Earth's Vital Signs

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Jenny Frankel-Reed

Society’'s great scientific capacity to measure and interpret the world and the role of humans in nature has failed to translate into improved environmental stewardship. Modern environmental challenges are often difficult to see, distant in time and space from their sources, and threaten global consequences. The increasing complexity and chronic rather than acute nature of today's environmental problems requires a revolution of decision making — the systematic integration of earth’s vital signs.


Signals detected by scientists about earth's natural patterns and processes and the impacts of humans on these processes are earth's signs - indicators of what can be seen as either ecological health or the capacity of the earth to accommodate human demands. The conditions of earth's systems tend to be worsening on a global scale, but vary dramatically from place to place. Human decisions about how to live on earth drive these trends and can potentially reverse their negative directions.

Policymakers, public interest organizations, universities, and governments can utilize earth's signs to better manage human and environmental well-being. Policymakers' decisions about sustainable practices in land- and resource-dependent sectors can be backed by scientific understanding about the effects of policies on resources. Citizens can demand better environmental stewardship from their leaders at local to global scales with improved access to and translation of relevant earth information at the proper scale. Governments and enforcement bodies can strengthen their monitoring capabilities and base development decisions on the latest information about trends in human impacts on earth.


Three distinct approaches to integrating earth's vital signs come from the scientific community, public interest organizations, and enforcement bodies.

Scientific institutions can collaborate to reach audiences in need of earth-related information to solve problems. The work of earth observation agencies to collect and disseminate data and images to important users like humanitarian aid agencies provides one example. Disaster prevention, response, and rebuilding are information-intensive. This fact is illustrated time and time again in the wake of natural disasters. For example, in Asia in 2005, an immediate need emerged in tsunami-affected areas for earth observation and environmental data to help in assessing damage, reaching victims and rebuilding resilient communities. In response to this need, an alliance of European and International organizations is working with the humanitarian community to improve access to maps, satellite imagery and geographic information (The CGIAR-CSI Data Sharing Platform). This kind of effort by the scientific community to ensure that information actually comes back 'down to earth' opens a host of possibilities for more sustainable decisionmaking if scientists in other fields can repeat it. Scientists from communities researching water, pollution and future risks from global warming could create similar initiatives to ensure the information that they gather becomes integrated in decisionmaking in water-scarce areas, in clean water and air policies, and for promoting climate change adaptation in development strategies, to name a few.

Another way earth’s signs are integrated into decisionmaking is by concerned public interest groups and universities gathering, translating and communicating trends that reflect environmental sustainability to motivate improved environmental governance. The outcomes of resource and land management policies such as energy, fisheries, forests, water, urban planning and rural development can be extrapolated from existing environmental data. A key challenge however, is translating scientific information to connect to the public and policymakers. In examples from around the world, organizations locate data reflecting the condition of impacted resources, create indicators of stewardship or sustainability from these data, and translate their findings into insightful measurements, models and maps that are publicly available and understandable to broader audiences. Clarifying the connections between political and business decisions and environmental outcomes can promote environmentally sustainable decisions and reverse negative trends if decisionmakers are held accountable to these indicators. Scorecards of environmental performance (Environmental Performance Index), policy-wise ecological assessments (Hudson River Foundation), and regional indicators and indices of sustainability (Cascadia Scorecard) have the potential to become a systematic part of policymaking if leaders are held accountable for their performance on these measures of earth's vital signs. Currently, information is not available at the right scales and frequently enough for such assessments to be carried in every context, but an increase in reporting has been proven to stimulate better information gathering.

Earth monitoring information has also been used by enforcement agencies, environmental organizations, and governments to improve accountability for the environmental impacts of business practices. Satellite imagery and other sources of management practices can be used to monitor natural resources on public lands, in protected areas, human settlements, etc. One example comes from an initiative in Central Africa’s Congo Basin, an important wood products exporting region to Europe (Global Forest Watch). European procurement standards are the highest in the world, and buyers often demand legally and sustainably harvested wood from their suppliers. A system to monitor the legality and sustainability of forestry operations has emerged that utilizes satellite imagery, tracking whether harvested areas conform to legally-agreed boundaries and harvest rates. By making the findings publicly accessible, consumers use the information in procurement decisions and market pressure can promote better management by companies. Similar innovative applications of earth information can capitalize on market forces and encourage sustainable resource management if public concern is tangible.


Integrating earth's signs throughout decisionmaking requires that environmental information is widely available, connections between management practices and environmental outcomes are understood, environmental implications of policies are translated to the public and policymakers, and that the environmental performance of governments and companies is publicly disseminated. Replication of existing initiatives and further innovations can help to ensure that decisionmaking balances human impacts with the health of the planet.

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We need a revolution of decision making and awareness in order to tackle the complexity and urgent nature of our environmental problems. Earth's Vital Signs are indicators of ecological health or the earth's capacity to accommodate human demands. Human decisions about how to live on earth currently drive unsustainable trends. They can also help us change course.

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Information about introductory graphic: 
Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) exhibited at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, USA; Photo: Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) ; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.