Seeing like a Planet: From Global Consciousness to Global Conscience

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University of Michigan

By Michelle Wai-Hon Lam
University of Michigan

On December 7, 1972 – at 5:39am EST to be exact – astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission took a photograph that transformed how we saw our home, Earth. This was the first time we saw a planet, our planet. Fast-forward 50 years and technology has once again provided us with a transformative vision. With current and projected capabilities in Earth observation, the possibility of knowing our planet, in real time even, is not an impossible dream, but a rather straightforward one. The real challenge lies in what we do with this knowledge, how we apply it and to what end. Knowledge is transformative. The so-called Blue Marble image of 1972 was pivotal in driving awareness during early years of environmental activism. Looking ahead, the most exciting, not to mention crucial, transformation Earth observation can give us is to not only develop our knowledge of the Earth, but to help us cultivate an identity and conscience that encompasses the entire globe. Only then will we be truly moving toward a more sustainable world.

Knowledge is not neutral

For the title of this essay I have borrowed from James C. Scott’s seminal critique on high modernism, “Seeing Like a State.” One of his theses is that 19th century technological advances, including those in the production of statistical knowledge, allowed the “discovery of society as a reified object,”1 by the state, which made society “an object that the state might manage and transform with a view toward perfecting it.”2 Such a view on society and ambition of molding it may seem naïve with today’s post- modern hindsight. But Scott is right to caution the enthusiasm for technology that fuelled modernism’s hubris is very much present today, and I would like to draw a parallel caution toward how we develop and use Earth observation technologies going forward. Knowledge is inherently value-laden; what values do we want to frame our knowledge of Earth?

Can we have sustainability without equity?

Earth observation technologies have already allowed us to gather, analyze and share information about the Earth with unprecedented accuracy, breadth and timeliness. With the maturing of the consumer Internet and the advent of the Industrial Internet, the promise of what technology entrepreneur Larry Smarr calls “the sensor-aware planetary computer,” is not far off.3 The imperative driving recent investments thus far has been the quest for efficiency, especially energy efficiency. While this is central to tackling our environmental challenges – and in a way that could meet economic ones also – it risks eclipsing the distributional question of whose efficiency? Scott Campbell captured this succinctly with his “Planner’s Triangle”: in striving for sustainable development, we encounter the three conflicting priorities of environmental protection (resource efficiency), economic growth, and social justice.4 Such conflicts are ever present; from Occupy Wall Street to COP17, questions of equity and distribution are both invigorating and stymieing negotiations, discourse and the political process. We cannot move toward a more sustainable world without addressing them.

We have but one Earth

And this is why I am hopeful for what continued development of Earth observation technologies can bring. It will bring knowledge that is global; we can know our entire planet better. But in order to monitor and understand the full effects of human activity we will be forced to cross borders and see the Earth and mankind, holistically, as one. Global warming is a crisis we all face. Pollutants, be they in the air or water, recognize no boundaries. Choices we make in our everyday lives have an impact on others that we must be made aware of, and have factored into our decision-making. And we must find ways to work together.

In our bid to live sustainably, knowing is not enough. We cannot simply place our faith in science and technology to find our way out of our environmental challenges. To succeed, we need to develop a collective respect for the planet and all who inhabit it. Fortunately, the potential is here with Earth observation technologies to do just that, to develop both global consciousness and a global conscience.

1 Scott, James C.. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. p. 91

2 Ibid. p. 92


3 Lohr, Steve. (2011, December 17). The Internet gets Physical. The New York Times.

4 Campbell, Scott. “Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities? Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development,” Journal of the American Planning Association, 62 (3) (Summer 1996), p. 296- 312