Earth Viability: Safeguarding the Health of Earth's Life-Support System


The Dashboard
Why a Dashboard?
The System Units
Essential Variables
Collapse Indicators
The Indicators
Research
Resources
Earth Observation Dashboard
World Situation Room


Introduction

This page currently presents initial thoughts on how to specify the key indicators for the Earth Viability project. The initial model discussed here applies at all scales.

The Key Factors

The health of a planet, ocean, rivershed, or forest, etc. is determined by the interactions of a complex network of stocks and flows for many different variables, including at least:

  • Physical (environmental) factors:
    • Temperature and heat;
    • Soil composition (for land areas) or water chemistry (for oceans, lakes and rivers)
    • Air Pollution
    • Flows of water, both annual totals and distribution over the year
  • Biosphere:
    • Microbes
    • Insects
    • Small animals (or fishes)
    • Large animals (or fishes)
  • Human impact that change these stocks and flows and introduce new flows:
    • Wild areas versus human transformed land;
    • Farming practices;
    • Water use
    • Mining
    • Garbage

The list of factors above is undoubtedly incomplete but will perhaps suffice for present purposes. A causal loop diagram of these stocks and flows will show that most of these stocks and flows are impacting almost every other one, i.e., this casual loop diagram will represent the complex web of the life-support system or the web of life itself.

Your Comments and Questions

Please, send us comments you might have on the thoughts discussed here. Let us know if you have any questions.

Your Comments and Questions



Your email address:

Your name:

Note that we can only answer your questions if you provide your email address. Your personal information will only be stored for the purpose of answering your questions or replying to your comment. No other use of your email address and/or name will be made.

The Crucial Question

The key question for Earth Viability project is:


How many and which variables must be monitored in order 1) to get a reasonable assessment of the current state of health and 2) to be able to see trends.


We can learn from the experience of medicine and management cybernetics, both of which are also managing exceedingly complex systems. In medicine, the human body if composed of many units such as the heart, lungs, skeleton, muscles, etc., and there are flows in the physiology that knit these parts together: blood flow, air, oxygene, water, nutrients, information, etc. People are monitored for their vital signs by variables for both the units and the flows:

  • blood pressure
  • pulse
  • temperature
  • respiration
  • height
  • weight 

When one is in the hospital, the first four are usually monitored in real time to immediately detect critical changes.

The management cybernetics approach to large organizations is to, first, define a set of nested operational units and then to devise seven plus or minus two indicators for each operational unit. The number of indicators is based on two considerations:

  1. How many things the human brain can deal with at once.
  2. The need to capture critical information about a very complex entity, e.g., a factory or group of related factories.

Clearly, seven variables are inadequate to capture the full complexity of, e.g., a factory. However, given that the management system is capturing the trends across multiple scales, looking at an average of only seven variables at each unit is adequate to not only manage the whole but also to provide early warning of critical changes that require management intervention.

The Earth Viability project needs to take the same approach that management cybernetics does, i.e., 1) define a set of nested units and 2) choose a set of seven plus or minus 2 variables fore each unit. Importantly, it will consider the flows that knit together the units. Read more ....

Experts at each scale will undoubtedly argue that seven variables are too few. However, we need to hold fast to the goal of providing a tool that laymen can use to understand 1) the state of health of the earth and 2) the trends … and because we will be dealing with nested units, the picture at any one scale does not need to be perfect.

Devising Indicators

For the moment, let us consider the list of factors presented above. Ideally, we will define seven plus or minus two variables for each unit that will capture the state of health of that unit and show the trends, including early identification of critical changes.

Here are some of the criteria for selecting variables:

  • Far Apart: The selected variables should be as far apart as possible. For instance, we do not want measures of rainfall, snow pack, and aquifer level. Similarly we do not want several different measures of insects. What we do want are variables that include as many as possible of the different factors mentioned in the first section.
  • Availability: We are obviously limited to the data that is already available because we do not have the resources to mount an independent program of measurement.
  • Timing: Do we want annual data? Or data for some other time period? There are two main considerations in answering this question: availability of the data and how fast things change within the Earth’s life support system. There is no point in providing a monitoring system that provides too much data. For instance, if the relevant changes in the Earth are over a decade, it would be counterproductive to provide monthly or even yearly data points.

There may well be other general criteria for selecting variables but these are the ones we are considering as a starting set.