I’ll be giving a talk to the Toronto section of the IEEE Systems Council on December 1st, in which I plan to draw together several of the ideas I’ve been writing about recently on systems thinking and leverage points, and apply them to the problem of planetary boundaries. Come and join in the discussion if you’re around:

Who’s flying this ship? Systems Engineering for Planet Earth

Thurs, Dec 1, 2011, 12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m, Ryerson University (details and free registration here)

At the beginning of this month, the human population reached 7 billion people. The impact of humanity on the planet is vast: we use nearly 40% of the earth’s land surface to grow food, we’re driving other species to extinction at a rate not seen since the last ice age, and we’ve altered the planet’s energy balance by changing the atmosphere. In short, we’ve entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, in which our collective actions will dramatically alter the inhabitability of the planet. We face an urgent task: we have to learn how to manage the earth as a giant system of systems, before we do irreparable damage. In this talk, I will describe some of the key systems that are relevant to this task, including climate change, agriculture, trade, energy production, and the global financial system. I will explore some of the interactions between these systems, and characterize the feedback cycles that alter their dynamics and affect their stability. This will lead us to an initial attempt to identify planetary boundaries for some of these systems, which together define a safe operating space for humanity. I will end the talk by offering a framework for thinking about the leverage points that may allow us to manage these systems to keep them within the safe operating limits.


  1. So how did it go? Are there any records of the event or was it ephemeral?

  2. Birgit Penzenstadler

    Hi Steve,

    I’d love to come, but I’m on the wrong continent.
    Is there a possibility to attend via web? Or will you record the talk?

    Best regards,

  3. Pete: Haven’t given it yet – it’s this Thursday. I’ll try and record it so I can post it here afterwards.

  4. Birgit Penzenstadler

    Thanks, Steve, that would be great!

  5. “we have to learn how to manage the earth as a giant system of systems, before we do irreparable damage”

    With all due respect, this sounds like an alcoholic saying that he has to learn how to manage his liver as a system of tissues and cells, before he gets irreparable cirrhosis.

  6. @SecularAnimist : Huh? You missed the “systems-of-systems” bit. Human activity systems and ecological systems interact; we have to manage them together. So a better analogy would be an alcoholic working with his friends, therapists, support groups etc, so that they can all learn how to manage their relationships, behaviours, consumption patterns, etc before the poor guy’s liver gets fried.

    How come nobody learns soft systems analysis any more?

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