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Dawn of the Anthropocene:
Earth Systems Engineering and
TU Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands
Back to Basics
October 31, 2007
Brad Allenby
Templeton Fellow
Lincoln Professor of Ethics and Engineering
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Arizona State University
So long as we do not, through thinking,
experience what is, we can never belong to
what will be.
The flight into tradition, out of a combination
of humility and presumption, can bring about
nothing in itself other than self deception and
blindness in relation to the historical moment.
Source: M. Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translation by W. Lovitt (New
York, Harper Torchbooks, 1977), “The Turning,” p. 49; “The Age of the World Picture,” p. 136.
Where Are We Now?
• The world is entering the “Age of Humans,” the
– Global climate change
– Biodiversity shift from “evolved biodiversity” to “engineered
• Technology, especially the converging foundational
streams of nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive
science, robotics, and information and communication
technology, is critical locus of accelerating evolutionary
pressures. There is an extraordinary flight from ethical
responsibility. It is based on a profound
misunderstanding of the world as we have created it.
Key Concepts
• “Earth systems” include economic, technological, and
cultural systems, not just physical systems. Moreover,
the human/natural/built integrated systems of the
Anthropocene cannot be understood through just one
worldview, be it scientific, theological, or postmodern.
• Complexity and focus on systems
• Mutually exclusive but equally valid ontologies
• The world as design space (e.g., from withdraw from
using fossil fuels to designer atmosphere)
• The human as design space
• Result: radical contingency
Case Study: The Autonomic City
• Trend 1: increasing integration of ICT at all scales in urban systems:
smart materials, smart buildings, smart infrastructure, regional
sensor systems of all kinds – and all interconnected.
– And increasingly virtual: highly complex Net-based systems (e.g.,
Google Earth) are being mashed against these evolving “smart urban
components” to create far more complex information topographies.
• Trend 2: ICT itself evolving to be qualitatively more complex:
– autonomic ICT at all scales, from chip, to PC/assembly, to global
communications networks
– Piggybacked on Net, an auto-catalytic, self-designing system
• Result: The Autonomic City, already here, profoundly different from
anything we know, but essentially invisible to us
The Autonomic City: Portents
• Remember October 19, 1987 – “Black Monday” – Dow
Jones dropped 22% in one day. Main reason: internal
systems dynamics (multiplying independent
computerized trading programs with “sell” floors working
in an integrated system), not major changes in market
• This was simple system: What happens at much more
complex urban systems level? Who’s even looking?
• Note that the trick is in the interplay of technology with
cultural and economic systems at many different scales.
Case Study: Ambient Air Capture of
Technology for ambient air capture of CO2 being
commercialized (approx. $200-$150 per ton CO2)
Global climate change is not inevitable, but a pricepoint
Focus on fossil fuel use is obsolete, as is existing
regulatory/treaty process (strong institutional and
individual opposition as a result)
Undermines use of global climate change as lever for
social engineering
Relevant question becomes much more fundamental: what
kind of world do you want – 280 ppm equivalent? 360?
550? - and who gets to choose? Distributional effects
are potentially significant.
Principles of Earth Systems
Engineering and Management
Only intervene when necessary, and then only to the extent required, in complex systems.
The capability to model and dialog with major shifts in technological systems should be developed
before, rather than after, policies and initiatives encouraging such shifts.
The network that is relevant to a particular analysis is called forth by that analysis. Accordingly, it
is critical to be aware of the particular boundaries within which one is working, and to be alert to
the possibility of logical failure when one’s analysis goes beyond the boundaries.
The actors and designers are also part of the system they are purporting to design, creating
interactive flows of information (reflexivity) that make the system highly unpredictable and perhaps
more unstable.
Implicit social engineering agendas and reflexivity make macroethical and value implications
inherent in all ESEM activities.
Conditions characterizing the anthropogenic Earth require democratic, transparent and
accountable governance, and pluralistic decision-making processes.
We must learn to engineer and manage complex systems, not just artifacts, understanding that
such systems cannot be centrally or explicitly controlled.
Ensure continuous learning.
Whenever possible, engineered changes should be incremental and reversible, rather than
fundamental and irreversible. Accordingly, premature lock-in of system components should be
avoided where possible, because it leads to irreversibility.
In working with complex systems, seek resiliency, not just redundancy.