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Jeff Thurston — "In a geospatial sense, one of our goals as a community is that we have
the tools to understand, learn and explain to each other the
relationships of the earth’s resource status and health in relation to
development. The value of this role is perhaps one of the highest and
most important to our community and to the world – which is why
geospatial folks should consider themselves as primary stewards of the

Matt Ball — "There’s an ever-increasing body of knowledge about human health,
because we all want to live long and healthy lives. We acknowledge the
importance of research into disease and illnesses, and we fund that
research in order to continuously enhance the quality of our collective
health. It would be nice to see the same level of global commitment to
the health of our planet."

This column is sponsored by


There are a number of parallels between
the stewardship of our planet and the healthcare of humans. The most
identifiable are long term nature, education, environment, role of
technology and requirement for investment. We can probably include
other terms such as efficiency, optimisation and sustainability. In a
more direct sense, healthcare for humans is impacted by clean air,
water, healthy food and, I believe, space.

The term stewardship is a term that I first came across while being
involved in agricultural and forest research. Farm producer’s speak
about stewardship in terms of having a sense of responsibility for the
land they are managing. It is really simple to increase farm output,
provided one has adequate resources like water, good weather and inputs
– which implies boundless financial resources. This is not usually the
case. However, intensive farming without a sense of stewardship is
solely about production. We used to call this ‘farm mining’, implying a
sense of extraction from potential sustainable land resource.

A similar example exists for fisheries. If
we look at oceans as solely being unlimited pools of water and sources
of fish production, then they will deteriorate, become unsustainable
and lead toward the inability to produce. Other examples can be used
for almost all other planetary resources.

Sustainability is implied in stewardship. But I want to touch on a
few other concepts which, unfortunately, have led to confusion in the
public mind because they have not been properly re-enforced or
explained by the academic community.

Conservation, Preservation, Development
These three terms have not been properly explained in useful ways to
the general public by the academic community. Many people confuse
conservation with preservation and development has somehow been
assigned a label of wickedness and something negative – which is far
from truth.

Conservation implies a sense of sustainability. It is closest to
sustainability. It involves change, for example, when food is produced,
trees are harvested, fish are caught, urban centers are expanded and so
on. Operations take place, the existing state of the land changes and
different management practices are then acted upon to bring the land
into a different state. Managing these changes requires monitoring,
application and processing of information through the use of tools like
GIS, remote sensing, GPS, total stations and so on.

Preservation is more connected with a
piece of land or a resource being preserved. It usually does not
involve many operations, although good preservation implies that
monitoring is ongoing through the use of geospatial tools to ascertain
any changes.  It is wrong to believe preservation will result in no
change. I can assure you that the fires in California on land preserves
will change those land bases significantly. Similarly, Arctic
preservation areas will change through climate change and even the most
parts of the oceans are constantly changing.  There is less involvement
by man in those areas where preservation is involved, as compared to
conservation areas.

Development is a critical part of the
equation because it links natural to man-made actions with the purpose
of sustaining human life. Without development life expectancy is
reduced. The challenge of development is to balance growth against
stewardship responsbilities – sustainability. Many people have
different opinions on this and whether or not it can be achieved,
particularly since it is highly related to population.

In a geospatial sense, one of our goals as
a community is that we have the tools to understand, learn and explain
to each other the relationships of the earth’s resource status and
health in relation to development. The value of this role is perhaps
one of the highest and most important to our community and to the world
– which is why geospatial folks should consider themselves as primary
stewards of the planet.

Human Health Care
The parallel between the planet and human health care rings
truest around the issue of development — conservation. Clearly we cannot
remain the same age, in a state of preservation, although some might
like that (it is hard to imagine that).

Optimal health is achieved through education about what is needed to
ensure sustainable, healthy living. Technology is used through our
lives at specific points in time for particular and sometimes emergency
reasons, to balance and ensure continuous healthy living – just like we
apply geospatial tools to monitor and balance the resources and our
understanding of the planet.

Social and Financial Aspects

Most people know I am Canadian and thus have experienced social health
care. At the present time I live in Germany, which also has socialised
health care. I am not familiar with privatised health care to a large
extent – and I don’t want to veer this discussion into that. However,
it is important, I think, that we recognise that governments and
institutions have a role in health care for humans as they do for the

I seriously doubt that satellite systems for monitoring the world’s
resources would exist without these agencies support initially.
Similarly, other social agencies like the United Nations Environment
Program, NASA, ESA, national agricultural agencies, state and provinces
and so on, all contribute toward education and balancing the
stewardship equation.

At the same time, we need to recognise
that businesses create wealth, provide innovation and technologies that
can be applied in society. The Berlin Wall fell for many sustainability
reasons – and we need to remain conscious of that.

Planetary stewardship is dependent upon adequate use of technologies
that contribute toward ensuring we have the data we need to understand
and decide about the status of our planet. SDI and GSDI all tie into
this becoming a reality. GMES in Europe is directly concerned about
this relationship as well. The connection of environment to security is
critically important to understand.

Have you ever felt stressed out by noise? Have you ever felt
stressed by too many people around you all the time? Have environments
that were too hot, cold, wet or dry caused you to feel uncomfortable?
Then you probably understand the relationship of environment to health

We do not make policies. But our industry
can contribute valuable information about environments throught he use
of our tools to those that do. In this sense we are also environmental
stewards and health stewards.

The earth consists of a finite amount of resources. Even without people
on it, it would change. We have to be careful when we imply that
conservation and preservation do not imply change, because they do. But
at the same time, those changes can be managed through the use of
geospatial tools and applications. Generated information can be used to
educate, inform, make decisions and conduct sustainable development.

Geospatial professionals are stewards of
human health and the world. The effectiveness in what we do and can
contribute toward stewardship for each of these is related to how well
we monitor them, invest in them – and take responsibility for them.


The stewardship of our planet has many parallels to the healthcare
system for the treatment and prevention of illness and disease in
humans. For starters, human biology is a balance of systems much in the
same way that our planet’s biosphere is a balance of systems. Similar
to how modern medicine tackles human health issues, we tend to take
both a medical and social approach to eradicating the ills of our
planet. An example of a medical approach is the determination of
point-source pollution, while a social approach deals with the effort
to modify our lifestyle choices in order to make our planet healthier.

While the healthcare system is far from perfect, there have been
dramatic improvements to quality of life and human longevity. The way
that we care for our planet could learn much from the systemized
approach that is taken for patient care, particularly through the
application of interdisciplinary teams.

Treatment Escalates with Severity
When you’re ill, you go to a general practitioner and your symptoms
are used to form a diagnosis and treatment plan. If your symptoms are
easily recognizable and treatable, a prescription is given and you’re
left to apply medications and heal. If you have a more serious illness,
you’re referred to a specialist who deals specifically with your type
of ailment, and has better insight into an effective course of
treatment. If you’re really ill, then you’re admitted to a hospital
where your care is supported by a broad range of workers that are all
focused on making you better.

At a hospital, each person on the team deals with your care.
Specialists take a close look at the treatment that’s been prescribed
by your primary doctor, and consult their own domain expertise to mesh
their treatment with what’s already been prescribed. A large body of
support workers are there to administer treatment, feed and care for
you, and mend you as quickly as they can.

When it comes to the health of our planet, the general practitioner
isn’t necessarily present. There are a cadre of specialists that work
to address the many issues involved in our planet’s health, but our
understanding of the interworkings of our planet’s systems isn’t very
mature. Measured steps can be taken to right the course of large
planetary issues, with some impressive measures of success (e.g. the
ozone hole), but we don’t have an easy means for interdisciplinary
treatment of the very broad and complex problems such as climate change.

Side Effects Are Expected
With the health of our planet, the root cause of large issues aren’t
always readily apparent, and the damage that we cause through our
ignorance can last generations. Major changes by individuals that alter
the landscape or planetary systems can have implications that are only
apparent many years down the road, after the health of the land is
further compromised.

Certainly medicine undergoes similar issues, particularly when new
drugs are prescribed. Side effects of treatment are accepted, and
sometimes these side effects can be quite severe. Side effects offer a
complex decision about trade-offs that needs justification by
individual patient or projects. Sometimes taking measured steps toward
our goals of better health or remediation are enough to justify
unpleasant ancillary outcomes.

Mapping and Modeling
Advances in medical science have given us much better insight into
the way our bodies work. The discovery of DNA gave us insight into our
building blocks to understand how individuals are different. The Human
Genome Project (HGP) was an amazing accomplishment to decipher and map
the 25,000 genes of the human genome for insight into physical and
functional details of how we differ.

Continued efforts to understand the connections and inner workings
of the human genome will provide benefits, particularly in preventive
medicine. Companies have arisen to decode and test for specific markers
to help patients determine their likelihood for certain cancers, and
give these people advance warning to proactively deal with the issue if
there’s a match. Scientists are now working to map 50 cancer genomes, a
project that is 25,000 times larger than the output of the HGP, and a
very worthy goal considering the impact of this disease.

When it comes to mapping the human body, great advancements have
been made to create detailed virtual models to assist students in their
knowledge and understanding. In fact, medical students now rely heavily
on these virtual models instead of cadavers, and autopsy rates are well
below 10% now, given our advanced understanding of trauma and disease.

There are obvious parallels between mapping and modeling the human
body and our planet. The more information that we can discover, map and
model of both ourselves and our planet, the better we’ll do in managing
the health, well being and longevity of both.

Mandate for Health
There’s an ever-increasing body of knowledge about human health,
because we all want to live long and healthy lives. We acknowledge the
importance of research into disease and illnesses, and we fund that
research in order to continuously enhance the quality of our collective
health. It would be nice to see the same level of global commitment to
the health of our planet.

Most wealthy industrialized nations provide universal healthcare to
their populations. Even without publicly funded healthcare, our health
is something that we safeguard and we pay into. For some inexplicable
reason, the health of our planet becomes a politicized issue, with a
lack of consensus about spending what’s needed to fix the problems that
we’ve created.

While we’re slowly gaining a better understanding of our complex
impacts, a more measured approach would provide a much more efficient
and effective answer to our planet’s needs. We need to see the coming
together of our knowledge base in order to treat the perils of our
planet in a holistic fashion.

Similar to a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, those disciplines that
administer to the health of our planet are ethically bound to leave the
Earth better than they found it. Taking actions with the best knowledge
available can’t be faulted. While mistakes do happen treating both
patients and our planet, it’s the responsibility of professionals in
both domains to provide full disclosure and take corrective action.


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