This paper examines Earth System Science as a novel approach to global environmental change research. Drawing upon Michel Foucault's governmentality concept, the paper opens up the Earth System metaphor to political analysis and asks what it does to our understanding of nature and society as a governable domain. We trace the scientific practices that have produced the Earth System as a thinkable analytical category back to the International Geophysical Year in 1957. We also identify 'the Anthropocene' as a central and yet ambiguous system of thought for Earth System Science that harbours different strategies for sustainability in terms of (1) the persons over whom government is to be exercised; (2) the distribution of tasks and actions between authorities; and (3) contrasting ideals or principles for how government should be directed. (C) 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.