Left to right: Sebastian Grevsmühl, Bruno Latour, Jim Fleming, Alexandra Arènes

James Fleming, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, was a panelist at the “Right Use of the Earth: Knowledge, Power, and Duties in a Finite Planet” conference in Paris in May chaired by Bruno Latour, a leading sociologist of science, famous for his book Laboratory Life.

Latour’s co-worker, Alexandra Arènes, talked of “critical zones” and described an imaginative way to turn the geography of the world inside out, with outer space sort of becoming inner, and rocks and chemicals becoming contact points for society. Sebastian Grevsmühl raised the issue of the trajectory of the Anthropocene and presented examples of whole earth and environmental images and memes. Fleming offered “A Fraught History of a Finite Planet: Problems and Prospects of ‘Big History.’” Critiqued Big History (from the Big Bang to the present) as a kind of new (and short-sighted) anthropocentric geocentrism.

Latour, who knows Fleming and his work, was struck by Fleming’s argument about a 1-2 meter discursive zone, a contact zone near the earth’s surface that is not much studied by the atmospheric scientists but where all decisions in human history have been made. One meter represents the conference or dining table, two meters represents standing conversations in the “discursosphere.”

Fleming said, “There is a layer of air within two meters of the ground, the noosphere, that is arguably the most important of all in Earth’s atmosphere. It is located in what meteorologists have come to call the troposphere, nestled in the ‘boundary layer,’ a turbulent, well-mixed zone at the very base of the sublunar realm. This is a space in which the ‘natural’ atmosphere gets entangled with human energy.

Earth is unique in that it is the only body in the known universe to have such a layer, and the future of the planet will be decided by what transpires in these first two meters. The course and fates of empires begin here, where small disturbances with little initial energy can grow into enormous movements. This is the anthropocentric layer of 1-2 meters in which we express our opinions, some of which are quickly damped out, while others are recorded for posterity. It is the interdisciplinary sphere of human affairs, the most influential layer of our planet’s atmosphere.”