A principal result of the Industrial Revolution and associated changes in human demographics, technology systems, cultures, and economic systems is the evolution of an anthropogenic planet, an Earth increasingly defined by the activities of the human species. Humans increasingly affect fundamental natural systems, such as the carbon, nitrogen, and hydrologic cycles; the atmosphere and atmospheric systems; and biological systems and landscapes at all scales. The result is a world characterized by integrated human/natural/built systems, increasingly displaying the reflexivity and unpredictability of human behavior. While these hybrid earth systems are not new phenomena – consider agriculture and ancient hydrological engineering systems and their concomitant landscapes, for example – the scale, degree of integration, role of technology systems, and complexity of the resultant emergent behaviors are new.
Continued stability of both human and natural systems therefore requires the development of the ability to rationally engineer and manage these integrated systems, a transdisciplinary area of study and practice known as “earth systems engineering and management” (ESEM). It should be apparent from the complexity of the systems involved, however, that what is required is not the traditional engineering or management approach, with its assumptions of substantial knowledge, effective centralized control, and human domination of the designed system. Rather, what is required is a personal and institutional ability to be in dialog with ESEM systems, for unlimited periods of time and under conditions of high uncertainty.
Moreover, no single worldview or discipline adequately perceives such complex systems, which require an ability to understand and work with mutually exclusive but equally valid ontologies. Geology, wildlife ecology, environmental science, anthropology, economics, and many other disciplines define earth systems in terms of their particular interests, but ESEM deals with them at the transdisciplinary level. This is best illustrated by considering several case studies. Two similar but contrasting cases, for example, are suggested by the Florida Everglades, and the Aral Sea. The Florida Everglades is a challenging case because South Florida is an area of rapidly increasing population and economic activity (including tourism), significant agricultural activity, ecological importance, and contrasting local cultures of economic development and environmental protection. Balancing these pressures had historically been done on an ad hoc, politically expedient, basis, but the results were increasingly controversial, and politically and pragmatically unsustainable. Partially as a result, what might be considered a nascent experiment in ESEM, the $7.8 billion Everglades “restoration” project, has been launched. While it is too early to determine whether it will succeed, and criticism of some aspects has been intense, the systemic and inclusive nature of this initiative, and its reliance on continued learning as an important element, are noteworthy. The case of the Aral Sea, by contrast, is a cautionary example of earth systems engineering and management. During the Soviet era, some 90 percent of the flow of the two major feeder rivers, the Amu Dar’ya and the Syr Dar’ya, was diverted to grow cotton, with catastrophic results. The Sea, actually a large lake, has shrunk dramatically; a number of indigenous species have disappeared; vast areas of salinized desert have been created; some 60,000 local jobs were destroyed; and many local human communities have disappeared. Part of the complexity of this example, which is not atypical, arises from the fact that some cultures and political systems, such as the Marxist-Leninist Soviet state, are more susceptible to these kinds of “rogue ESEM” cases than others. Understanding such examples evidently requires integrating learning not just from the natural sciences, but also from the social sciences, including economics, anthropology, and political science.
It is apparent that ESEM is a complex and still nascent field of study. Nonetheless, development of an earth systems engineering and management capability draws on, and in turn augments, a number of existing fields of study and practice. Among them are adaptive management, systems engineering, industrial ecology, urban and regional planning, sociology and the social construction literature, and experience gained with complex technological systems such as the Internet, global transportation systems, information and financial networks. This base has enabled development of a number of core ESEM principles, which at this early stage are best considered as suggestive rather than definitive. Among the most important of these principles are:
- Only intervene in complex earth systems when necessary, and then only to the extent required. This is a cautionary principle, but is not the equivalent of the Precautionary Principle, which holds that new technologies whose risks are not understood should not be introduced, a standard that cannot be met by any new technology of any complexity (because the implications of new technologies are never clear until they are introduced and evolve in their cultural and economic context). The critical difference is that this principle understands that intervention may not be a matter of choice but of necessity, and that in the real world the choice may not be between “good” and “bad” options, but rather, different and uncertain sets of costs and benefits.
- Evaluate major shifts in earth systems before, rather than after, implementation of policies and initiatives designed to encourage them. Thus, for example, before shifting to major reliance on biofuels, it is important to understand not just the potential benefits, but also how such a technological transformation would impact global land use patterns, the hydrologic cycle, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (already significantly perturbed in many cases by existing agricultural activities), and economic and equity implications (such as impacts of increased food prices on the poor, especially in developing countries).
- Those practicing ESEM are simultaneously part of the systems they are purporting to design, creating a reflexivity that makes the system highly unpredictable. This requires on-going and highly sophisticated dialogs with the systems at issue; it also warns that traditional disciplinary methods of evaluating systems may be inadequate as human characteristics are introduced into their dynamics. As an example, the study of ecology is complex as it is; it becomes much more complex as “synthetic biology,” the creation of new organisms for industrial and commercial purposes, increasingly becomes an important part of biological systems.
- ESEM activities, and indeed the conditions that characterize the anthropogenic Earth, require democratic, transparent, and accountable governance. ESEM initiatives are not only highly complex and unpredictable, but they frequently demand a degree of consensus and long-term commitment; moreover, they generally impact many different communities with different values and perspectives. Under such circumstances, open and transparent governance processes are critical. This necessity should not, however, disguise the difficulty of achieving such processes, nor that of understanding and balancing conflicting yet equally valid worldviews.
- ESEM initiatives require both on-going dialog with the relevant systems, and continual learning. Because the integrated human/natural/built systems with which ESEM engages are so complex and self-organizing, it is virtually impossible to predict the full implications of particular interventions; accordingly, it is important not only to constantly interact with the system to keep track of potential unanticipated changes, but also to learn as much as possible as it evolves. In many situations, this is a difficult principle to carry out because resources to do so are frequently limited or lacking.
- Whenever possible, interventions should be incremental and reversible, rather than fundamental and irreversible. Accordingly, “lock-in” – a state where a technology or innovation becomes difficult to change because it is coupled to other technologies, economic interests, or the like – should be avoided to the extent possible. Thus, there are a number of “geoengineering” solutions that have been developed to respond to global climate change. Some, such as aluminum balloons in the stratosphere to reflect some incoming solar radiation, are reversible because the balloons can be made to fail naturally after a few years. Others, such as building a dam across the Straits of Gibraltar, are much more difficult to reverse once they are in place. An ESEM approach would, all else equal, favor alternatives that can be reversed if necessary and scaled up gracefully, because it allows for both greater learning during the implementation process, and easy termination of the activity should significant unanticipated problems develop.
A principle criticism of ESEM is that human intervention at such scales is either hubristic or unacceptably dangerous, but this misapprehends the challenge. Human impacts on natural systems are already occurring, and result from rapid and accelerating technological and economic development, and still growing levels of world population and consumption. Ignoring such pressures or offering wistful but impractical alternatives does not make them go away, but merely reduces realistic mitigation and development options. ESEM does not generate the anthropogenic Earth, for that is already here. Rather, it offers a means by which to develop and implement responsible, rational, and ethical responses to a challenge that not only already exists, but is continuing to grow in complexity and difficulty.
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- McNeill, J. R., 2000. Something New Under the Sun. W. W. Norton & Co, New York. ISBN: 0393049175
- Smil, V., 1997. Cycles of Life: Civilization and the Biosphere. Scientific American Library, New York. ISBN: 0716750791