of biosphere. Einstein outlived Vernadsky only by 10 years, but this decade brought much more evidence of the planet’s deteriorating environment.

Vladimir Vernadsky.jpeg

“Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal”, Einstein noted once. Did he mean Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or emerging global ecological problems? Does this not agree with Vernadsky’s words? Although half a century passed since then, and we have enough evidence for the progressively deteriorating global environment, humanity still does not take the problem seriously enough. As Laurens van der Post argues (1986): “We have already got power enough to destroy the whole of human life; but we have not yet got the moral obligation, the sense of good and bad, to match it and follow it as our instrument of metamorphosis. We have not yet accepted that every act of knowledge, every increase of knowledge, increases our responsibility towards creation”.

In connection with our recent seminar debate on science and religion, it is interesting to consider Vernadsky’s and Einstein’s opinions on the matter as they look to be very similar. It is well known that both of them were great humanitarians, although neither associated themselves with any particular religion. Nevertheless, both Vernadsky and Einstein admitted repeatedly and independently their deep religiosity, without following any particular religion, practicing rituals, and attending church though. It is amazing that they even expressed their attitude in the same words.

Einstein: “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever” (Einstein, 1954). Vernadsky: “I consider myself a deeply religious man, but meanwhile I do not need either church or prayer. I do not need words and images… So called religious feeling… is a sum of moral aspirations that could take various forms” (Mochalov, 1988). “The essence of Vernadsky’s religiosity is… emotional experience of unity with living nature, with Cosmos in general, with living nature in particular, sense of cosmic nature of life and mind, and harmony of the universe, i.e. what Einstein once called a ‘cosmic religious feeling'” (Mochalov, 1988): V. I. Vernadsky considered religion as one of the forms of reality’s reflection alongside with science, philosophy and arts. But he had not belonged to any particular religious trend and he had not been a religious believer. His ‘religiosity’ was conventional, it was connected with deep emotional involvement in creative process, with feeling of his unity with universe, with living matter.

Einstein expressed a similar opinion. “My feeling”, he wrote, “is religious insofar as I am imbued with tile consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand more deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as ‘laws of nature'” (Einstein, 1952). What they both understood under religiosity was, in fact, expression of their personal integrity (the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles, Encarta Reference Library, 2003) and spirituality (awe for creation and appreciation of beauty, reverence of life and love for nature, sense of belonging to and unity with the universe, search for harmony, wisdom, and truth), intensified by their extraordinary creative imagination and intuition. As a matter of fact, they did not need a religious, i.e. spiritual leader because genuine spirituality is far beyond any particular existing religion.

Vladimir Vernadsky (Photo:

Both Vernadsky and Einstein were internationalists, fighters for justice, and peace. As prominent scientists and thinkers, they felt they were responsible for purposeful usage of scientific and technological progress for the well being of humanity as a whole. Therefore, no wonder, if they would be alive today, to find them in the first rows of sound advocates and propagandists for a new, ecological worldview and sustainable development. There would not be a surprise to see Vernadsky in this role as his concept of the Biosphere and Noosphere is embodied already practically (consciously or unconsciously) within all major eco-ethical approaches of environmental movements. The following words of Einstein also suggest that he would be among active environmentalists these days: “A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.

People need to change their worldview and attitude toward their fellow brothers and the rest of creation from anthropocentric and limited to ecocentric and holistic; otherwise, impending global ecological catastrophe is inevitable. Humans are proud of their possession of reason – for which they call themselves a pinnacle of evolution. However, if an outside observer would watch our planet for some time, s/he would not see us as creatures of reason. Indeed, human beings destroy their own environment and themselves by behaving like a cancer tumor in the organism. Are we a pinnacle of evolution then?

Vernadsky believed in human reason. His positive character and personality could explain his optimism and his belief in positive reasoning and good will of other human beings at the planetary, cosmic level: “I look forward with great optimism. I think that we undergo not only a historical, but a planetary change as well. We live in a transition to the noosphere” (Vernadsky, 1945). However, Vernadsky was not just an idealistic dreamer. His scientific theory of the Biosphere and Noosphere was built on a vast empirical basis and solid laws of nature. Skeptics, who do not believe in the positive future of humanity and in the “higher” nature of human beings, could be referred to the most recent history of humanity. Of course, because of our short lifespan, we could not see the changes that are already on the way. But progress or at least a positive shift is obvious in such dimensions as the process of disarmament, the struggle for peace, the prevention of nuclear war, the formation of the European Union, international space projects, international environmental agreements, ecological movements, etc. Slowly, as slow that it could not be seen yet, positive changes are developing. However, more and more efforts are needed to reach people’s consciousness to involve them in these processes.

The need for popularization of Vernadsky’s concept of the Noosphere towards the formation of a new, global and holistic world view among people, and especially younger generations, is hardly disputable. This could and should be a powerful tool to resist such fundamental contemporary phenomena as individualism and consumerism, growthism and economism, to which our society is addicted. All components of human nature such as our mind (through appropriate information and knowledge), heart (through feelings and emotions), and spirit (through highest human aspirations and morals) are supposed to be reached and moved in this process, thereby providing motivation to live and act properly. Family, school, and religious communities are called to play principal roles in cultivating a new world view and attitude toward our common home, the planet Earth. The organized effort for overall ecological literacy on national and international levels is needed for the implementation of a new world-view of the Earth, humanity, and our existence in the Universe. Ecological literacy must become a mandatory part of education in elementary, middle, high school; a requirement in institutions of higher education (colleges and universities, technical – schools, community colleges, junior colleges); and should involve mass media (especially television, magazines, and internet) as a part of  national and international programs.

Alexander Fersman, the closest pupil of Vladimir Vernadsky and his successor in the area of the development of geochemistry, who only outlived his teacher by several months, had time to write about Vernadsky: “His general ideas will be studied and elaborated during centuries and one will discover new pages in his works which will serve as the source for new searches. Many scientists will learn his creative thought which is acute, stubborn and articulated, always genial, but sometimes poorly understood. As for young generations, he always will be a teacher in science and a striking example of a fruitfully lived life”.

… There are extraordinary people, who continue to affect the path of humanity, its cultural, scientific, and moral evolution profoundly, even though they have passed away. These names are on everybody’s lips, and they are referred to as if they are our contemporaries because of their unique capacity to be ahead of their own time. They continue to send their light of knowledge, inspiration, and hope like the bright stars in the night sky, which in fact went out millions or billions years ago. The thinkers, of this kind, serve as the leading lights for the progress of humanity. Among these exclusive personalities there are, for example, Pluto and Aristotle from ancient times, Leonardo da Vinci and Giordano Bruno from the Renaissance, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and Michail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi from the most recent history of humanity. Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky, the founder of the concept of the Biosphere and Noosphere (the most progressive contemporary scientific and philosophical worldview), is certainly one of these exceptional thinkers that leave indelible marks in human history and will affect future evolution of humanity for a long time.”

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