An Operating System for the Planet

Environmental degradation, climate change, and overpopulation warn us that our future is in danger. Does human ingenuity offer a solution?

Jacob Galuten
Sep 15 · 6 min read
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Photo Credit: Saad Chaudhry

The Neolithic Revolution profoundly reshaped the future of Homo sapiens. Humans transitioned out of a dynamic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and began to put down roots. This birth of agriculture changed the course of society; reliability in both food and livelihood spurred exponential growth that carried the population to an astounding 7.71 billion in 2019. The global population is expected to approach 10 billion people by 2050 (Mann, 2018).

We are then faced with crucial questions: Can planet Earth sustain such a large population? Can we innovate and more effectively use our collective resources in order to sustain such a large population?

In the past, it has been logical to grow food in one place, then transport it to cities. This is becoming outdated and unsustainable in an age of often-occurring natural disasters and increasing energy prices. When a monsoon destroyed China’s wheat crops in 2010, the Arab populous was starving, in desperate need of their wheat import from China. This became a catalyst for riots and ultimately the short-lived Arab Spring. There is a connection between the Arab Spring and the Arabs’ dependency on foreign exports of wheat. “No country in the [Arab] region (except for Syria) produces more than a small fraction of the wheat it consumes,” and “should the global markets be unable to provide” steady wheat import, “the food of the poor will become inaccessible to them” (Zuryk, 2011, para. 3). This vulnerability in citizens’ livelihood is a direct result of our unstable and unpredictable system of food production and distribution. A lack of autonomy has created a fragile global market that can easily be disrupted.

Moreover, current farming practices destroy biodiversity and pollute the environment. Outdated agricultural machinery emits carbon dioxide gas, and so does the common practice of draining wetlands to create palm oil plantations. Wetlands “store between 530 and 694 billion tons of carbon dioxide globally,” and when drained, they “release that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere” (Flavelle, 2019, para. 18). Livestock farming has a similar negative effect; cows, for example, are large producers of methane gas. These outdated farming practices are inefficient and not sustainable in the long run.

Current farming practices are also dependent on a relatively predictable climate. Runaway climate change, therefore, poses a serious challenge to farmers around the world. To give one example, droughts caused by climate change have resulted in widespread famine in Guatemala. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that “In 2018, drought-related crop failures directly affected one in 10 Guatemalans and caused extreme food shortages for almost 840,000 people” (Lakhani, 2019, para. 14). Ricardo Rapallo, the head of food security at FAO, added, “Without doubt climate and environmental changes impact food security. For those who depend on agriculture the situation is very precarious . . .” (Lakhnai, 2019, para. 18). Not only are global food systems unsustainable, but they will become even more threatened as the population grows.

Climate change carries other terrifying implications as well. The relationship between climate temperature and forest fires is exponential. Park Williams, a Columbia University climate scientist, explained that the situation is much worse than one might expect. Every individual degree that the regional temperature goes up “results in way more fire than the previous degree of warming did” (Meyer, 2019, para. 7).

In addition, climate change has a damaging effect on our ability to harvest natural resources. Sunlight and wind speed are becoming far less predictable. Even more concerning is our diminishing global water supply. Jordan, for example, is experiencing critical water scarcity. Currently, Jordan’s “renewable water supply meets only half of the population’s water demands” (USAID, 2019, para. 1). Jordan is experiencing its worst drought in hundreds of years, just one climate-related disaster among many.

With a rapidly increasing population, issues related to food production and climate change become especially hazardous, as inefficiencies in food production become amplified. These weaknesses need to be addressed and solved before the situation becomes irreparable.

One innovative strategy suggests the use of technology to revolutionize how food is produced and to predict and possibly prevent some of the disasters resulting from climate change. Critical to agricultural innovation is the collection and utilization of big data.

Big data offers myriad possibilities for improvement. Using smart sensors, farmers can view information about their crops, allowing them to optimize their growing processes. Farmers can now monitor their fields’ pest populations remotely and take action to mitigate problems in real-time (Calderone, 2019, para. 6). Using data from hundreds of farms, humanity will develop a greater depth of understanding that could revolutionize agricultural systems and increase efficiency and stability. For example, studies show that the usage of big data makes it possible to increase the production of maize, wheat, and grain by 30% (Schlam, 2019), among other benefits.

At a data convention in April of 2019, teams utilizing a big data platform known as Planet OS were able to draft plans to mitigate global-scale issues regarding agriculture and natural resources. Analyzing soil moisture and precipitation data, one team was able to predict crop yield in Iraq and Syria and find new locations that optimize healthy growth. Another team created a system to mitigate water scarcity in Jordan through the analysis of groundwater and precipitation data.

Big data is also quickly becoming applicable to the prediction of natural disasters. One of the teams at April’s datathon fed an algorithm atmospheric, precipitation, potential vortices, and integrated water vapor transport data to predict with 70% accuracy the location and time of flash floods. Furthermore, big data provides humanity a “stronger understanding of the drivers behind wildfires,” allowing “the public and their governments [to] take proactive measures [and] reduce the damage done” (Walz, 2018, para. 7).

Humanity is in a bit of a pickle. We’ve acted like animals, with no thought for the future, and now our home is befouled and only getting worse. Through some luck and innovation, we may have found a path to survival. It may not be the complete solution, and we are far from the light at the end of the tunnel, but at least big data gives us some semblance of progress and direction; we know what to do next. If nothing else, big data gives humanity a sliver of hope, a chance for us to think our way out of a problem larger than ourselves and save everything.

The Planet OS Datahub provides free access to high-quality earth science data and is routinely updated with new datasets. If you’d like to be notified when new data becomes available, follow Planet OS on Medium or subscribe to our email newsletter to receive future updates in your inbox.

Calderone, L. (2019, December 26). Top Article for 2019 — Smart Sensors in Farming. Retrieved from https://www.agritechtomorrow.com/article/2019/02/top-article-for-2019-smart-sensors-in-farming/11247.

Flavelle, C. (2019, August 8). Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/climate/climate-change-food-supply.html?searchResultPosition=2.

Lakhani, N. (2019, July 29). ‘People are dying’: how the climate crisis has sparked an exodus to the US. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jul/29/guatemala-climate-crisis-migration-drought-famine.

Meyer, R. (2019, July 16). California’s Wildfires Are 500 Percent Larger Due to Climate Change. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/climate-change-500-percent-increase-california-wildfires/594016/.

Schlam, O. (2019, July 15). 4 Ways Big Data Analytics Are Transforming Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.futurefarming.com/Tools-data/Articles/2019/7/4-ways-big-data-analytics-are-transforming-agriculture-450440E/.

Story by Charles C. Mann. (2018, January 24). Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/charles-mann-can-planet-earth-feed-10-billion-people/550928/.

Walz, C. (2018, June 27). Fighting Fire with Forecasting. Retrieved from https://medium.com/planet-os/fighting-fire-with-forecasting-83a30d345a0b.

Water Resources & Environment: Jordan. (2019, November 12). Retrieved from https://www.usaid.gov/jordan/water-and-wastewater-infrastructure.

Zurayk, R. (2011, July 16). Use your loaf: why food prices were crucial in the Arab spring. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/jul/17/bread-food-arab-spring.

Planet OS (by Intertrust)

Provided by Intertrust Technologies

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