Environmental c.f. ecological (Francois, 2004; Allen, Giampietro Little 2003)

The term “environmental” can be mixed up with “ecological”, when the meanings are different. We can look at the encyclopedia definitions (François 2004), and then compare the two in terms of applied science (i.e. engineering with (#TimothyFHAllen @MarioGiampietro and #AmandaMLittle, 2003).

Delimiting a system at least partially defines an environment.

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1. “The context in which a system exists” (1973, p.86).

Β. BANATHY states: “It is composed of all the things that surround the system, and it includes everything that may affect the system and that may be affected by the system” (Ibid).

Of course, the whole universe is the environment of any system. Practically we must thus define in a more restricted way the environment of the system as those parts of the general environment that interact with it more or less strongly and/or permanently. However, there is a snag (or two):

a – Two different observers may very well have different descriptions of the system’s environment (pursuing either the same- or a different goal)

b – There is never any absolute certainty that the observer did not forget, or be unable to register some important part of the environment.

An incorrect or incomplete evaluation of the environment is the main cause of most of the technological and social catastrophes engineered nowadays by ill-advised planners.

2.”Those variables whose changes affect the organism (system) and those variables which are changed by the organism’s (systems) behavior (W.R.ASHBY, 1960, p.36).

A more or less equivalent definition by S. KATZ is: “… everything the nervous system may use as a source of knowledge” (1976, p.45).

ASHBY states: “It is thus defined in a purely functional, not a material sense”(lbid). There are reciprocal feedbacks between the environment and the system. ASHBY cites STARLING, who wrote: “Organism and environment form a whole and must be viewed as such” (1960, p. 38). Unfortunately, this necessity is very frequently ignored, even by high level systems designers of the most various kinds: physicians, engineers, economists, agronomists, etc.

In the words of M. DODDS and G. JAROS “… the environment is not a neutral laboratory, but a stakeholder with its own needs” (pers. comm.).

This very serious problem is related to J. FOURASTIE’s “Ignorance of ignorance” or to G.de ZEEUW’s “invisibility“: a part of the significant environment is not perceived.

3.”For a given system, the environment is the set of all objects a change in whose attributes affect the system and also those objects whose attributes are changed by the behavior of the system” (A.D. HALL & F.E. FAGEN, 1956, p.20).

While this very old (1956) definition looks quite rigid, HALL and FAGEN have it perfectly clear that “The statement above invites the natural question of when an object belongs to a system and when it belongs to the environment; for if an object reacts with a system in the way described above should it not be considered a part of the system? The answer is by no means definite. In a sense, a system together with its environment makes up the universe of all things of interest in a given context. Subdivision of this universe into two sets, system and environment, can be done in many ways which are in fact quite arbitrary” (Ibid).

These comments are allowable, but their importance should not be over-emphasized: In most practical cases, it is easy to distinguish the system within its environment, mostly so when it is a strongly integrated system. This being the case, the only doubt is about some border elements.

Even composite systems (snowfields, locusts swarms, human masses) can be more or less easily distinguished from their environment.

François (2004) pp. 201-203

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For ecological, let’s refer to the encyclopedia definition for ecology, that for better or worse, refers back to environment.

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The science of interactions of living systems among themselves and with their environment.

Already in 1866, E. HAECKEL defined ecology as the global science of the organisms relations with their surrounding world, in which he included generally all the conditions of their existence.

Later on, scientists like A. LOTKA (1924, 1956) and V. VOLTERRA (1931) studied more restricted phenomena as, for example the interrelations of two or three species. Others considered mainly lesser biotopes: a meadow, a small island, a wood.

However, more recently, HAECKEL’s programme has been retrieved as it becomes evermore obvious that these restricted inquiries should be put into the perspective of a much more global understanding.

The French ecologist F. RAMADE writes: “Ecology studies complex systems; its approach is thus, ipso facto, of a holistic nature. Its object is at the summit of the organizational ladder of living systems: The simplest biological entity of its concern is the population. Furthermore and by order of growing complexity, its objects of study are colonies, living communities, ecosystems and biosphere as a whole” (1993, p.424).

Ecology is thus a typically systemic science.

François (2004), p. 182

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With engineering an applied science, comparing the ecological to the environmental draws in questions about dealing with living in addition to non-living systems. Coauthors #TimothyFHAllen @MarioGiampietro and #AmandaMLittle reduce anthrocentricity by considering the beaver as a builder.

This paper … it focuses on the distinction between the purpose-driven design of structures in environmental engineering and the natural process of self-organization characteristic of life, which needs to be integrated into ecological engineering.

Conventional engineering addresses the problem of fabrication of an organized structure, say a road, which reflects a goal at the outset, as well as considerations external to the road. At the outset there is an essence of which the organized structure is a realization. […] Engineers deal with the challenge of the realization of a plan at a given point in space and time.

The central dogma of biology identifies organisms as informationally-closed and this makes possible their use as machines. Ecological systems, on the contrary, are informationally-open. They cannot be used as machines to create functional structures, because they are becoming in time.

The distinction of informationally-closed and informationally-open is a clue that references to the relational biology work of Robert Rosen is ahead.

From the perspective of “life itself“, environmental engineering is seen as a branch of conventional engineering, whereas ecological engineering comes from a different place.

While organisms may be used as machines, we deny that ecological systems can be used as machines to create ecologically-engineered functional structures. Unlike organisms, ecological systems are informationally-open, and cannot be used reliably in the medium term, let alone for extended long-term periods. Rather than work as agents of creation, ecological processes act as constraints and perturbations on both the environment of the realization process and the functional engineered structure. [….]

Ecological engineering deals with structures whose realization process and structured functionality is disrupted by failure of the associative context such that the original goals must be revisited. This is due to the systemic mismatch in time scale between: (a) the pace at which human decision making and engineering operates and (b) the pace at which ecological processes update their typologies and mechanisms of control.

How much of the change outside of the system is considered?

Environmental engineering is an extension of the engineering process that considers the environment in as many aspects as are thought to be to be relevant. Engineering requires models to be constructed of the action to be undertaken, considering safety factors only at the anthropomorphic level, not at the level of the safety of the ecosystem. [….]

Environmental engineering is a branch of civil and sometimes industrial engineering. As such it remains within the purview of standard engineering protocol as it imposes an external design on material that is the passive recipient of engineered limits.

Not so for ecological engineers, whose engineered material offers no such constancy. This one fact puts ecological engineering in a different class from all other engineering, including environmental engineering.

Plants, animals and bacteria are not as predictable as steel and concrete, because life indeed has a life of its own. Environmental engineers constrain that creative force of life, so that it can be used successfully similar to the successful use of steel in civil engineering projects. [….]

In contrast to all other engineering, the ecological engineer co-opts a creative process that is intrinsic to the emergent biological structure. Engineers facing ecological dynamics would do well to pay attention to the inescapable emergence that is embodied in living material, for it demands a distinctive style and invokes a new approach. Ecological engineering amounts to surfing the vortex of some emergent property, and so is often perceived as uncertain.

The time scale with environmental engineers is shorter than that for ecological engineers.

Many of the differences between engineered and ecological material may be seen as simply an issue of relative scale. The goals for conventionally engineered material are set at a scale such that the substance of the engineered product is relatively inert over the time it takes to fulfill the goal. In the end all bridges do come down, but usually by design of demolition after the many decades, or even a century or two of service.

Over the expected life of an ecologically-engineered structure, its context may cause it to change in form and function. Meanwhile the material of the ecologically-engineered structure may also completely change its components—replaced, as the woodsman’s axe that is five handles and two heads old.

If ecologists built bridges, they would commonly fall down.

The third section explicates the “distinctive character of ecological over environmental engineering”, delving into contexts and ecological processes. The story is a little easier to follow in describing beavers as ecological engineers.

During the summer, beavers consume high quality herbaceous foods in an opportunistic fashion (Svendsen, 1980, Jenkins, 1981), but during the winter, they are forced to consume low quality woody materials in a selective fashion in order to survive. The goal of the beavers in this case is to obtain food throughout the year (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. At this scale, the ecosystem-specified essence of function is to safely obtain energy from plant biomass. As in Fig. 6, they can pursue different typologies of realization strategies, dependent upon high (A) or low (B) quality resources. The realization again changes the context (C), affecting future realizations (D), and eventually feeding back to the large scale context of site organization when energy can no longer be obtained within the current site structure (E).

The selection of the type of food to be adopted in the realization stage changes with season. Beavers move from obtaining herbaceous forage for beaver growth to foraging woody materials for beaver maintenance. This can be seen as the use of two different typologies of realization, like some sort of tunnel versus some sort of bridge in examples given in Fig. 1. Meanwhile the reference is to the same essence of function (capturing exergy carriers in the form of plant biomass—getting food). The changes are forced by changes in associative context. By changing typologies and realization strategies, beavers are able to deal with behavioral instability arising from limits encountered at the lower level when some types of food become unavailable.

The idea of gain is further explicated in a 2009 article on the concept of gain in ecology.

The numbers beside the encyclopedia entry mean …

  • The following special markers have been used, in order to enhance the usefulness of the encyclopedia:
  • 1) meaning “systemic on a wide range”, or “general information”
  • 2) meaning “general abstract or mathematical model”, or “methodology”
  • 3) meaning “epistemologica! or ontological aspects”, or “semantics”
  • 4) meaning “practical in human sciences”
  • 5) meaning “more specific or disciplinarian”

In this paper-first encyclopedia, the bolded text is link to other entries.


Allen, T. F. H, M Giampietro, and A. M Little. 2003. “Distinguishing Ecological Engineering from Environmental Engineering.” Ecological Engineering, The Philosophy and Energence of Ecological Engineering, 20 (5): 389–407. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecoleng.2003.08.007 .

François, Charles, ed. 2004. International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics | 2nd ed. De Gruyter Saur. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110968019.

#ecological, #environmental