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Ingeniería e Investigación

Print version ISSN 0120-5609

Ing. Investig. vol.31 no.1 Bogotá Jan./Apr. 2011


Towards a systemic parameterisation of the environmental dimension

Leonel Vega Mora1

1 Agricultural Engineering., M.Sc., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Faculty of Engineering, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá.


Information, particularly environmental information, constitutes a valuable asset which is fundamental in formulating, implementing and controlling environmental policy and management aimed at environmental sustainability. The systemic parameterisation of the so-called "environmental dimension" will lead to having enough, top-quality environmental information which has been duly collected, processed and prepared for developing any anthropic activity. The present article synthesises the results of a research project entitled, "A Systemic Parameterisation of the Environmental Dimension- Phase I," carried out by the Policy, Information and Environmental Management (PIGA) research group; its main objective consisted of producing and proposing a theoretical basis and conceptual and methodological framework for developing such parameterisation.

Keywords: parameterisation, dimension, systemic approach, policy, information, environmental management.

Received: May 29th 2009. Accepted: April 22th 2010


It is absolutely indispensable that an environmental sustainability framework has top-quality environmental information readily available; such data must have been duly collected, processed and prepared to facilitate and optimise formulating, implementing and controlling environmental policy and management. Ascertaining and measuring what happens in the "environmental dimension" is very important because all environmental goods and services are generated, sustained, deteriorate and/or renovated in it; thus, the lack of appropriate measurement may lead to simply having qualitative approaches to what is currently occurring in nature (or what happened in the past or will happen in the future) (Vega, 2005).

The reality concerning such situation, especially in Latin-America, is that there has been no state political or strategic orientation regarding the lack of appropriate conceptual and methodological frameworks for environmental information management, its proper collection, processing (organisation, aggregation, systematisation, storing), disposition and use. This, in turn, has led to a great deal of dispersion and duplication of technical and financial institutional efforts, thereby leading to cost overruns, restriction, insufficiency and, in many cases, the actual lack of environmental information matching minimum quality parameters.

A systemic parameterisation of the environmental dimension will lead to having sufficient, top-quality environmental information which has been duly collected, processed and prepared as a fundamental element in environmental policy and management and all human activities.

The theoretical basis and conceptual and methodological framework for the environmental dimension´s systemic parameterisation have been proposed in the light of the author´s previous proposals, such as "Systemic Environmental Management" (Vega, 2001) and "Towards Development-related Environmental Sustainability" (Vega, 2005), using the following items:

-Defining a valid conceptual framework for the environmental dimension, orientating discussion and consensus regarding "sustainable development" and "development-related environmental sustainability" concepts:

-Adopting a sorting framework for environmental information as a mental approach to information thereby allowing proper causal relationships to be formulated and established between society and the environment;

-Designing an environmental integration matrix-map as a logical tool for foreseeing and integrating the overall information spectrum, thereby leading to causal relationships being established between environmental goods and services being derived from a particular ecosystem and each development sector, guiding environmental information storage and systematisation while doing so;

-Adding and designing environmental indicators involving and reflecting on the state of environmental goods and services from a particular ecosystem, the pressures to which they are submitted (in space and time) and the type of environmental management used for protecting them; and

-Configuring environmental information baselines as an organisational and systematisation space-time sketch of environmental information properly characterising any territorial entity´s environmental information.

The environmental dimension´s conceptual framework

The present day world´s development paradigms and models (particularly public policy regulating, allowing and/or motivating them) are intimately linked to nature and are a direct consequence of human beings´ worldview about nature, creation and evolution. A definition of a valid conceptual framework for the environmental dimension consequently implies making it from an epistemological point of view, thereby allowing nature to be understood as a large-scale macro-system in ongoing evolution.

According to Angel Maya (1995), slow energy transformation, fulfilling natural laws (the first and second laws of thermodynamics ), has led to four great evolutionary emergences occurring during nature´s great macro-process as systems or organisational forms emerging from basic energy levels; this has involved increasingly greater levels of complexity and each new level establishing its own rules and subordinating its elements to common rules when a new system has behaved independently and differently from its initial constituting elements. Figure 1 outlines the four evolutionary emergences considered by the scientific community which are iefly described here.

Simple matter. This began with the Big Bang involving the transition of energy-less matter to energy having simple energy. Nature ´s 92 chemical elements emerged. Each element existed separately, no relationships existing between them;

Complex matter. The 92 chemical elements began to unite and relate, thereby creating complex compounds having different flow and differentiated existence which were individualised and autonomous in their procedures. For example, hydrogen and oxygen produced water. These first two emergences are called biotypes, i.e. inorganic;

Life. The transition from complex energy to biome took place, consisting of two phases: flora and fauna. Ecosystems appeared with the appearance of the first living cell in a biotype; and

Culture. Human beings appeared, involving a transition from life to culture, i.e. to energy as conscience/awareness.

Culture as current evolutionary emergence

An evolutionary-systemic worldview allows culture to be understood as current evolutionary emergence which has been characterised by human presence and experience in nature since about two million years ago. It constitutes a special system of nature since it marks a very important landmark in evolution regarding human beings´ integration and interaction and their possibilities of thought and self-awareness regarding a particular ecosystem and thus in the very concept of "the environmental dimension" itself. Culture is characterised by an important instrumental paradigm being developed, involving a set of elements evolving jointly in intimate interdependence and interrelationship with a particular ecosystem towards a common goal. Agreeing with the above, Angel Maya (1999) has stated that such elements would be a population and its symbolic world, rules and power structures and scientific, technological and production paradigms (as outlined in Figure 2.

A systemic point of view can be adopted for clearly understanding the real importance and incidence of culture as current evolutionary emergence within the environmental dimension concept since, although the aforementioned elements may be adequate descriptively, their interpretation as elements forming the cultural system is lacking and superficial as they introduce serious hermeneutical problems leading to confusion. This is because they are independently interpreted and characterised in isolation, without much consideration being paid to the processes, activities and inter-relationships between them and much less so regarding their mission, function and organisation in accomplishing a particular system´s common goal or purpose. It is evident that such processes, activities and inter-relationships, as well as the mission, function and organisation of each element so considered must be determined starting by ascertaining a cultural system´s common goal or purpose, as explained next.

Development as a cultural system´s purpose

Theoretical and practical motivations deserve serious and meticulous analysis of culture´s purpose since understanding and determining it as emergence and current evolutionary system would be flawed without considering a goal inherent in its systemic nature.

Every system´s elements, processes and activities in theory are, by definition, always related to and orientated towards accomplishing a set purpose. Consequently, the purpose of culture as human experience in nature will correspond to human beings´ very purpose. Ethologically, this means every living being´s purpose, which is to guarantee her/his immortality as a species and of course their DNA through reproduction. Such premise and the solar system´s finitude make it plain that the human species´ immortality and its DNA will be subject to the real possibility that human beings (at some point in the future) will manage to migrate and move away to other planets through evolution and/or the development of a suitable, sufficiently advanced, instrumental paradigm allowing them to be born away to distant parts of the known universe.

In a practical order of things, human beings´ survival will be subject to our solar system´s survival in time and space, such idea being particularly relevant to the fate of our Earth´s ecosystem. As a consequence of their thinking and self-awareness (unlike other living beings inhabiting our planet), human beings have the chance, the duty, the right and responsibility to orientate, motivate and formulate each aforementioned cultural element´s evolution (i.e. population and its symbolic world, the state as institutional framework for public policy and scientific, technological and production paradigms) in harmony with the laws ruling matter and energy flows in nature allowing human beings to preserve the Earth´s ecosystem and guarantee the survival of life and human species, at least during the next four billion years which has been calculated as being our solar system´s life expectancy (Hacyan, 1996).

Particular purposes or ends must be identified in the development and evolution of each cultural element; they must be determined by each population group according to its respective worldview. The organisational figure of nations and their states provides an interesting approach towards determining such ends for all practical purposes (Mantilla, 1996); as human social organisations par excellence they have developed an entire doctrinal body considering the following purposes: individual or limited (such as liberty, judicial safety and law), collective or unlimited (such as justice, happiness and public interest), the state´s exclusive purpose (such as keeping power, conserving judicial order and protecting society) and the state´s concurrent purpose (such as food security, health, education, the economy, transport and communications, professional formation and organisation ).

As can be observed, the previous purposes were related directly to a population´s general "rights", without any general or particular reference to the Earth´s ecosystem´s purposes or rights supporting the population´s natural basis. This leads to considering that ecosystems have some type of purpose or concurrent right which must obviously be directly related to their survival when faced by an anthropic threat, in turn, leading to conceiving culture as a great unified conglomerate of social and natural factors.

It may thus be inferred that culture has a common goal, integrating each cultural element´s goals and/or purposes within a single whole including, of course, that of ecosystem survival and preservation. Such integral and common goal may simply be called, "cultural development." Nevertheless, if culture is in itself an evolutionary process (i.e. a development), then the expression "cultural development" would constitute a pleonasm and, therefore, it may be assumed without fear of being mistaken that the aim of culture, and therefore of each nation, will simply be "development."

Sustainable development and development-related environmental sustainability

It is not enough to determine development as an integral goal of culture and therefore of each nation when considering culture to be a current emergent evolutionary system. The concept of development must be gone into in much more depth, as must what is really meant by culture as human and instrumental experience within nature. It is thus worth asking oneself whether development would simply be the predominant expression of the current economic paradigm which is basically measured and assessed in terms of economic growth and the accumulation of wealth, minimum consideration being paid to human beings´ well-being and quality of life and, much less so, to the natural basis on which such paradigm is supported. Or, would it be a much more integral and complex concept involving principles such as that of "environmental respect and responsibility" and goals such as "environmental sustainability" or, better yet, challenges such as that of the current international community demanding, "that human beings constitute the centre of and reason for development,… establishing that the objectives of economic growth must be subordinated to natural systems´ functioning laws and criteria regarding respect for human dignity and the improvement of people´s quality of life." (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - UNCED, 1992).

Answers to the previous questions must be sought in each cultural elements´ mission, function and organisation, as well as in the processes, activities and inter-relationships involved in the search for development. Such elements and/or presuppositions may thus be systemically integrated in terms of "development dimensions" through assigning their corresponding mission, function and organisation towards the goal of development, as shown in Figure 3

The social dimension; this consists of human beings and a particular population´s symbolic, cultural and political resources. Since philosophical reflections lead to understanding that people constitute the beginning and the end of all nations, then the social dimension´s main mission regarding the goal of development will concern participating, building a home and being happy;

The institutional or public dimension; consists of institutional resources reserved for public management and the goods and services created and built for coexistence. Its main mission regarding a nation´s purpose will be to regulate, promote and control public policies, strategies and instruments constituting its institutional framework;

The economic dimension; this consists of scientific, technological and production paradigms as well as production, energy, scientific- technological and financial infrastructures. Its mission vis-àvis a nation´s goal will basically be concerned with producing goods and services; and

The environmental dimension; this is a cross-sectional dimension to the aforementioned anthropic ones, consisting of human beings´ integration and interaction with the ecosystem. It may be the environment through its recovery, sustainable use and conservation. Its mission will be to guarantee environmental sustainability related to development.

Such integration from a dimensional perspective elucidates more the concept of development and therefore clearly differentiates the concepts of sustainable development and developmentrelated environmental sustainability, as follows.

Sustainable development, besides permanence in time and space, feedback and ongoing improvement, will imply the continuous search for an adequate balance which is equitable among each development dimensions preventing the evolution of one of them at the expense of the others, and vice versa. It constitutes an integral responsibility for every nation and therefore for all public policy shaped by their states.

Development-related environmental sustainability constitutes the fundamental purpose of the concept of "environmental dimension" to guarantee the endowment of natural resources and environmental services in time and space and also guarantee that human activities are carried out in harmony with the laws of natural systems so that the integrity of processes ruling the flows of energy, matter and ecosystem biodiversity is preserved through effective environmental policy and suitable management.

Regulatory framework for environmental information

Environmental information (i.e. that which quantitatively and qualitatively represents the development-related environmental dimension) implies increased complexity since it cannot be traced back to a law nor be reduced to a simple idea and, on the contrary, it somehow expresses confusion and an inability to characterise, define and name such dimension in a simple, clear and ordered way. A regulatory framework for environmental information must be defined to obviate the latter; it is a mental logical framework allowing suitable causal relationships between society and the environment to be formulated and established. The state-pressure-management (SPM) model developed by the author from the pressure-state-response (PSR) model initially proposed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCDE) (1993) is thus proposed as the regulating framework for organising and managing environmental information due to its simplicity, ease of use and possible applications at different levels, on different scales and in human activities. This new model comprises three information categories: state information refers to each nation´s entire information related to the amount, quality and availability of goods and services derived from nature´s inheritance left to mankind; pressure information refers to all information related to the factors or use and/or deterioration of each nation´s goods and services or natural heritage; and management information refers to all that information related to the recovery, sustainable use and conservation carried out by society in general in the search for each nation´s development-related environmental sustainability.

Environmental integration SPM map-matrix

In addition to collecting environmental information, tools must be available for facilitating its processing (organisation, aggregation, systematisation, storing) and disposition. The "Environmental integration SPM Map - Matrix" has been designed for such purpose and has been proposed as a logical tool for foreseeing causal relations within the general spectrum of environmental information and also allows the ecosystem to be related to and integrated with each development sector. The aforementioned dimensions have thus been renamed in terms of Development Sectors, as shown in Figure 4.

The environmental integration SPM map-matrix is structured, starting with the state of environmental goods and/or services and their input being directly related to the pressure exerted by and environmental management efforts of each development sector on such environmental goods and services, as shown by Table 1.

Adding, defining and designing environmental indicators

The indicators´ aggregation level will depend (initially) on the amount and quality of available information [Quiroga, 2001]. In any case, it must allow for environmental indicators involving and reflecting the pattern of ecosystem-related environmental goods and services and each development sector´s goods and services in time and space.

Environmental information´s typological nature, independently of territorial and/or sector control, will lead to designing and using state-type environmental indicators regarding pressure and management, accurately indicating or reflecting each environmental good or service´s essential characteristics.

Environmental information baseline configuration

Environmental parameterisation may be spatially and temporarily recorded by configuring Environmental Information Baselines (EIBL), being generically defined as "a space-time diagram of environmental information organisation and systematisation properly characterising the environmental dimension of any territorial and/or sectorial entity" (Vega, 2005), as shown in Figure 5.

As can be seen in Figure 5, EIBL have been configured according to the SPM scheme for each time period, starting from ecosystem goods and services and each development sector. They will allow prospecting SPM indicators which are of great use in formulating policy, strategic plans, programmes and specific projects, particularly those related to environmental management.


Information, particularly environmental information, constitutes a fundamental valuable asset in formulating, implementing and controlling environmental policy and management aimed at development-related environmental sustainability.

An evolutionary worldview and systemic approach facilitates an approach to the ecosystem-culture inter-relationship in terms of so-called development dimensions, particularly regarding the definition of a suitable conceptual framework for the "environmental dimension", defined in this essay as, "ecosystemic possibilities for providing environmental goods and services and cultural possibilities regarding development-related environmental sustainability, understood as exploiting and protecting the environment." The mission is to guarantee such development-related environmental sustainability, i.e. the sustainability of nature´s heritage/inheritance regarding anthropic action through suitable environmental policy and management. They also lead to elucidating and differentiating the "sustainable development" concept as being every democratic nation´s integral purpose, through a suitable, equitable balance between each development dimension which does not allow the evolution of one at the expense of the others and vice versa.

Adopting a new state-pressure-management (SPM) model as a mental approach to and regulatory framework for environmental information provides a coherent and detailed response to the following three pertinent questions: What is the state of our ecosystems? (i.e. the amount, quality and availability of environmental goods and services); which are the pressures on our ecosystems? (i.e. the use of each ecosystem-derived good and service and the deterioration to which they are subjected); and how are our ecosystems being managed? (i.e. society´s efforts at recovery, sustainable use and conservation for minimising pressures and optimising the state of our environmental goods and services and what are the consequences (impacts and effects) of such management on each development dimension).

Designing, structuring and developing the "Environmental integration SPM map-matrix" has led to organising (in a measurable and systemic fashion) all environmental information characterising the state of ecosystem goods and services in terms of their quantity, quality and availability, pressure exerted on them in terms of use (demand) and the deterioration to which they are subjected, and environmental management aimed at their recovery, sustainable use and conservation, through pertinent (development-related environmentally sustainable) policies, plans, programmes and projects.

The systemic parameterisation of the environmental dimension will thus allow having enough top-quality environmental information which has been duly collected, processed and prepared as a fundamental element in environmental policy and management and that involving all human activities. It can be used practically in environmental diagnosis, designing information systems, regulating and planning territorial and sectorial development, regulating and planning hydrographic basins, environmental acounting, risk management regarding natural and anthropic threats, evaluating environmental impact and environmental strategy and in decision-making in general.


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