Noopolitik and the Rise of the Noosphere

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin first used the term Noosphere in the mid 1920s. However, a passage from his collection of essays, The Heart of Matter, suggests that the underlying ideas took shape when he served as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War I. His first-hand experience of some of the most horrific conflict that men had yet perpetrated on earth evidently turned his thoughts toward the universal and unifying principles that gave purpose and meaning to life:

“…precisely because the individual human being represents a corpuscular magnitude he must be subject to the same development as every other species of corpuscles in the World: that means that he must coalesce into physical relationships and groupings that belong to a higher order than his…I have no doubt at all…that it was the experience of the War that brought me this awareness and developed it in me as a sixth sense.”

World War I was characterized as “the war to end all wars”—a designation that lasted until World War II followed only two decades later. That war’s truly global-scale violence and destruction ended with the explosion of nuclear bombs, prompting Teilhard to write an essay in 1946 titled “Some Reflections on the Spiritual Repercussions of the Atom Bomb”. With a vision of the Noosphere more clearly in mind at that point in his life, Teilhard found reasons for optimism amid the horror once again:

“We are told that, drunk with its own power, mankind is rushing to self-destruction, that it will be consumed in the fire it has so rashly lit. To me it seems that thanks to the atom bomb it is war, not mankind, that is destined to be eliminated, and for two reasons. The first, which we all know and long for, is that the very excess of destructive power placed in our hands must render all armed conflict impossible. But what is even more important, although we have thought less about it, is that war will be eliminated at its source in our hearts because, compared with the vast field for conquest which science has disclosed to us, its triumphs will soon appear trivial and outmoded.”

When Teilhard wrote that essay, the long Cold War had not yet begun. Though the threat of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) has indeed kept global-scale war at bay, there have been nearly constant smaller-scale armed conflicts and civil wars along the way. The dominant geopolitical thinking that characterized the Cold War era is known as Realpolitik. It is driven by a practical, frank, and “realistic” assessment of conditions as they exist on the ground. Ethical notions such as morality, justice, and fairness are given a back seat.

Realpolitik—even if the exercise of military power remains only a threat—enables stronger nations to dominate weaker ones, maintaining an uneasy status quo. It also keeps powerful nations at each other’s throats, and gets in the way of them working together to ameliorate threats to the global commons, such as climate change. Thus Realpolitik seems poorly suited to help us build a bridge to a fully-functioning Noosphere in the future. But what could?

We first became aware of David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla through their 2020 paper, published by the RAND Corporation, Whose Story Wins: Rise of the Noosphere, Noopolitik, and Information-Age Statecraft. We learned later that this visionary pair of geopolitical thinkers had in fact coined the term Noopolitik 20 years earlier, in a paper they wrote when both were employed by RAND: The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward An American Information Strategy. That they qualify as visionaries is evidenced by a paper they wrote in 1993, titled Cyberwar Is Coming. Cyberwar, as we know all too well today, is an active force in undermining our efforts to manage the global commons.

What follows is an interview that David Sloan Wilson conducted recently with John. In it, John describes how he and David Ronfeldt first came together to reimagine geopolitics from a Noospheric perspective—a perspective they deemed critical to humanity’s success. John had originally encountered the idea of the Noosphere in high school, when his French class was assigned a passage from Teilhard’s L’Apparition de L’Homme, (The Appearance of Men). In that passage, as John told us, Teilhard pointed out “that humanity had a choice between extinction and transformation”.

That clear contrast appealed to him. Early in his life it inspired him with a positive vision of what humanity could become—if we chose the path of transformation. He explains how reading Teilhard’s ideas in L’Apparition de L’Homme affected him during the turbulent times of 1968:

“It seemed to me that Teilhard offered a great hope for us and suggested that this third story that humankind brings to the world—the idea of a realm of the mind—succeeds the geosphere, the hot rock of the earth as it was formed, and the biosphere, when life emerged. And now the true purpose of existence is manifested in the rise of humans who can create a thinking circuit around the world, this Noosphere, this third story of the world. And it offered the possibility of transformation and of creating something of great beauty and harmony, as opposed to what I remember in that same essay, he called mankind’s open sore, which was the notion of constant conflict that somehow we lived in an anarchic world where people did what they would, the strong did what they would, and the weak suffered what they must.”

That anarchic world of constant conflict was where Realpolitik was taking humanity. It was a self-destructive path—the path of extinction instead of transformation. But if Realpolitik couldn’t take us toward the Noosphere, what could? In the preface to their 1999 paper, John and David first suggested their hopeful alternative:

“Here we advance the idea of ‘noopolitik’…a new approach to statecraft based principally on the primacy of ideas, values, laws, and ethics, as enabled by the emergence of the Noosphere (an all-encompassing realm of the mind), to extend our research agenda in a new direction.”

They’ve both been going in that direction ever since. Because our own project encompasses the evolution of the Noosphere to date as well as its future development, it’s obvious that we need to investigate the future of global governance.

The conversation below is divided into three parts. In Part One, John narrates his own personal path toward a noospheric perspective and the world of geopolitical affairs—and how that led to a research and writing partnership with David Ronfeldt that has lasted nearly three decades. They both believed that a new story was necessary for the world to evolve beyond confrontation and conflict, if we hoped to choose transformation instead of extinction. John explains how the need for a new story led them to develop the concepts of Noopolitik.

John Arquilla with David Sloan Wilson: Part One Transcript

In Part Two of the interview, David asks John to comment on the historical context in which Teilhard and his contemporaries—Vladimir Vernadsky and Edouard Le Roy—formed their ideas about the Noosphere in the 1920s. John observes that it may have been the futility of that war that led them to “raise their eyes to the hills of the Noosphere.”

Even so, they were concerned that reaching the Noosphere might involve a passage through some sort of cataclysmic event. John expresses his hope that a cataclysmic transition doesn’t have to be the case; he thinks there are signs we can move away from the edge of self-destruction in a more positive way.

David comments that an earlier version of a smaller-scale Noosphere of sorts—the democratic city-states of classical Greece, that we discussed in an interview with Josiah Ober—followed the collapse of the autocratic regimes that had ruled the region for hundreds of years. He observes that group-level functional organizations, complete with group minds, can exist at many scales—even the quintessential example of early human organizations, the hunter-gatherer groups that Teilhard had referred to as “tiny grains of thought”.

Given that historical context, David asks John about the role of democratic governance. John thinks democracy is essential to the development of the Noosphere and Noopolitik—but it might be in a different form, a more direct democracy made possible by information technology that gets around some of the problems of representative governance. He suggests Switzerland as an example of that.

John relates some of the history of technology that has been contributing to the Noosphere’s formation, since the telegraph. He discusses the parallel development of philosophical and social movements that were leading to higher forms of cooperation, as well as the power of networks—both social and technological. He thinks all of this is contributing to “the feasibility of Noosphere building, and the rise of Noopolitik as well.”

David comments that the relationship between information and governance has a long history that predates even humanity and technology—and that moving up to higher levels in scale and complexity requires enhancement of information systems as well. He asks if John thinks that moving up to the scale of a global Noosphere amid the complexity of the modern world will be a multi-stakeholder process involving both non-state players working with formal government entities.

John agrees, and explains some of the history of nation-states, dating back to around 1500 CE, then carries it up to the transformative forces that are changing the world so rapidly today. He observes that the planetary future is in our hands, and the “path we take will be determined in the coming decades”.

John Arquilla with David Sloan Wilson: Part Two Transcript

Part Three of the conversation begins with a question from David about the global commons, and the necessity of addressing issues at the level of the system as a whole. David observes that in his own life, this requires an ethical stance—a whole earth ethic.

John responds that he thinks this is in keeping with Teilhard’s view of humanity, the biosphere, and the geosphere. He thinks that without such a view, we risk the destruction of the biosphere. Moreover, it is precisely such a view that can’t be sustained through a Realpolitik approach. He observes that if we continue with a Realpolitik approach, dire consequences could unfold in a variety of commons domains.

He explains why to not look at these earth systems as global commons is inimical to the essence of the Noosphere—a whole, connected Earth. He ends the discussion of the commons on a hopeful note, that there are signs of a Noopolitik-based form of behavioral control that are beginning to emerge. Building on that is the central challenge for future statecraft.

Next David brings up the role of reputation—how since the days of the earliest humans, there have been two paths to power—sheer dominance through might, and cultivating a good reputation. Those two paths have been evolving in the way they’re expressed with the size and complexity of human societies ever since. David asks John how these two paths to power apply to the formation of the Noosphere today.

The Realpolitik approach is of course more closely aligned with dominance through military might, and the Noopolitik approach is one where, as John puts it, “reputation building and sustaining can only be done through actions that reflect humanitarian values, that aim at the sustainment, protection of the global commons, and in seeing ourselves as part of this great global thinking circuit…I don’t think this is simply altruistic or idealistic. I think it is actually the most pragmatic way to move forward in statecraft.”

They end the interview with a longer discussion about democracy’s role in the Noosphere and Noopolitik. We’ll end this commentary on the interview with a longer quote from Teilhard that reveals some of his own thinking on the role of democracy in the formation of the Noosphere:

“In the first place, and in the light of what I have said, there are two general conditions which must at all costs be observed in the planning of democratic institutions. The first of these is that the individual must be allowed the widest possible liberty of choice within which to develop his personal qualities (the one theoretical restriction being that his choice should be exercised in the direction of heightened powers of reflection and consciousness). The second, off-setting the first, is that everything must be done to promote and foster the currents of convergence (collective organizations) within which alone, by the laws of anthropogenesis, individual action can achieve its fulfillment and full consistence. In short, what is needed is a judicious mixture of laissez-faire and firmness.

“Secondly, it is only by way of countless experiments and gropings that the Democratic ideal (like Life itself) can hope to achieve its own formulation and, still more, can materialize. Despite the compressive and unifying conditions to which we are subject, Mankind is still made up of terribly heterogeneous parts, unequally matured, whose democratization can be effected only with the use of imagination and suppleness, and in conformity with the varying circumstances in each portion of the World.

“Finally, it is upon the maintenance and growth in human consciousness of what I have called the “sense of the Species” that the realization of a truly democratic world society ultimately depends. Only a powerful polarization of human wills, after each fragment of humanity has been led to the discovery of his own particular form of freedom, can ensure the convergence and unified working of this plurality in a single, coherent planetary system. Above all, only this polarization, through the unity thus constituted, can create the atmosphere of non-coercion—unanimity—which is, when all is said, the rare essence of Democracy.”

It is interesting to note that by “polarization” Teilhard means exactly the opposite of what we think of as polarization of society. He was indicating an alignment of humanity toward shared purpose – like magnetic poles all pointing in the same direction – not the toxic sort of political polarization that keeps us in constant conflict today.

Is Noopolitik the approach that can align humanity around shared purpose, to solve our common problems as a unified whole? John makes an eloquent case for it in this final segment of the interview.

John Arquilla with David Sloan Wilson: Part Three Transcript