Earth system economics: A biophysical approach to the human component of the Earth system

Eric D. Galbraith*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The study of humans has largely been carried out in isolation from the study of the non-human Earth system. This isolation has encouraged the development of incompatible philosophical, aspirational, and methodological approaches that have proven very difficult to integrate with those used for the non-human remainder of the Earth system. Here, an approach is laid out for the scientific study of the global human system that is intended to facilitate seamless integration with non-human processes by striving for a consistent physical basis, for which the name Earth system economics is proposed. The approach is typified by a foundation on state variables, central among which is the allocation of time amongst activities by human populations, and an orientation towards considering human experience. A framework is elaborated which parses the Earth system into six classes of state variables, including a neural structure class that underpins many essential features of humanity. A working example of the framework is then illustrated with a simple numerical model, considering a global population that is engaged in one of two waking activities: provisioning food or doing something else. The two activities are differentiated by their motivational factors, outcomes on state variables, and associated subjective experience. While the illustrative model is a gross simplification of reality, the results suggest how neural characteristics and subjective experience can emerge from model dynamics. The approach is intended to provide a flexible and widely applicable strategy for understanding the human-Earth system, appropriate for physically based assessments of the past and present, as well as contributing to long-Term model projections that are naturally oriented towards improving human well-being.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEarth System Dynamics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2021


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