Jun 5· 6 min read·
Reflections on the World Environment Day 2022
A story of transformation from limiting education to liberating scholarship
How can we achieve a greener future on only one Earth? This personal story of discovery confirms that it all starts with self-discovery and a transformed mindset that innovatively applies acquired skills to provide environmentally responsible solutions.
The Basic Principles
Environment — sounds such a familiar word! Taken for granted. Not until one studies it in detail, delving into the granularity of typologies, theories, and sub-components, among others. Gaia hypothesis is one such paradigm. Sustainable development has become a buzzword bandied around by all and sundry but usually without sparing a thought for the intricate details of interconnectedness and interdependencies that make it up. The concept of weak sustainability and strong sustainability make the discourse even more interesting.
The panoramic picture is even more captivating as the scale expands to include other spheres beyond the familiar lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Yes, cryosphere, technosphere, and anthroposphere are other sound philosophical constructs, too. In terms of era and geological ages, we even talk of the Anthropocene and Technocene when evaluating the extent of humanity’s influence on the planet.
The Rich Past
The rich history of environmental sustainability and activism can be traced back to the 18th century, featuring close connections between forestry and silver mining. In 1713, the Chief Mining Officer in Freiberg (Silver City), in the German-Czech border region of the Ore Mountains, promoted afforestation for sustainable forestry to support sustainable mining and smelting by averting a looming wood crisis.
The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm (5–16 June 1972) elevated the cause for intergenerational responsibility, laying a strong foundation for the famous 1987 Brundtland Report on Our Common Future, which featured the traditional triple pillars of the planet, people, and prosperity. It also gave the time-tested definition of sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The other important epochs in the series of conventions include the 1992 Rio de Janeiro (Rio 1992) Earth Summit and its great outcome of Agenda 21, the Rio+5 held in 1997 to review progress towards the new millennium, and the 2000 Millennium Summit in New York, which came up with the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be achieved by 2015. South Africa hosted the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development to firm up a global consensus and sustain momentum with respect to environmentally responsible development. Fast-forward to 2012 in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) and the summit yielded The Future We Want report, with provisions for the green economy and a focus on developing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 broad and interconnected SDGs (expanded Goals as Means) were launched in New York in September 2015 to replace the eight MDGs — complete with 169 targets and 232 indicators time-bound to the year 2030.
The Decade of Action towards 2030 is already running for the SDGs. Over the period of June 3–5, 2022 in Stockholm, “Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all — our responsibility, our opportunity” celebrates progress on environmental action since the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. The World Environment Day is celebrated on June 5 and the tagline for 2022 is #OnlyOneEarth.
The Limiting Path
If you went through the traditional formal education in an Engineering School of the 20th century with a bias towards geospatial technology and infrastructure development like me, chances are high that environmental sustainability was not given any meaningful emphasis in the syllabus. The environment was regarded as an object to be exploited and modified to facilitate the operations of a society or enterprise — no mention of the Earth’s regenerative capacity and limits.
In Kenya, for example, a lecturer of Engineering at the University of Nairobi intimated to us during a looming strike that he saw no need to have a forest (Karura Forest) occupying vast land that could otherwise be used to service housing needs for the growing urban population. That was in 1997. That year, the university students went on the rampage to resist the clearance of the forest for development in solidarity with the late Kenyan environmental champion and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai.
In 2001 when I joined a joint venture of construction companies as a tunnel surveyor, I confirmed the pervasiveness of the worldview of the lecturer and all the other professionals in the construction industry. The development agenda still focused on the exploitation of the environment for human convenience. No one in the joint venture talked about the Millennium Development Goals either.
The Liberating Tangent
Come 2004, joining a programme on Resources Engineering in Germany at KIT made my mind go off at a tangent, a departure from the school of thought that shaped my earlier formal education. Units in Ecology with rich examples of practical cases of human-induced environmental disasters on familiar water bodies came alive to an awakening start of a new journey of environmental awareness. The examples were drawn from Lake Chad, The Aral Sea, Lake Victoria, Yellow River, Colorado River, The Danube, Okavango Delta, among others. This awakening redirected my geospatial skills to addressing the science-society-policy nexus using geospatial data and environmental models. Deaton and Winebrake inspired this journey with a systems-thinking mindset in their book entitled Dynamic Modeling of Environmental Systems, which I read back to back with insatiable curiosity. The ecosystem as a life-support system made all sense to me as a treasure to conserve jealously.
Not surprisingly, my thesis was consequently on integrating GIS with dynamic environmental modelling in the Kenyan basin of Lake Victoria. I later joined a public policy think tank as a Young Professional undergoing on-the-job training in policy research and analysis and economic modelling. Again, my qualifying research for graduation after a year of training was on the environment, specifically a model of environmental sustainability and policy implications in the Kenyan urban building and construction sector. I then transitioned into a Policy Analyst in the think tank’s infrastructure and economic services division.
Every student of engineering and physical sciences needs this environmentally transforming exposure and experience for collective responsibility towards sustainability on the planet.
The attention-grabbing simulation results of my research on the changing water levels of Lake Victoria, modelled as a combination of natural and anthropogenic factors, saw me get featured in a BBC debate on Squeezing Victoria’s Curves. The Barry Richmond award for systems thinking came well for me in 2008 in the form of a permanent complimentary license for STELLA modelling software, to help champion environmental modelling interests in East Africa. Furthermore, sponsored visits to make similar presentations on research findings of environmental interest took me on an arc through Accra, Addis Ababa, Kampala, and Khartoum — appreciating the value of environmental consciousness in all these research endeavours.
Every student of engineering and physical sciences needs this environmentally transforming exposure and experience for collective responsibility towards sustainability on the planet. My worldview now looks on my training, experience and skills as crucial capital for achieving sustainable lives and livelihoods by supporting environmentally responsible decisions and actions.
This transformational journey further inspired my membership in the System Dynamics Society, which will celebrate 60 years with the 2022 International System Dynamics Conference in Frankfurt, Germany, from 18–22 July 2022. This hybrid event will be another exciting space for us as members to showcase advances in system dynamics modelling for environmentally sustainable development choices.
The Exciting Present
The UNEP@50 speeches streamed live from the World Environment Situation Room held on June 3, 2022 leave no doubt that the role of geospatial data in achieving environmental sustainability has grown to an all-time high. Earth Observation data and services and other products of ground-based, airborne and spaceborne sensors and technologies are now critical sources of the big data needed for integrated environmental research and decision support. Kenya was acknowledged as an upcoming global big data capital.
Advances in machine learning can only enhance the value of data in informing early warning and predictive mapping. Climate change studies are evident beneficiaries of these exciting developments. As observed by the panel, citizen science is feeding decision support systems with resourceful data and it has a prolific future given additional measures for quality control and quality assurance. The balance of security, access, openness and transparency in the data value chain came out as a key point of interrogation going forward.
This fact-based story of rediscovery and awakening to the compelling and collective global responsibility for sustainable development has the following key implications for education and policy development.
- Space science and technology and data-driven science and engineering are the new capacity development frontiers for competitiveness and innovation in achieving environmentally sustainable solutions.
- Greening modern education and training curricula with basics of environmental management must be part of the essentials for achieving the SDGs in the era of Industry 4.0 (hence Education 4.0).
- Formulating and reviewing policies and regulations on data security, access and accreditation to meet thresholds of data integrity must be a priority assignment for policymakers and institutions in the UN Decade of Action.
This is the product of more than a decade of dedicated experience in research, skills development, training, and mentorship. Through mentorship and career development fora, IBD empowers youth with the knowledge, international exposure, and digital fluency they need to be emancipated global citizens with borderless influence for sustainable development.