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By E. Glen Weyl, Audrey Tang and ⿻ Community


⿻ may be even more core to addressing the most pressing environmental problems we face, from climate change to biodiversity loss, than even "green technologies" like clean energy are, because it provides a basis both for cooperation on developing those technologies and for establishing a positive communication with natural features that represents their interests in social decisions. As such, ⿻ may be central to the survival of the earth as a human-supporting habitat.

What does "Collaboration Across Difference" have to do with the environment? Local legends, stories, traditional religions, and many contemporary religions, spanning the length of human history, emphasize nature as a target of respect and a participant in cooperation with just as much as other humans are.

This chapter explores how ⿻ can transform our technological relationship with nature. In the past, technology has often been conceived of as a means to master nature, just as sometimes technology has previously been seen as a means to master fellow humans. Instead we explore how ⿻ can facilitate communication, cooperation and synergy with nature, empowered by data Whether we see these ecosystems as alive and sentient in their own right, or as indispensable life-support systems for human societies, these approaches will enable us to co-exist with nature more sustainably.

Human activities — particularly our reliance on non-renewable energy sources — have profoundly altered the Earth since the 1950s. Deforestation, global warming, ocean acidification, and mass extinctions have all escalated as the climate changes. At the beginning of the 21st century, Nobel laureate Paul Jozef Crutzen proposed the term "Anthropocene" to recognize this new epoch driven primarily by human influence.[1] Biodiversity has plummeted; between 2001 and 2014 alone, approximately 173 species vanished—25 times the historical extinction rate. During the 20th century, some 543 vertebrate species disappeared, an event that would typically unfold over 10,000 years.[2]

Of course, we humans are not immune to the effects. Air pollution alone kills nearly 6.7 million people every year, including half a million infants. In severely polluted countries, average life expectancy falls by up to six years.[3]

Data coalitions for environmental action

Climate, air quality, and water data, which often rely on government agencies for input and maintenance, are resources that benefit each other internationally. Environmental awareness has become a distinctive feature of the implementation of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, driven by open data organizations and environmental groups. The civic technology movement has opened up a new space for digital social engagement; not simply providing tools, but also actively supporting civil society to work with the government to create more environmental knowledge, which can then be developed into a public movement that coordinates the interests of multiple parties.

In Taiwan, the Location Aware Sensor System (LASS), an open-source environment sensing network, empowers ordinary citizens to gather and share information freely, developing into a model of digital communication that incorporates local wisdom through citizen science. Instead of relying on authoritative organizations to shape public perceptions, LASS embraces direct action, extending community values into environmental care.

This type of citizen science community, which covers air, forest, and river sensing, is based on the spirit of open-source rainmaking, and also contributes to the "Civil IoT" data coalition, which provides real-time sensing information updated every 3-5 minutes across the country, serving as a common ground for activists, and making it easier for ideas to solve problems to be examined and disseminated.

Data coalitions are interconnected with social movement-based civic technologies; a series of hackathon-themed fields have begun around the globe that will serve as mutually supportive gateways for mobility, acting as a technological conduit between natural environments and volunteers, and facilitating collective action on a global scale. It can be argued that the nature of collaborative networks is not just about information gathering and value re-engineering, but also about the foundation of community knowledge systems and the promotion of environmental justice.

Before conservationism was a widespread concept, conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke saw community groups as 'little platoons' – social hubs situated between individuals and the state.[4] Effective communication and cultivation are particularly important given that environmental problems often hit the most vulnerable first and hardest, such as low-income families or indigenous communities. The key is to ensure, through law and policy, that community members have an equal participation and voice in the development, resource allocation and implementation process, and that they are transformed from research subjects to data-driven actors.

Conversations with nature

Recent years have seen a growing movement to grant waterways 'natural legal personhood.' These waterways, with inherent rights and appointed guardians, include the Magpie River (Muteshekau Shipu) in Canada, the Whanganui in New Zealand, and the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India.[5] This signifies a shared commitment to preserving these ecosystems for future generations.

Shared data can be transformed by data coalitions using generative foundation models (GFMs) into means of conversation with nature. These can serve as valuable tools for knowledge sharing and collective problem-solving regarding complex, cross-border problems. In promoting environmental sustainability, GFMs demonstrate a new model of co-existence between technology and humanity. As environmental data flows through verifiable relationships, it generates value (e.g., air and water quality monitoring), sending pulses of images, sounds, and messages to engage people, offering real-time feedback to ideas and encouraging more nature-conscious partners to join the effort.

It is important to emphasize that such advances can promote a mutually beneficial cocreation relationship, allowing all parties to work more closely together with the common goal of protecting the planet. Particularly in addressing transjurisdictional environmental issues, they offer unprecedented opportunities to analyze and address complex challenges such as global climate change, biodiversity loss and water management. By engaging in direct dialogues with nature, we are able to better understand environmental change and develop effective strategies and solutions based on it.

Cogovernance across borders

Fluidity defines our natural world; oceans, rivers, and the atmosphere flow without regard for borders. Environmental solutions must transcend rigid hierarchical approaches that work within single towns, cities, or even countries. In response, we can draw from civic hacking culture, which celebrates cross-disciplinary teamwork among programmers, designers, and citizens across diverse communities.

Building GFMs models for natural environments involves challenges: open-source governance, capital and compute investments, and collaboration are key. Through GFMs, we can unlock deeper insights into our complex natural world. Scientific research and environmental management benefit from these insights, improving both and potentially reshaping society, as we have seen in the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's ongoing collaboration with IBM on a Geospatial Foundation Model based on NASA's earth observation data, tackling crucial notions of environmental justice for natural spaces and human communities alike.[6]

Just as biometrics and sociometrics help establish identity, we need better ways to establish and protect the identity of natural ecosystems like rivers. A new conceptualization of identity is in order – one that factors in the connections between individual people and the ecosystems they rely on. ⿻ publics, as explored earlier in this book, also establish and protect identity of collective entities, often devoted to cultural and care relationships. Some of these relate to natural ecosystems and can offer a foundation for conceptualizing of the identity of such an ecosystem.

Notably, this perspective transcends the often contentious debate around whether GFM systems can become legal agents; data coalitions can be viewed both as “little platoons” created by the people who benefit from the ecosystem, but also at the same time, through the legal positioning of natural personhood, the river’s digital twin can be seen as a subject with rights and responsibilities. Similarly a GFM created for whatever purpose of, by and for a community can exist both as a "person" and as a shared ⿻ good, depending on the perspective one adopts.

  1. Will Steffan, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill, "The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?" in Ross E. Dunn, Laura J. Mitchell and Kerry Ward, eds., The New World History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2016). Note that this proposal was recently rejected by the International Union of Geological Sciences. ↩︎

  2. Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven, "Vertebrates on the Brink as Indicators of Biological Annihilation and the Sixth Mass Extinction", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117, no. 24: 13596-13602. ↩︎

  3. World Health Organization, "Air Pollution Resource Guide" at ↩︎

  4. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event (London: James Dodley, 1790). ↩︎

  5. Mihnea Tanasescu, "When a River is a Person: From Ecuador to New Zealand, Nature Gets its Day in Court", Open Rivers 8, Fall 2017 at ↩︎

  6. Josh Blumenfeld, "NASA and IBM Openly Release Geospatial AI Foundation Model for NASA Earth Observation Data", NASA Earth Data August 3, 2023 at ↩︎