the anthropogenic world has evolved (Redman, 1999). Agricultural activities throughout history have affected natural systems from the species level to the biome level. The clearing of forests in Europe and North Africa from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries marked the beginning of human contributions to the increase in carbon dioxide, which has affected global atmospheric chemistry. In this sense, ESE is not “new”: humans have been engineering Earth systems for centuries. What is new, and has led to the creation of the anthropogenic world, is the scale of human activity and the increasing influence of human activities on natural systems. ESE as applied to biotechnology, and more broadly to the human experience, is, therefore, the assumption by humans of responsibility for what we as a species are already doing. With responsible ESE, we can develop the capability to act more rationally and ethically in the future.

In the context of ESE, “technology” must be understood in its broadest sense as the means by which individuals and human societies improve the quality of life. Technology is the intermediary through which humans affect the physical world and shape their future. The difference between engineering an artifact and engineering an Earth system can indicate the importance of ethics, philosophy, and even theology in ESE. A design team engineering a toaster, for example, works in an existing cultural and ethical context that presupposes a market system within which a device to toast bread can be engineered, manufactured, sold, and used, and assumes that society accepts this pattern. The ethical dimensions of the project are explicitly established in legal and regulatory structures—product safety, environmental requirements, and the like. The ignorance of the religious or ethical dimensions of a project is one reason technologists tend to resist the idea that their activities are culturally determined.

The same cannot be said of ESE, which is not an artifact in an existing context; ESE is the cultural and ethical context itself. Consider the efforts being made to reengineer the Everglades, a unique biological community, to preserve remaining species and habitat in the face of dramatically increasing human presence in Florida. Designing the Everglades is not just a question of building a dike here or creating a channel there; it entails selecting an objective—for example, continued human presence and some protection for wading birds—that cannot be justified solely on objective grounds. The ethical and, indeed, religious dimensions of the Everglades project are important design objectives and constraints.

Similarly, one cannot think of the engineering of the carbon cycle with the intent of stabilizing climate systems without recognizing that ethical and religious dimensions are critical determinants of the design process. Deciding how to address global climate change—for example, the push by environmentalists to phase out the use of fossil fuels—will have enormous implications for the options available to the human species in the future. The methods selected will necessarily be designed to lead to a certain kind of world—for example, a “natural” world that consumes minimal amounts of materials and energy or a high-technology, rapidly evolving world. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter which vision is right;



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement