David Tebbutt, Teblog
You can't beat a good slogan for grabbing attention. And, to prove it, here I am writing about Cisco's and NASA's 'Planetary Skin', a global monitoring system to look at environmental conditions around the world, with a particular focus on carbon and climate change.
The idea is to grab real-time environmental information from every form of sensor, space-, air- and surface-based, and digest and deliver it in a way that will help companies, governments, decision-makers at the international level make better-informed decisions about climate change and about the development of a decarbonized economy.
The project rang loud and horrible bells in my head. Didn't I write about something similar some 20 years ago? Yes, it was a column in PC Dealer about the United Nations Environment Programme which was establishing a Global Resource Information Database (GRID) to 'gather and analyse information from space and ground stations about changes in climate and renewable natural resources.' On this occasion, IBM was whacking in millions of dollars' worth of equipment and software.
Sound familiar? So what's different? Well, it appears that the 'Planetary Skin' is primarily focused on carbon. It aims to look at both carbon emissions and carbon sinks across the globe. Simon Willis is Cisco's VP for public sector practice in the internet business solutions group which is leading the project. In a podcast, he pointed out that rain forests are being cut down at a rate equivalent to an area the size of England each year, a rate that is speeding up. He suggests that this is "probably the second-largest contributor to global greenhouse gases." He adds, "probably the most urgent task facing us globally at the moment, when looking at how to tackle climate change, is to reverse the incredible decline in rainforests."
This is the not unreasonable justification for starting the project there. It also happens to be technically easier than tackling urban or semi-urban environments, which are lower down the agenda.
What bothers me, more than a little, is that Cisco and NASA are bolstering their own businesses to give us a finer-grained view of what we know already. And have known for many years. Otherwise, Planetary Skin wouldn't have known where to start. Isn't the issue the horribly practical one of getting people on the ground to change their ways? This requires political and financial manoeuvring of a very high order.
We can cloak the earth in all these marvellous technologies, and inform people to the nth degre. But isn't it a bit like an obese hospital patient being told exactly what's going on in their body and being told how they should change their lifestyle yet, on leaving hospital, they head straight back to the kebab shop?
We actually know in our hearts that living a sustainable life is in the best interests of humankind. We have more than 20-years'-worth of evidence about what's going on, environmentally speaking. My fear is that this project will end up as a re-run of the Strategic Defence Initiative (Reagan's son of Star Wars). A fantastic idea, plugs into the fears of the day, gets masses of funding, but fizzles out as reality bites.
Can someone tell me I'm wrong?