Earth-observation data as a timely tool for system disruption
Updated: Feb 11
...and the changing paradigm for Earth scientists to become systems thinkers
At this stage of history, either one of two things is possible: either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community-interests, guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others; or, alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control.
- Noam Chomsky
We are in a revolutionary and malleable time: an intentional future of our making it not only possible, but is an existential necessity. Wide-ranging academic sectors, NGOs and UN branches, and commercial space-data acquisition and Earth-monitoring companies are beginning to look through the dense, grief-filled lens into our collective potential future, and are taking up technological tools of modernity — ever-increasing resolution of Earth-observation satellites, and ever-advancing automated image data acquisition and analysis of this spatial data — to help shape that future. Geospatial tools and broad-scale monitoring are opening burgeoning spaces for environmental, humanitarian, and social justice efforts with a focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. A 2020 report from the Journal of Humanistic and Social Inquiry (1) describes Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as an indispensable response methodology and tool for the humanitarian sector, though the power and full utilization of this technology is still somewhat novel and grossly under-utilized.
High-resolution Earth-observation mapping and climate data analyses provide a capability to understand and evaluate complex changes to local environments and global systems that represent both temporally-restricted and prolonged external influences on climatic instability. Earth-observation data have been used to identify, characterize, and monitor the complexity of current environmental challenges, including biodiversity stores and loss, markers of general ecosystem health, and natural disaster frequency and intensity, as well as humanitarian factors including human population growth, agriculture, and local and global food and water stores. Monitoring ecologically-sensitive areas and world biological diversity reserves, like tropical rainforests, are critical: our world as we know it, our atmosphere, our life-supporting climate, cannot exist without.
A fresh burn scar was imaged by PlanetScope along the Xingu River in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. Image copyright 2016 Planet Labs.
From August 2019 to June 2020, over 11,000 sq km of the Amazon was deforested, the highest rate since 2008. While activities in the developed world have seem to have paused for a deep breath and self-reflection, the climate threats we face and their root causes power on.
While this monitoring and characterization is absolutely necessary for meeting the global challenges we collectively face, scientists are faced with a gap between knowledge of the destruction and irreversible losses suffered, and the wisdom to produce actionable change. The current efforts are necessary, but not sufficient.
A UN.org summation (2) of a 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report (3) reads as follows:
Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’;
Current global response insufficient;
‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature;
Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good;
Most comprehensive assessment of its kind: 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction
The UN OCHA (Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), Relief Web, and UNOSAT (UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme) are major providers of geospatial data to the humanitarian sector. Though, it is the largely recognized that major gaps still exist within the UN framework to best utilize these assets for protecting the environment, supporting women and other vulnerable communities, promoting peace, assessing water reserves and use, and supporting the economies and autonomy of local communities (4). Marrying this technology and humanitarian efforts together has shown an incredibly effective tactic, yet there is a systemic lack of global interconnectedness that is said to be the link in uniting individual movements to produce mass, global change. A 2016 UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report (4) on climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts and current gaps and implementation needs were elucidated, identifying Essential Climate Variables (ECVs). The ECVs are critical for monitoring globally-essential ecosystems, and therefore, the populations that they support. As noted throughout this WMO report, independent checks as reported on the ground are not present; this results in a fundamental knowledge gap regarding any given population's, including vulnerable Indigenous population's, use of ECVs as resources. There remains a lack of documented reporting and metrics-gathering on the impacts of commercial use of resources, and community autonomy and cultural survival.
The southern Brazilian state of Paraná, is imaged here by PlanetScope. The bottom right is the lush green forest of Iguazú National Park; the top left is a patchwork of plowed sugar cane farms. Image copyright 2016 Planet Labs.
A 2020 report by the World Resources Institute(5) identified securing land rights of Indigenous peoples and other local communities in the Amazon as a low-cost way to counter global deforestation and climate change.
The consequences of a changing climate and other broad-scale factors that result in economic and environmental inequality certainly differentially effect historically disenfranchised peoples. It is becoming apparent that this is especially true for women around the world. Although Indigenous women and women in rural and poorer communities often have the important societal roles of managing familial water and community agriculture — and thus, face even greater challenges with a changing climate — they are systematically silenced (as indicated in a recent Eos article (6) of a report from Garcia-Drigo et al., 2020) (7). Amazonian Defender Nina Gualinga (8), Ecuadorean Indigenous movement leader has described her community's incredible experiences in defending their home against illegal resource development in this way: systematic violence against Earth is systematic violence against women. Amazonian Defenders are among many Indigenous groups who implore international agencies like the UN to enact on-the-ground strategies to defend women and others protecting their homelands from illegal ecological extraction; often, they are physically brutalized as are their lands. In 2012, at only 18 years old, Gualinga appealed to the UN Inter-American Court of Human Rights and helped win a human rights and lands protection case that Amnesty International called "a key victory" (9). Gualinga expresses that the current and pressing needs to build support for on-the-ground land protection efforts include: building resistance networks around the world, bringing Indigenous peoples’ social movements together; enabling these connections to be forged; co-creating resistance strategies; and creating platforms to share stories and experiences.
From the 2019 IPBES report (3): "Regional and global scenarios currently lack and would benefit from an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems, and their desired future development pathways. Recognition of the knowledge, innovations and practices, institutions and values of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities and their inclusion and participation in environmental governance often enhances their quality of life, as well as nature conservation, restoration and sustainable use. Their positive contributions to sustainability can be facilitated through national recognition of land tenure, access and resource rights in accordance with national legislation, the application of free, prior and informed consent, and improved collaboration, fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use, and co-management arrangements with local communities."
There exists an opportunity for a broad change in perspective, an opportunity to listen instead of speak. This time invites us as never before to be guided foremost by a sense of cognitive justice and intellectual equality, and through this lens we can see that empowering indigenous peoples and elevating their voices is the act of protecting environmentally-sensitive lands that the very fabric of our climate depends upon. In Gualinga’s words, these peoples are the protectors, they are the knowledge-holders regarding protection and sustainability of the land: protecting these peoples is protecting the land.
Enter: the sufficient work.
This unique time in human existence calls for shifts in perspective and approach. For the Earth scientists, we are being called out of our silos of academic pursuits and the privileged intelligentsia. More and more data, better and more sophisticated methods of measuring and understanding the existential crises we collectively face are not serving to produce clearly actionable narratives or a step-wise series of actions that will tackle these challenges. I see this path forward as moving beyond our woefully inadequate, broad-scale science communication, and the ever-beckoning question of how to adequately convey our data and conclusions and their implications. As we know, unfortunately, data and facts do not move people to action; they do not create actionable change. A unique role for Earth scientists at this crossroads of human existence is to instead become that change, wielding the power of data and technological tools into post-modernity, to collaborate, to offer those tools and knowledge to those who need them in real-time to become empowered to protect themselves, their land, and consequently, the Earth.
Earth scientists must change along with these times and become systems thinkers. Systems thinking changes our scientific paradigm, historically rooted in a reductionist, compartmentalization framework, and reorients us a more holistic approach. This approach does not concern with producing the answer, but it is the acknowledgement that Western science is only one thread in an interconnected braid of ways of being and ways of thinking. Within this larger, dynamic framework of systems thinking, it may become possible to integrate commercial space data companies and non-profit efforts, with philanthropic efforts and academia; this is also an integration with — and, critically, guided by the needs of — Indigenous communities and community-lead organizations. These partnerships, for every stakeholder involved, are investments in no less than the continued existence of life on Earth as we know it. In this holistic approach, partnerships serve as a platform for justice, prosperity, and sustainability. This model is tailor-made for geospatial data and tools: in a time that a deep understanding of the state of the planet is imperative, Earth and space scientists are well-positioned to provide NGOs and community partners with tools such as spatial data analysis, to offer assistance with analytical tools, and to share working-knowledge of remote-sensing data products and the immense power of their use. Using the tools of modernity as tools of empowerment holds incredible potential for real change: a necessary lever with which to bend the arc of history. These tools can provide a critical avenue for local communities to delineate the boundaries of their lands and to communicate illegal encroachment, use, or theft of those lands to larger governmental or global organizations to request support, demand enforcement, and to have a voice with which to build resistance networks and global support and awareness.
An incredibly successful methodology (10) of this kind has been provided by The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT). ACT is an NGO that serves Indigenous and other local communities in the Amazon to protect tropical forests and strengthen traditional culture. Partnering with commercial geospatial data companies like ESRI and Mapbox, ACT has worked to create free and open-source software custom-made specifically for used by Indigenous communities. For example, Web Applications (e.g., Terrastories) and other tools have been built for offline-use for remote communities to map land boundaries, and to document and curate the oral traditions and spiritual and resource significance of those lands. Such self-reporting of cultural significance of land and land boundaries, use, and management is an important and powerful method of a self-sustaining system. Metrics are thus organically gathered to support environmental and social governance. Such community-driven avenues of gathering metrics on their own lands and its use – particularly, degradation via “legal” and illegal encroachment – was suggested in a 2016 WMO UN SDGs implementation report (4) as important factors to measure sustainability and societal impact. Importantly, tools that are built for and used by these communities puts the power for governance initiatives and self-determination directly into their hands.
Chiribiquete National Park, Columbia. Image copyright 2018 Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).
"...in partnership with private and government entities, ACT worked toward the historic 2017 expansions of two Indigenous reserves to the south of Chiribiquete. These expansions connected Chiribiquete to Colombia’s largest Indigenous reserve, the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve, creating a vast conservation corridor in the Amazon region and linking approximately 10 million hectares of protected land."
This is a new paradigm for Earth-monitoring science: a new framework that focuses squarely on technologically connecting people with their land by providing the tools to closely monitor and care for their ecosystems, their ways of life, and their very sovereignty. Consequently, this may be the first line of defense for the Earth against climate change. The emergence of this new partnership paradigm is entered into with a “servant leadership” perspective to consciously combat extractive practices (with its heavy historical weight of resultant environmental degradation and ancestral knowledge vacuums). Building a space of cognitive justice, sustainable business partnerships can be forged via direct dialogue with stakeholders – particularly local community or Indigenous leaders or activist organization leaders – by building protocols, systems, and other collaborative efforts on a platform of intellectual equality.
This may be a subtle, subversive tactic to break the spell of corporate capitalism and the historical force of colonialism: a narrative that suppresses all but dominant orientations of the world. It is a power structure that creates wealth only as it creates concomitant poverty. This includes, of course, environmental poverty; as Bayo Akomolafe writes, it ... prevents us from meeting a universe so abundantly rich ... we impoverish ourselves in our denial of its significance. Thus, it is a power structure which is innately insecure, both hostile and fragile. While this may be the very time to dismantle these ways of thinking and being, but may we not give in to magical thinking that our global challenges will all be okay one day when the machine of corporate capitalism and the ravages of colonialism have ceased. As elucidated by the Stockdale Paradox, let us see things as they truly are, in this moment. This is the moment, and this is the world, from which we must move forward. May we take the technological tools and the learnings and the best that modernity has to offer, and move forward with them, using them intentionally for peace and justice into a new era.
This is the moment. May we remove the sleep from our eyes and empower ourselves to empower others. May we not bury ourselves in the privilege and comfort of complacency. And may we not be lured into the deadening and stagnant normalcy of apocalyptic thinking; to persevere through our challenges, may we act in a solidarity that reflects our acknowledgment as part of the whole, and charge forward with unshakable determination. As Natasha Myers (11) has said, we must resist the lure of apocalypse like our life depends on it — because, collectively, it does. There may be no better sentiment to galvanize action than that of the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg: let us choose courage over cynicism.
As paraphrased from the words of Charles Eisenstein:
In times of immense upheaval, humans have both incited and gone through the uncomfortable passage of paradigm shift. It is not making the impossible, possible, but changing the basic assumptions. Change happens through our interactions and activism, where we learn about ourselves and about the convergence of these intellectual frameworks as an avenue to understand a given crisis and its solutions. Otherwise is political bypass, avoiding issues that all have to be dealt with together, including: environmental, interpersonal, spiritual, community, physical and emotional well-being.
"We call it ‘the Avatar tree’ a massive ficus on Las Piedras. An ancient treasure, one of thousands." Photo and words of Paul Rosolie. This image was published by Monagay Bay in a 2014 interview with Paul Rosolie. (12)
(1) Ortiz, D. (2020) Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in Humanitarian Assistance: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Humanistic and Social Inquiry, Vol, 1, Iss. 2.
(3) Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the summary of which was approved at the 7th session of the IPBES Plenary, meeting (29 April – 4 May) in Paris
(4) World Meteorological Organization, GCOS Steering Committee, 2016. The Global Observing System for Climate, GCOS 2016 Implementation Plan. GCOS-200, GOOS-214. Geneva, Switzerland.
(5) Vallejos, P. A., Veit, P.G., Tipula, P., Reyar, K., 2020. Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon. World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C. https://files.wri.org/s3fs-public/20_REP_EXEC_SUM_Indigenous_Lands_and_Mining_in_the_Amazon_web.pdf
(7) Garcia-Drigo, I., Perobelli, N.,, Piatto, M. (2020) Gender in municipal climate change
mitigation and adaptation plans: the case of the creation of the plan for Piracicaba, Brazil, Perspectiva Imaflora, n. 09
(11) Natasha Myers (2018) “How to grow livable worlds: Ten not-so-easy steps,” in The World to Come, edited by Kerry Oliver Smith, Harn Museum of Art, Gainsville, Florida, p. 53-63.