Earth Systems Engineering and Management

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The biosphere, at levels from the landscape to the genome, is increasingly a product of human activity. At a landscape level, islands and mainland regions are affected by agriculture, resource extraction, human settlement, pollution, and invasive species transported by humans. Few biological communities can be found that do not reflect human predation, management, or consumption. At the organism level, species are being genetically engineered by humans to increase agricultural yields; reduce pesticide consumption; reduce demand for land for agriculture; enable plant growth under saline conditions and thereby conserve fresh water resources; produce new drugs; reduce disease; and support a healthier human diet. At the genomic level, the human genome has been mapped, as has that of selected bacteria, yeast, plants, and other mammals.

Moreover too little of the discussion about the potential effects of advancements in cutting-edge fields, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information and communication technology (ICT), is focused on their global impacts on integrated human-natural systems. Major human systems, from urban to economic to philosophic systems, increasingly are reflected in the physical behavior and structure of natural systems, yet there is little study and understanding of these subtle but powerful interactions.

A planet thus dominated by the activities, intentional and unintentional, of one species is a new historical phenomenon. This species is affecting a complex, dynamic system of which it is a part. Changes in such systems cannot be predicted by linear causal models; witness the continuous debate over the extent global warming is occurring, and its likely consequences. Probabilistic models and continuous data collection can help human beings enter into a dialogue with these coupled human-technological-environmental systems.

Appropriate data-gathering, modeling and dialogue is impeded by the absence of an intellectual framework within which such broad technological trends, and their cumulative impact on global human-natural systems, can be conceptualized. The current base of scientific and technical knowledge, governance institutions, and ethical approaches are inadequate to this challenge (Allenby 2001). Managing these highly complex systems requires an integration of the physical and social sciences that is difficult for both cultural and disciplinary reasons, and the institutional structures that would foster this understanding, and enable its implementation, do not yet exist.

Emergence of Earth Systems Engineering and Management

The challenge of the anthropogenic Earth drove Brad Allenby to propose Earth Systems Engineering and Management (ESEM), an interdisciplinary framework for perceiving, understanding, and managing complex, coupled human-natural-technological systems. It reflects not just the need to respond to, and manage, systems at scales of complexity and interconnection that current practices cannot cope with, but also to minimize the risk and scale of unplanned or undesirable perturbations in coupled human or natural systems. It does not replace traditional scientific, engineering, and social science disciplines or study; rather it draws on and integrates them to enable responsible, rational, and ethical response to the relatively new phenomenon of the anthropogenic Earth. Therefore, ESEM draws heavily on related work in multiple fields (Clark 1989, Turner et al. 1990).

ESEM is a response to a broad set of multidisciplinary questions that are relatively intractable to twenty-first-century disciplinary and policy approaches: How, for example, will people cope with the potential ramifications for environmental systems of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and ICT? How can they begin to redesign human relationships with complex ecosystems such as the Everglades; engineer and manage urban centers to be more sustainable; or design Internet products and services to reduce environmental impact while increasing quality of life?

The Ethics of ESEM

Dealing responsibly with the complex web of interconnections between human and natural systems will thus require experts skilled in new approaches and frameworks, capable of creating policy and design options that protect environmental and social values while providing the desired human functionality. Such an ESEM approach requires both a rigorous understanding of the human, natural, and technological dimensions of complex systems, and an ability to design inclusive strategies to address them, all the while recognizing that no single approach or framework is likely to be able to capture the true complexity of such systems.

Even at this nascent stage, it is possible to begin to establish a set of principles applicable to ESEM (Allenby 2002):

  • Try to articulate the current state of a system and desired future states, consulting with multiple stakeholders. Establish a process for continuous sharing of knowledge and revision of system goals, based on continuous monitoring of multiple system variables and their interactions. Anticipate potential problematic system responses to the extent possible, and identify markers or metrics by which shifts in probability of their occurrence may be tracked.
  • The complex, information dense and unpredictable systems that are the subject of ESEM cannot be centrally or explicitly controlled. ESEM practitioners will have to be reflective, seeing themselves as an integral component of the system, closely coupled with its evolution and subject to many of its dynamics.
  • Whenever possible, engineered changes should be incremental and reversible. In all cases, scale-up should allow for the fact that, especially in complex systems, discontinuities and emergent characteristics are the rule, not the exception, as scales change. Lock-in of inappropriate or untested design choices, as systems evolve over time, should be avoided.
  • ESEM projects should support the evolution of system resiliency, not just redundancy. In a tightly coupled complex system, a failure of one component can be fatal, and it is virtually impossible to build in sufficient redundancy for every component (Perrow 1984). The space shuttle is an example. Resilient systems are loosely coupled; the system as a whole can adapt to failures in one component. The Internet is an example, as are many natural systems. However, even in resilient systems, there are tipping points where the amount of disruption exceeds the ability of the system to adapt, and a major transformation occurs. Therefore, even resilient systems require monitoring and management.

To succeed, ESEM depends on the development of an Earth Systems Engineer (ESE) who would have a core area of expertise, perhaps environmental science or systems engineering or social psychology, and be able to take a global systems view of environmental problems. The ESE would have to be what Collins and Evans call an interactional expert, capable of facilitating deep, thoughtful conversations across disciplinary boundaries (Collins and Evans 2002) that enable productive trading zones (Galison 1997) for managing complex environmental systems (Gorman and Mehalik 2002). The ESE would also be involved in the creation of new data monitoring and modeling tools that would add rigor to ESEM. To assess its value, the ESEM approach needs to be piloted on several complex systems, and the results described in detailed case-studies from which others can learn. The ESEM framework has the potential to facilitate intelligent management of trading zones centered on converging technologies: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognition (Gorman 2003).


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics;Environmental Ethics;Environmentalism;Management:Models.


Allenby, Braden R. (2001). "Earth Systems Engineering and Management." IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 19(4): 10–21.

Clark, William C. (1989). "Managing Planet Earth." Scientific American 261(3): 46–54. This article introduces and gives an overview of an issue of Scientific American that points the way toward ESEM.

Collins, H. M., and Robert Evans. (2002). "The Third Wave of Science Studies." Social Studies of Science 32(2): 235–296.

Galison, Peter Louis. (1997). Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gorman, Michael E. (2003). "Expanding the Trading Zones for Convergent Technologies." In Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science, ed. Mihail C. Roco and William S. Bainbridge. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

Gorman, Michael E., and Matthew M. Mehalik. (2002). "Turning Good into Gold: A Comparative Study of Two Environmental Invention Networks." Science, Technology and Human Values 27(4): 499–529.

National Academy of Engineering. (2000). Engineering and Environmental Challenges: A Technical Symposium on Earth Systems Engineering. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Perrow, Charles. (1984). Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies. New York: Basic Books.

Turner, B. L., William Clark; Robert W. Kates; et al., eds. (1990). The Earth as Transformed by Human Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Allenby, Braden R. (2002). "Observations on The Philosophic Implications of Earth Systems Engineering and Management." Available from This is the most comprehensive account of ESEM, including its relationship to multiple disciplines, perspectives and precursors.