Engineering and Ethics for an Anthropogenic Planet
BRADEN R. ALLENBY1
A principal result of the Industrial Revolution, and the accompanying changes in human demographics, cultures, technology, and economic systems, has been that major natural systems are increasingly dominated by human activity. As far as we know, a planet thus impacted by a single species—the anthropogenic Earth—is a unique phenomenon. To ensure the reasonable stability of human and natural systems, which are now in many cases so integrated that the distinction between “human” and “natural” is more ideological than real, requires responsible, rational, and ethical design and management. The need for Earth systems engineering and management is apparent, but it is also apparent that the current science and technology base, institutional and governance structures, and ethical and philosophical traditions are inadequate to the task. This is not surprising because the anthropogenic Earth is unprecedented and thus requires new thinking; this is a particular challenge because tradition, ideology, and even theology combine to encourage us to turn a blind eye to what our species has wrought, with the unfortunate effect of precluding an ethical and rational response. After all, we cannot respond ethically to that which we refuse to perceive. As Heidegger (1977) cautioned:
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.
This paper is an attempt to explore the outlines of an ethical response and to suggest a deep connection between engineering (in the sense of understanding and designing complex systems) and the ethics appropriate to an anthropogenic world and the task of Earth systems engineering and management that lies before us.
THE ANTHROPOGENIC EARTH
For thousands of years, humans have altered the evolutionary paths of natural systems. Humans probably played a crucial role in the elimination of megafauna in Australia and North America, as well as in the disappearance of prey species, such as the moas of New Zealand (Jablonski, 1991; Perkins, 2003). Ice deposits in Greenland show spikes in copper concentrations reflecting the production of copper during the Sung Dynasty in China (ca. 1000 B.C.); lake sediments in Sweden similarly reflect the production of lead in ancient Athens, Rome, and medieval Europe (Hong et al., 1996; Renberg et al., 1994). Anthropogenic buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had been going on for millennia with the deforestation of Eurasia and Africa, although concentrations were clearly accelerated with the Industrial Revolution and subsequent reliance on fossil fuels (Grubler, 1998; Jager and Barry, 1990). The long evolution of agriculture is also a history of increasing anthropogenic impacts, both intended and unintended, on natural systems (Redman, 1999).
The Industrial Revolution cemented the rise of the anthropogenic Earth. The enormous expansion of human activity and influence on natural systems resulting from the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of a global, highly technological, market-oriented world culture, are only hinted at in the data. In terms of global gross domestic product (GDP), if 1500 A.D. is indexed at 100, by 1992 world GDP had risen to 11,664—more than a hundred-fold increase. If 1900 is indexed as 100, total energy use in 1800 was only 21—but in 1990 it was 1,580. In 1700, total global freshwater withdrawals are estimated to have been around 110 cubic kilometers; by 2000 they were estimated to be 5,190 cubic kilometers (all figures from McNeill, 2000). Technology evolved from modest beginnings in textile production through steam power and iron production into the large-scale mass production of consumer goods, such as automobiles, and it continues to expand. The advent of major new technologies, especially nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information and communications technology, and continued advances in the cognitive sciences will extend human design capabilities in the coming decades into new realms—the very small, life itself, and an all-encompassing cybersphere.
The effects of these technologies are apparent. Humans have already begun a dialogue with the climate cycle, and implicitly the carbon cycle, a necessary dialogue in light of the effect of human activity on the dynamics of these systems, which requires conscious design and management. Other critical cycles, such as the hydrologic cycle and nitrogen cycle, are similarly affected, although so far the response to these effects has been less organized. With genetic engineering and proteomics, the biosphere at all scales is increasingly becoming a subject of human design (Science, 1999a,b). From a purely physical perspective, the human transport of soil and rock is of the same magnitude as transport by natural forces, such as wind and water erosion, sediment transport, glaciers, and volcanoes (McNeill, 2000). As Gallagher and Carpenter (1997) remark in their introduction to a special issue of Science on human-dominated ecosystems, the idea of pristine ecosystems untouched by human activity “is collapsing in the wake of scientists’ realization that there are no places left on Earth that don’t fall under humanity’s shadow” emphasis added). Palumbi (2001) similarly comments that: “Human ecological impact has enormous evolutionary consequences … and can greatly accelerate evolutionary change in the species around us … [T]echnological impact has increased so markedly over the past few decades that humans may be the world’s dominant evolutionary force.”
Awareness that the Earth is indeed anthropogenic—or that we are now in the “anthropocene” (Nature, 2003)—is not new2 or a sudden discontinuity. It is the culmination of 2,500 years of human cultural and technological evolution.3 Indeed, one can identify the stirrings of an institutional response in developments such as “adaptive management,” a nascent management approach based on attempts at the comprehensive management of regional resource complexes, such as the Baltic Sea, the Everglades, Canadian forests, and global fisheries. This evolving practice is defined in a leading text (Gunderson et al., 1995) as providing “ways for active adaptation and learning in dealing with uncertainty in the management of complex regional ecosystems” (see also Berkes and Folke, 1998).
Others have begun to establish operational principles for Earth systems engineering and management (Allenby, 2000/2001, 2002). Some of these, like the observation that even “natural” systems like the Everglades are now products of human design and choice, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future,
have significant implications for engineering practice. In such cases, the model for engineering and management is not focused on creating a defined end point (an engineered artifact, for example) but is an ongoing dialogue with the systems involved. This dialogue includes not only scientific and engineering dimensions, but also policy and cultural dimensions; it is a dialectic that is not familiar to engineers, policy makers, or the public. At this point, no one knows how to do it or is even able to accept it. For example, regardless of the particular actions we may take at any point in time, we will be in a constant dialogue for the foreseeable future with the climate system (and, thus, the carbon and nitrogen cycles, among others), a dialogue that involves design, responsibility, and ethics, and thus is a case study in Earth systems engineering and management.
But the operational aspects of the dialogue, new and critical as they may be, are not the focus of this paper. We must now ask an even deeper question—what ethical structure we can develop to support our responses to the anthropogenic planet, this terraformed Earth. I will start by considering the currently popular concept of “sustainability” and then move beyond that to suggest a fundamental coupling of the engineering worldview and the ethical foundations necessary for Earth systems engineering and management. My remarks are both preliminary and schematic and may well be incomplete or conceptually flawed. Nevertheless, they may initiate a dialogue that must become part of our skills as engineers. The anthropogenic world is not a hypothetical that can wait on academic musings. It lies before us even now.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT AND CULTURAL CONSTRUCTS
Let us begin with a simple question. What is “sustainable development,” or, more broadly, what is “sustainability”? The specifics can be supplied. The phrase “sustainable development” was introduced by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, in 1987 in Our Common Future; sustainable development was defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). As initially stated, sustainable development was understood to require a more equitable distribution of resources and limits on consumption.4
But the formulation was somewhat vague, and an outpouring of explanations, new meanings, commentaries, definitions and redefinitions, and expositions ensued. There were two results. First, it became fashionable to use the word
“sustainable” to describe virtually any entity. Thus, one now hears about sustainable cities, sustainable firms, sustainable practices, sustainable artifacts of all kinds, sustainable campuses, sustainability science, and so on. Second, the proliferation of meanings meant that the idea of sustainability became so ambiguous as to be almost meaningless; the difference between a “sustainable X” and a “just plain X” was not at all clear. At best, the adjective now indicates a generally supportive attitude towards environmentalism, and, most of the time, a mild impulse toward redistribution of wealth.
Sustainable development is thus a classic example of a cultural construct, a concept contingent on a particular time, place, and culture reflecting a particular set of values. Cultural constructs usually have a number of purposes (Hacking, 1999). A major motivation in this case was that environmentalism (the determination to reduce the environmental impacts of economic growth) was increasingly feared to be in conflict with economic growth, especially in developing countries. The cultural construct of sustainable development, on the contrary, implies that they are not necessarily in conflict but can be integrated, at least linguistically; however, a cultural construct does not necessarily mean that the underlying conflicts in the external environment have been resolved. The cultural construct also provides a vehicle by which the underlying political and ideological discourses can be advanced—in this case, social democratic impulses toward egalitarianism as opposed to libertarianism (that is, equality of outcome, as opposed to equality of opportunity) and environmentalism.
Cultural constructs are not inherently undesirable; indeed, they are necessary, for they provide a way to make an otherwise intractably complex world intelligible. And they are pervasive in environmental discourse (as in all discourse). Thus, it is not surprising that terms that are considered self-evidently “real,” such as “nature” or “wilderness,” are in fact highly contingent cultural constructs. As C. Merchant (1995) observed in her essay “Rethinking Eden,” “Nature, wilderness and civilization are socially constructed concepts that change over time and serve as stage settings in the progressive narrative.” And W. Cronon, in his classic book Uncommon Ground (1995), identifies at least 10 separate meanings packed into “nature,” the most powerful perhaps being the theological evolution of nature into something sacred:
This habit of appealing to nature for moral authority is in large measure a product of the European Enlightenment. By no means all people in history have sought to ground their beliefs in this particular way…. the fact that so many now cite Nature instead [of God] (implicitly capitalizing it as they once may have capitalized God) suggests the extent to which nature has become a secular deity in this post-romantic age (p. 36).5
Perhaps the most interesting shift in the meaning of nature, however, is in how its opposite is defined. For hundreds of years, the opposite of natural was supernatural (e.g., ghosts, ghouls, etc.). Today, however, the opposite of natural is often defined as human; a natural food has minimal manufactured inputs, and a natural fiber is made of material not synthesized by humans. The implications of this change for engineering are obvious; for some, at least, human creativity, including, and perhaps especially, engineering, has been placed firmly in the camp of the unnatural.
Environmental discourse offers many other interesting examples of similar shifts. A quasipermanent area of waterlogged land has evolved from a swamp (pestilent, economically useless, and therefore evil) to wetlands (useful, biologically productive, and therefore good); and a tropical forested area has evolved from a jungle (again pestilent, dangerous, a place of death, and therefore evil) to a rain forest (a place of life and gentle mist, Edenic, and without the human stain) (Allenby, 2002; Cronon, 1995; Merchant, 1995). Two hundred years ago, wilderness was considered evil, satanic, the result of the biblical Fall; the first European settlers in the Americas saw their religious obligation as the conversion of the surrounding forests into farmland and gardens, the creation of a New Jerusalem out of chaos and night. As John Quincy Adams said in his 1846 appeal to Americans to settle Oregon, the mission was “to make the wilderness blossom as the rose, to establish laws, to increase, multiply, and subdue the earth, which we are commanded to do by the first behest of the God Almighty” (Merchant, 1995; Sagoff, 1996). Today, preserving wilderness is a principle public policy goal.
Just because cultural constructs are ubiquitous and necessary does not mean that they are benign. Consider, for example, the logical implications of redefining natural as nonhuman and wilderness as an Eden devoid of people. The obvious corollary is that further changes of nature and wilderness are satanic and must be halted immediately (in extreme cases, this provides a psychological framework for people like the Unibomber and members of the Earth Defense League who feel morally justified in attacking engineered artifacts and the people who engineer them).
Cultural constructs, then, become powerful ideological and ethical screens that identify those who are “good” (i.e., those who accept the culture embedded in the construct) and those who are “bad.”6 They can also stifle debate. On one
hand, it is hard to find people who declare they are against wilderness, nature, sustainability, or similar concepts; on the other hand, by accepting those terms they must accept the cultural structure embedded in them. In this respect, the language of environmentalism is like the language of Marxism. By speaking it, one is forced to accept its ethical and cultural content and its ideas about the world.7
Another critical aspect of cultural constructs—that they change over time—is particularly applicable to engineering at the scale of Earth systems. In the short run, cultural constructs are indeed fixed; the idea of wilderness in the United States has changed little over the past decade. But in the long run, they are fluid. The time scale of traditional engineering (e.g., designing a toaster or an automobile) is well within the time cycle of change of cultural constructs—that is, the period during which a construct remains stable. But Earth systems engineering and management (e.g., designing and supporting the continued evolution of the Florida Everglades or engineering the carbon cycle to stabilize climate variation within desired limits) is a systems function (a dialogue between human and natural systems) that extends beyond the time cycle of many cultural constructs. Thus, while we can assume a fixed cultural context for traditional design projects, we cannot assume this for Earth systems engineering and management.
Indeed, Earth systems engineering self-referentially creates its own context. This simple observation has serious consequences; instead of a stable intellectual framework, we have a self-referential, self-organizing structure that operates not only at the scientific and engineering levels, but also at the ethical and cultural levels. For traditional projects, ethical systems are implicit and in context; for the latter, ethical systems are a part of the design (and may in practice be an emergent characteristic of the design, becoming apparent only as the dialogue between designer and complex system evolves).
The ethical implications of this vastly more complicated design challenge are yet to be understood. Indeed, in many cases the conditions that require these long-term designs have yet to be universally perceived. But it is possible to begin the process by identifying the most salient characteristic of the anthropo-
industrial establishment is the ecological movement which seeks to create a more viable context for the human….” This last passage clearly differentiates between the evil (industry, including modern science and technology) and the good (ecowarriors) and suggests a conflict between engineering and ecology through the apocalyptic structure built into the language of environmentalism.
genic world—complexity—and building on it. The question is not whether we wish to live in an anthropogenic world; we have already created it, and we already do. The question is whether we want to live in it ethically, responsibly, and rationally.
DESIGN, COMPLEXITY, AND POSTMODERNISM
The single most overwhelming reality of the anthropogenic world is its complexity, the static complexity of economies, cultures, and natural cycles and systems and the dynamic complexity of their internal and external unfolding as networked systems over time. In addition, complexity is introduced by the contingent and reflexive characteristics of human systems, which reflect the choices and intentions of human agents and interactions through and across other systems and networks. The sheer unintelligibility of complex human/natural systems based on our current individual and institutional perceptual and conceptual frameworks is apparent to anyone who has attempted to work rationally on complex systems, such as the Everglades, or in natural-resource regimes, such as fisheries or forests (Michael, 1995):
Persons and organizations view information from their personal and peer-shared myths and boundaries. More information provides an ever-larger pool out of which interested parties can fish differing positions on the history of what has led to current circumstances, on what is now happening, on what needs to be done, and on what the consequences will be. And more information often stimulates the creation of more options, resulting in the creation of still more information …
Indeed, in our current world situation, opening oneself or one’s group to a larger ‘database’ reveals the terrifying prospect that the world is now so complex that no one really understands its dynamics and that even rational efforts tend to be washed out or misdirected by processes not understood and consequences not anticipated. Of course, as suggested earlier, those intent on pursuing their interests seldom can risk sociocultural ostracism by acknowledging this to others, and usually not even to themselves.
Similarly, Senge (1990) also comments on the inability of individuals in industry to comprehend their environment:
… we are being overwhelmed by complexity. Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity to create far more information than anyone can absorb, to foster far greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace. Certainly the scale of complexity is without precedent.
Let us be clear about one point. The complexity of design in an Earth systems and management context—be it the Everglades; the climate cycle; the hydrologic, carbon, or nitrogen cycle; mega-urban systems; or the infosphere—
is not just the result of technical aspects of those systems. Climate change negotiations are not about technique. Rather, the complexity arises in large part because, once we get to this stage, we cannot avoid dealing with C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”—(1) the scientific and technical culture and (2) the literary and humanist culture (Snow, 1959). The anthropogenic Earth is characterized by systems that integrate the profoundly human—economic institutions, information systems, cultures, governance systems—with the physical, biological, and chemical systems we call natural (Figure 1). It is becoming increasingly apparent that natural systems cannot be understood without knowing the human history that led to their current state; thus, for example, it is futile to try to understand the ecology of an island without understanding the human transportation systems and migration patterns that have affected it, just as it is futile to try to understand the biology of the Everglades without understanding the politics and money of the sugar industry and the demographics and settlement patterns of Florida. When we negotiate about climate, we are simultaneously negotiating about the structure we desire for the carbon cycle and about the future paths of human economic and cultural development that we will allow, and not allow. And when the deep greens insist that the United States curb its carbon emissions directly, rather than through reductions in other countries’ emissions, they are trying to socially engineer U.S. consumers, and not just reduce global climate-change forcing.
The most important implication of human/natural unitary systems is that human complexity has been imported into the dynamics of fundamental natural systems. Natural systems are complex, but human systems are even more complex, an important distinction in light of recent literature that draws implicitly on the analogy between natural and ecological systems and human systems. The analogy can be useful, as the development of the field of industrial ecology has shown (Allenby, 1999; Graedel and Allenby, 2002; Socolow et al., 1994). Indeed, human and natural systems are similar in that they are both technically complex and that the lessons learned from natural systems can indeed inform our understanding of human systems in some ways. But an analogy can only take us so far. Failure to recognize the profound differences between natural and human systems can lead to superficial reasoning or even nonsense (take, for example, the burgeoning literature suggesting that global capitalism or transnational corporations can be restructured to resemble gardens).
Human systems have a different, and higher, level of complexity than natural systems. Human systems and human history are strongly affected by unpredictable contingencies, partly because we have (bounded) free will, which makes humans relatively autonomous moral agents (Hacking, 1999; Harvey, 1996; Landes, 1998; Scott, 1998). Moreover, human systems are characterized by reflexitivity. A natural system, such as a salt marsh, is not changed by what a scientist learns about it, but human systems are, because knowledge is internalized as it is developed; thus human systems change continually in an accelerating
process of reflexive growth (Castells, 2000; Giddens, 1984). The evolutionary processes of culture, technology, and social knowledge are uniquely human projects, with their own dynamics and time frames; they have no parallel in traditional natural systems (Grubler, 1998; Heidegger, 1977; Noble, 1998). Thus, understanding the anthropogenic world requires not just that we understand the scientific and technological domains, but that we also understand the social science domains—culture, religion, politics, economics, and institutional dynamics.
Postmodernism, which emphasizes pastiche and the multiplicity of discourses, can be understood, in part, as a reflection into philosophy of increased complexity of human systems in the twentieth century. Every dimension of a human system is complex, including the intuitive dimension of human experience of community. As Mitchell (2000) notes, complexity has increased significantly over the past century and is accelerating as a result of the Information Revolution:
If you live to a good age, you have maybe half a million waking hours. If your world of interaction is at a village scale, each member of it gets on average a couple of thousand hours of your time. At an automobile scale, it is down to two hours each. And at a global computer network scale, it is reduced to less than ten seconds. Clearly, then, attention becomes a scarce resource, and intervening attention management mechanisms are essential if we are not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale at which electronically mediated global society is beginning to operate.
Not only is the world more complex, then, by orders of magnitude, but the means of perceiving and thinking about it can no longer be internal to a single human being. Individual cognition is a function of technology and social networks as much as it is of biology: “individuals position themselves less as members of discrete, well-bounded civic formations and more as intersection points of multiple, spatially diffuse, categorical communities” (Mitchell, 2000). To put it another way, postmodernism may be seen as the recognition that cognitive systems have, in a multicultural world, changed not just in degree but also in kind. Their complexity defies traditional philosophic explanation.8
Unfortunately, the response to this realization by many postmodernists is to abdicate responsibility and retreat into absolute relativism (“there are no privileged discourses”). This is not only unnecessary, but it is so contrary to most people’s sense of reality that postmodernist discourse is confined to the intelli-
gentsia; it has become an amusement, not a philosophy.9 Indeed, this extreme relativism, and the concomitant denigration of science and engineering, frequently fuels animosity between engineers and their postmodernist critics. With a more sophisticated sense of networked complex systems, the reason for the antagonism disappears (it may well continue as a result of cultural norms and ideological posturing, but that is a separate issue).
Postmodernists tend to make a simple mistake. Because they are very sensitive to global unpredictability and contingency, they assume these properties also predominate at lesser scales. In fact, the anthropogenic world is characterized by many ordered structures that are local in time or space (usually both), even if unpredictable chaos seems to be the order of the day at greater scales.
At this point, the intuition of systems function that underlies much of engineering intersects with ethics and responsibility in the anthropogenic world. The complexity of the modern world does not mean complete disorder and thus does not imply absolute relativism. The world can be thought of as complicated, coupled, evolving systems of networks, reacting to both internal and external changes in a number of state spaces. (The most obvious dimensions of these spaces are time and space, but because the world is anthropogenic, we must add new dimensions, including, but not limited to, culture, information, and, perhaps, technology, economics, and institutions.)10 These networks form a shifting pattern, which inevitably includes patterns of local order amidst the global disorder, and vice versa. Some structures (religions, for example) may last for thousands of years; others may be lost in seconds, minutes, or months.
Thus, ethical structures need not claim to be foundationally valid for all time and space, even though they are absolute within a particular local order, as long
as that order persists. Consider the example of a toaster. When we say that designing a toaster is relatively simple, we mean that artifact design occurs within a pattern of local order that has established ethical norms. When we talk about designing the Florida Everglades or the climate cycle, however, we are talking about time frames that extend well beyond the boundaries of the locally stable system. We must then accept that contingent ethics and values, as well as design objectives and constraints, are part of the engineering challenge.
It is precisely the failure to recognize the profound difference between design in local order and design beyond the boundaries of local order that has caused so much difficulty in the climate change negotiations. In one case (local order), ethics are established and usually personal; in the other case (beyond local space and time), ethics are contingent, probably multicultural, perhaps mutually exclusive, and not usually exercised at the personal level. Just as a systems engineer must include as part of his or her assessment the values of different stakeholders, at a much more profound level, the Earth systems engineer must move beyond personal beliefs to appreciate and, indeed, respect the values of many systems and cultures involved in the complex, evolving system.
This requires a new and complex ethical structure, personal on one level, institutional, inclusive, and nonjudgmental on other levels. The differentiator is whether the engineering task lies within an area of local order or extends beyond local boundaries. Consider the examples in Table 1. An electrical engineer designs an Internet protocol router that becomes part of the Internet. If the router malfunctions as a result of sloppy design, one might make ethical judgments about the designer. If, however, the Internet as a system has an unanticipated effect—say, to make adolescent males less functional socially because they spend all their time playing video games—one would not be inclined to blame the engineer who designed the router. And one would certainly not put the ethical responsibility for a world increasingly defined by the infosphere as an overlay on other Earth systems (from the economy to the carbon cycle and hydrologic cycle) on the engineer who designed the router. Similarly, the shipbuilder, unknown to history, who first designed the Portuguese caravel and thus enabled oceanic travel, could be blamed if the ship sank because of poor design, but he could not be blamed for the ecological effects of the global oceanic transport system that evolved or for the eventual globalization of the Eurocentric, Christocentric culture.
And yet, individual designs now become components of (frequently self-organizing) complex networks, such as the Internet. Thus, humans are designing Earth systems of all kinds, from cultural, economic, and demographic systems to natural cycles and systems. Because these systems extend beyond the patterns of local order, yet are increasingly the products of human design taken as a whole, those responsible for the designs must also take responsibility for the results. This leads to the greatest ethical challenge of the anthropocene, for the anthropogenic Earth is characterized by human ethical and cultural systems that are increasingly becoming reified in natural systems (Figure 2).
TABLE 1 Evolution of Engineering Ethics in an Anthropogenic World
Explicit (artifact) design
Implicit (infrastructure/ system) design
Router, personal computer
Internet as physical and information/ cultural system
Infosphere as network for Earth systems engineering and management (the networked world)
Global transport/ migration/ colonization system
Genetically engineered, salt-resistant tomato plant
Optimized biomass productivity
Life at all scales as human design
Ethical responsibility of engineer/ designer
Yes, often embedded in law (e.g., product liability)
No, system effects often not knowable with current state of the art
Implicit and usually unconscious
Earth systems engineering and management
Yes, probably exercised mainly through institutions (private, public, and professional), and bounded by uncertainty, system dynamics, and state of the art
Explicit and part of education, design process, and client/ stakeholder dialogue
For example, the biological structure of the world as it now exists profoundly reflects the Christian, Eurocentric culture that has migrated and colonized the world in the centuries since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The structure of the Everglades reflects the ethical and cultural capitalist system that has prevailed in the United States for 200 years. The
Internet reflects the capitalist ideologies, market structures, and mass information production and consumption patterns of a globalized, high-technology culture.
Three trends have characterized this process: (1) human and natural systems have become increasingly integrated, to the point that, in many cases, there is no meaningful difference between them; (2) as the human capability to manipulate the external environment has increased, cultural constructs have become increasingly reified in fundamental natural systems; and (3) the physical scale of natural systems has expanded from the local to the global. In the future, human and natural systems are likely to become even more tightly integrated, and human concepts and teleologies even more reified in fundamental natural systems. A century from now, the climate system will reflect whatever values and ethics we have brought to the management of that system. Thus, “natural history” becomes human history, and ethics becomes not just a desirable adjunct to engineering, but a core competency.
In short, the ethics called for by the anthropogenic Earth are indeed different, and more complex, than “traditional” ethics, precisely because we are now aware of our collective responsibility for emergent behaviors at higher levels of the system than the level of the designed artifacts. To put it bluntly, those who engineer parts of systems are responsible in some way, both ethically and rationally, for the system as a whole.
This responsibility poses several immediate problems. First, given our current state of knowledge, the behavior of complex systems is often not predictable, or even knowable. The Internet, for example, despite its obvious human provenance, is also a self-organizing system; we don’t even have a good map of it at this point (Barabasi, 2002). We know even less about the eventual cultural, demographic, and environmental effects of the Internet. It might, for example, accelerate the flow of information through human cultures, thereby accelerating the pace of changes in the meaning of cultural constructs, thus reducing the pockets of local order that give the illusion of stability most of us take for granted. And what effect might that have on environmental consciousness and cultural attitudes towards “less human” systems? Might the virtual become so powerful that it displaces the concern with the real, and might we then be content to play with virtual pandas while the real ones become extinct? More likely, the genetic information of pandas might be explicated, stored, and owned, so they can be regenerated by the owner of the information.
An ethical principle that has been enshrined in many criminal laws is that one can only be held responsible for what one knows or can reasonably foresee (Kane, 1998). Most of us balk at the idea of holding the router designer responsible for the unforeseeable dynamics of the Internet or the fifteenth-century shipbuilder responsible for European colonialism or the rise of high technology or globalized economic markets. Given the anthropogenic Earth, the traditional concept of ethical responsibility is necessary but no longer sufficient. The underlying
ethical structure of engineering must be expanded so the ethical dimensions of engineered systems at the Earth-system scale can be perceived, understood, and addressed.
The difficulty of this challenge cannot be overemphasized. Even at the most basic level (the level of the individual), human psychology predisposes people to think in terms of simple systems conceptualized in terms of relatively few variables with interrelationships that can be easily and almost completely understood and that are displayed over a short period of time. In short, we are psychologically attuned to operating within the bounds of locally ordered networks. But many aspects of complex systems are difficult and counterintuitive and can only be illustrated by the behavior of properly constructed quantitative models. As Michael (1995) puts it based on his experiences with adaptive management of natural resource systems:
Our conventional ways of thinking and speaking about language and social reality are inadequate for coping with our current circumstances…. Our semantic baggage from past experiences is not matched to a reality of systemic interactions, circular feedback processes, nonlinearity, or multiple causation and outcomes. Implicitly, our conventional language relates us to a world of linear relationships, simple cause and effect, and separate circumstances, be they events, causes, or effects. But that is not the world we live in.
This is an extremely important point, for, as modern philosophers have pointed out, if something cannot be captured in language, it cannot be perceived and cannot be a part of our reality (Rorty, 1989).
The problem is not just that we do not understand the very complex anthropogenic world that integrates the reflexivity and contingency of human systems (economies, political systems, history, culture, religions) into natural systems or that we do not even understand human systems very well. The problem is more profound. Over the past 2,500 years, we have created an anthropogenic world that has extended the implications of our designs and engineering decisions beyond our capacity to predict, to choose, or even to perceive, their outcomes. Thus we have created a moral gap between what we actually do and what we take responsibility for.
ETHICS FOR AN ANTHROPOGENIC WORLD
It is doubtful that the burden of extending engineering ethics can be assumed solely by the engineer(s) directly involved. For one thing, the complexities of these systems necessarily engage stakeholder groups with different worldviews and disciplinary backgrounds. Each discipline not only has its own approach to ethics, but, perhaps more fundamentally, has its own ontology, or set of assumptions about the fundamental nature of being. Scientists and engineers, for example, tend to believe strongly in the external, physical world, whereas many
sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and literary critics may believe equally strongly that reality is constructed by the individual and her or his society. The truly difficult challenge for Earth systems engineers is to understand that these mutually exclusive ontologies are both correct. In short, the complexity of the anthropogenic world cannot be captured in a single belief system or ontology. Different ontologies may be appropriate for different locally ordered networks, and issues that cut across patterns of local order may thus appropriately engage a number of different ontologies. We will need teamwork and institutions that approach ethical issues in a multicultural and multidimensional way. The need to rise above individually valid ontologies carries with it an implication that militates against an individual being charged with professional and personal ethical responsibility, but also with direct ethical responsibility for (uncertain and unpredictable) system performance.
Our most obvious pressing need is to begin to develop not just personal, but also institutional capabilities to address ethical issues arising from the emergent behavior of global natural/human systems. Professional engineering organizations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), should support multidisciplinary capabilities to identify, study, and make recommendations regarding emerging ethical issues, both specifically (e.g., the environmental and social implications of the shift from mail-based to e-mail-based consumer systems) and generally (e.g., ethical issues arising from the evolution of a wired world dominated by human information and communications technology). Existing efforts, such as bioethics institutions and panels associated with advances in biotechnology and medical technology, should be continued and indeed encouraged, and may serve as models. But they are insufficient. The National Academy of Engineering, as the thought leader for the profession both in the United States and around the world, should take the lead in this effort.
The new, expanded ethical approach must become part of modern engineering. To this end, the National Science Foundation should fund a network of academic institutions for researching and teaching ethics and engineering in an anthropogenic world. The goal should be not only to develop and publish curricular material for engineering and related fields, but also to establish a global, networked community of scholars from many disciplines. As our understanding improves, appropriate material can be incorporated into engineering education. In many cases, material may simply be added to the traditional curriculum, which will continue to educate electrical, mechanical, and civil engineers. But there will also undoubtedly be new programs focused on educating Earth systems engineers and managers.
Individual engineers will continue to be ethically responsible for their particular designs and activities. But we must also assume greater responsibility as a community. Individual ethical responsibility should be understood to include
helping to create, and contribute to, professional community ethical responses at the level of systemic behavior. We now inhabit a terraformed planet that is shaped by and displays our designs, choices, and cultures at all scales, from artifacts to great natural cycles. We have an obligation to ourselves, to our profession, and to the future to create the knowledge and wisdom that will make this Earth, and the designs that define it and knit it together, the highest expression of our responsibility, our rationality, and our ethics.
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