The most sophisticated management system in the world was developed in a laboratory of iron, oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon surrounded by a thin layer of ozone. This system, what we call the planet’s ecosystems, costlessly manages biological functions that allow us to enjoy life.  We are just now beginning to understand and manage these complex systems.

Ecosystems can be thought of as vast data management systems that provide services to sustain all life on earth. The information equivalent of terabytes of energy, mass, volume, pressure and other data flows within ecosystems every minute. “Ecosystem services” are the benefits that humans derive from these natural processes and include food, fuel, climate regulation, clean water, and even recreation.

But today, the rapid rate of change we are imposing on the global environment forces us to ask an important question: can we really assume the full cost and management for Earth’s life-support systems?

Our civilization harnesses ecosystem services to flourish. We use photosynthesis, the water cycle, and pollination to power agriculture that feeds most of the planet. We harvest annual provisions of fibers and timber for clothing and shelter. In a landmark study published in the journal Nature in 1997, a team of scientists found that the estimated value of all these services if they were provided by our economy was at least $33 trillion. At the time of the study, $33 trillion was nearly twice global GDP.

Rapid ecological change imposed by our use of resources and impact on the planet disrupts these systems. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment combined the research of more than 1,360 scientists from 95 countries and found that 60% of ecosystem services studied were degraded or used at a non-renewable rate. Another study published by Nature in 2009 examined control variables within seven global ecological subsystems and found that two are already outside of the Safe Operating Space for Humans.

These changes transfer costs from nature to the economy. The Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and KPMG recently analyzed ten rapid changes from resource scarcity to urbanization and concluded that the associated costs will double every 14 years.  Insurers Munich Re and Swiss Re report that the cost of increasingly frequent and severe weather-related natural disasters, which cannot be directly linked with climate change though are consistent with anticipated impacts, is rising.

The good news is that our ability to understand and manage complex systems through increasingly sophisticated computer models is increasing rapidly. In 2006, an IBM team created an entirely new data management system to reduce Stockholm’s congestion problems using optical recognition software and real-time demand pricing. The project reduced traffic 35% and tailpipe emissions 14% by accurately identifying 99% of vehicles. Last year, IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” famously beat a panel of champions to win the gameshow “Jeopardy!” and now processes hundreds of millions of pages of customer financial data for Wellpoint and Citigroup. Watson analyzes terabytes of data a minute.

The bad news is that if we are to match nature’s capacity, we need to collect and analyze data closer to the terabytes per minute level.  While these are promising initiatives, we are still a long way from effectively managing ecosystem-level data. Can we replace the planet’s 4.5 billion year investment with millions of dollars of research, the trained minds of our most intelligent scientists and business leaders, and the data management system of markets?

Ready or not, it appears that we believe that we can as we plow headlong into managing Earth’s complex life-support systems.