By Fouad Khan
Central European University, Budapest
One of the factors that led to enlightenment and the transformation of European nations from feudal societies to industrialized market economies was the standardization of the bushel size. The bushel was used as an instrument of exploitation by the feudal class. Nobody knew exactly how much a bushel was. Sometimes it was filled up to the brim, sometimes a lot more. Bushels of similar volume but greater base area would contain even more wheat when filled, compared to bushels with smaller base areas. The actual bushel size depended entirely on the whim of the feudal buyer and was used to subtly control prices. Standardization in bushel size was one of the peasant’s earlier demands and it freed them from a sort of economic slavery. And what was bushel size but information; the awareness of a certain fact that a critical mass of humanity seemed to agree on.
The fact is, the history of increasingly free societies is the history of increasingly more aware societies. Information is to free societies what a lubricant is to an engine; once its flow falls below a certain level, friction, wear and tear sets in and the gears of progress eventually grind to a halt. In many ways, the defining conundrum of our times, and our shocking lack of response to it as a global society, can also be described as an acute case of disruption in information flow.
Our awareness of global climate change as an existential crisis for human civilization is a result of and highly dependent on certain developments in information technology. These are the technological advancements that allowed us to look at our planet as one connected whole, a finite closed system carrying everything that we’ve ever held near and dear to our hearts, in the very fragile veneer of gases we call the biosphere. The environmental movement was born of this awareness and ÛÏEarth RisingÛ was the visual incarnation of this awakening. The effects of the image on every human were at once, visceral and humbling and liberating. When we saw the Earth as a whole, we knew we had to cherish it. But it was when we became able to measure Earth, to take its temperature as a whole, that we were able to identify quantitatively the malaise that ailed her. It was this information that freed us from the shackles of an ideology of unhindered consumption and destructive avarice.
Such has been the power of technologies that we’ve developed for observing Earth’s climate. As an environmental engineer working in the area of water resources management, my dealings with Earth observation technology are concerned with meteorological data, global and local topographic maps based on satellite information and imagery and other remote-sensing water resources data. Working with geo-tagged data and watching intelligible patterns emerge on GIS maps from the interplay of information and algorithm is often the most satisfying aspect of my job. After years in the industry, it still pleasantly surprises me when models running on my computer generate flow predictions with more than 90 percent accuracy. A lot of people don’t realize that modern cities are highly dependent on these models and their predictive capabilities to avoid disasters. The scale of information that we’ve integrated into the daily workings of our civilization continues to inspire awe in me.
However, as we become a more information-intensive civilization collecting more and more data and producing more and more knowledge about the planet that we call home, one very important aspect of our knowledge, something critical to our survival, seems to have been lost in the crevices of global information flow. Politics now increasingly drowns out the flow of accurate information about this one aspect of our knowledge of our planet. And just as has always been the case, the disruption in flow of information is being used to exploit some and to suppress others.
The information that I am talking about concerns the fact that we live on a finite planet. We know now with sufficient evidence that our civilization is starting to run into some key constraints pertaining to the physics of the planet that houses our civilization. We know for instance that we are running out of cheap fossil fuel and increasingly we’ll have to rely on unconventional fossils or alternatives, none of which have the energy return on energy input of oil from pre-2000s. We know that there are resource peaks that are just around the corner, including heavy and rare Earth metals. Most importantly, we have almost exhausted our biosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases (without undergoing phase change).
This information should be governing most of our decision-making processes. However, through political processes it is being flooded out in a deluge of noise and misinformation. The science is clear on this as has been demonstrated by several publications in recent years åÊÛÒ such as the work by the Stockholm institute and partners identifying nine planetary boundaries[i] (Figure 1) or Donella Meadows’ 30-year update on the famous Limits to Growth paper[ii]. Countering the science is dogma about how technology would magically stretch the limits of resources to allow growth to continue unhindered.
As always, this information war is a political issue and it is a moral issue. Like the peasants of old, the poor and most underprivileged today are the ones being most exposed to negative effects of climate change. Building an authoritative resource inventory for Earth could be the most important development in information technology in history; a decisive weapon in a war of oppression. The tools are there, all we need to do is put them together and put them to good use. Somebody just needs to say what a standard bushel looks like.