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Updating Bucky’s concepts

Guangyun Lake and expo site at Xi'an, one of China's 13 megacities. Satellite image from DigitalGlobe;s GeoEye-1.

Guangyun Lake and expo site at Xi’an, one of China’s 13 megacities. Satellite image from DigitalGlobe’s GeoEye-1.

Buckminster Fuller’s 1968 call for An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is being updated to match today’s satellite imaging and remote sensing capabilities. Aerospatial technologies (first prototyped for spacecraft and wars and recently highlighted in films like Gravity and Avatar) are key to an emerging goal among climate scientists to evolve Fuller’s operating manual concept (logically a paper document in his day) towards Al Gore’s 1992 ‘Digital Earth’ vision of ubiquitous global environmental monitoring.

With powerful surveillance equipment hosted on hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth (using invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum to probe beyond human vision), it is feasible to increasingly automate responses to our planet’s environmental challenges.

Governments are co-ordinating ‘spatial data infrastructure’ to support a vast ambition called the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. Launched in 2005 (the same year as Google Earth), GEOSS involves 90 nations and approx 77 science agencies. Co-ordinated by the Group on Earth Observations in Geneva, it will provide an online gateway to distributed caches of public data to be used to help solve humanity’s crises and challenges.

Spaceship Earth was the title of a 1966 book by English policy strategist Barbara Ward, which influenced American and British government responses to early ecological debates. On 7 December 1972, one newswire photo popularised her perspective: NASA image AS17-148-22726, taken by crew on Apollo 17 on its way to the Moon. Known as the Blue Marble, this image was humanity’s first-ever sight of the whole Earth. (It followed partial views of an ‘Earthrise’, taken from Apollo 8 in 1968.)

This exhibition highlights how remote sensing is providing us with tools to virtually manage our planet. Comparable to medical science’s project to map the human genome, GEOSS is an essential management tool for housekeeping our Sun-circling habitat – with potential to ensure the longevity of our species.

—By Davina Jackson, co-editor of the 2012 GEOSS/Digital Earth ‘snapshot report’, online here.