Planet Earth is arguably one of the larger complex systems that we are struggling to understand and exploit in a sustainable manner. The co-evolution between information-processing (i.e. active) living things and the force-driven (i.e. passive) environment is growing ever tighter with time. Our evolution as a technological species marks the latest in a series of major transitions. With our technology we are profoundly altering the planet, and we have begun to monitor and understand our effects. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol mark a first attempt to alter our actions accordingly. As we look ahead, the pressing concern for the human species is to find and follow a safe, sustainable path into the future. This should minimize detrimental changes (to us and fellow species) in the Earth system whilst ensuring an acceptable quality of life for all of our growing population.
Thus posed, we have a complex, adaptive control problem for an evolving cybernetic system. The agents of change (us) are entwined in the system and have to operate with limited knowledge, including an awareness of the multi-scale nature of the system both in space and time, and the delays between cause and effect inherent to the system. In this, they are helped by their own self-reflexivity, i.e. the fact that they can change their own behaviour as a result of their observation of the system’s dynamics. But they are handicapped by the fact that for this self-reflexivity to actively contribute to change, they need to know how to manage and control the societal dynamics involved, and transform individual learning and decision-making into collective action. That part of the process in turn requires a fundamental review of our institutions and modes of governance.
A key element of the solution will be the design and implementation of appropriate economic incentives, technologies, policy instruments, institutions, and approaches to governance to effect the transition to sustainability. In a “technophile” vision of the future, information and communication networks and technology may become the ‘central nervous system’ of a planetary, adaptive response system that steers human activities to be better in tune with the automatic self-organisation of the Earth system.
One fundamental stumbling block in trying to represent and tackle the problem is a lack of models that capture the nested hierarchy of subsystems within the Earth system. To this end, we require multi-scale simulations that encapsulate a stunning range of relevant time and space scales. A theoretical framework must also be built that weaves together relevant generalities from complex systems research with valid threads from existing attempts to provide a theory of the evolution and functioning of the Earth system. For credibility the theory must of course be consistent with our increasingly in-depth, historical, biological, chemical, physical and geological knowledge of the Earth system.
The challenge is thus to make tools that citizens can understand, without extensive training, and use in comparing and evaluating environmental policy options. Some projects of this kind have been completed, in different parts of the world, to make models that integrate geophysical, ecological, and human land-use data available through a GIS (Geographical Information System) for local citizens to use to appraise environmental options (e.g. whether to impose development boundaries preventing further building around urban areas; whether to encourage fishing or arable in river basins). The vision is to develop exemplars of such integrated environmental models and to provide a computational infrastructure (a user interface, a deliberation forum, a voting interface etc.) that would encourage citizens to become involved and permit them to make their views known.
But that encouragement will only lead to productive changes when there is an institutional structure in place that can channel this involvement in constructive ways. That in turn presumes that we are able to resolve some of the questions raised in the following section