SustainabilityApril 23, 2024

How can we make Earth our most important stakeholder?

This Earth Day, a rapidly advancing combination of science and technology is beginning to let us view Earth as a stakeholder.
Avatar Bernadette Hearne

If Mother Nature could speak to us in human language, what would she say? If she filed a lawsuit against humanity to prevent clear-cutting of her trees, strip-mining of her land, extinction of her species and pollution of her oceans and air, could she speak with enough power to win her case?

The idea that Nature should have a voice – and that it should be the loudest voice in deciding how to legislate human and business activity – is rapidly gaining momentum.

But how can even the most altruistic guardian hope to understand and fairly represent the complex web of interrelationships and co-dependencies on which all life depends? Who could possibly hope to speak on behalf of Mother Earth?

If that question had been asked even 20 years ago, the answer would have been “no one.” But human technology is rapidly collecting, organizing and interpreting the data needed to give Nature a science-based voice. With help from satellite data collection, artificial intelligence and AI-powered, science-based representations known as virtual twin experiences, we are fast approaching the day when we will be able to hear Nature’s desires for all of its species – including humans.

Can the planet have rights?

The idea that Earth has rights has been an accepted truth for indigenous people worldwide since the dawn of humanity. But the concept has largely been ignored in the industrial age, as people moved to cities and their livelihoods became disconnected from the natural world.

As the scope of human damage to the planet has become more extensive, legislation has tried to address the issue piecemeal, with laws mean to limit degradation of air, water and endangered species on a country-by-country basis. But Earth doesn’t function in such a disconnected way; every change can have hundreds of repercussions that impact multiple ecosystems, and those impacts don’t stop at national borders.

To counter this, 35,000 delegates to the World People’s Conference on Climate Change issued a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth on Earth Day 2010. The declaration builds on the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights but observes that, without a healthy planet, humans cannot survive; human rights, in short, depend on protecting natural rights.

“Just as human beings have human rights, all other beings also have rights,” the Rights of Mother Earth document states. “The rights of each being are limited by the rights of other beings, and any conflict between their rights must be resolved in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth.”

Twelve years later, the United Nations General Assembly reinforced the link between the rights of Earth and humanity, voting that a healthy environment is a basic human right. That vote followed years of environmental legal challenges, with self-appointed guardians attempting to speak on behalf of Nature. A few examples:

Ecological stewards in business

Governments, NGOs and individuals aren’t the only advocates for Nature, however. Businesses, too, can be powerful advocates.

Patagonia, an outdoor equipment and apparel company, declared in September 2022 that Earth is now the company’s only shareholder. Rather than pass the company to the next generation, the founders ensured that this promise would be honored by transferring 100% of the company’s stock to a trust charged with maximizing profits and a non-profit charged with ensuring the trust minimizes environmental impacts in pursuing that goal. For as long as the business exists, all profits will be spent by the non-profit to defend Nature.

Patagonia doesn’t publish its financials, but observers estimate the annual proceeds could be equal to US$5 for every square mile on the planet’s surface.

Although Patagonia’s action grabbed the headlines, it isn’t the first company to take such a step. In Denmark, a quarter of the nation’s 100 largest firms – including Maersk and Novo Nordisk – are owned by charitable foundations. Germany’s Robert Bosch Group, which is 94% owned by the Robert Bosch Foundation, spends $100 million euros annually on philanthropic donations (although they aren’t all Nature-focused).

Such actions further cement the notion that business can do well by doing good, and Patagonia’s novel approach to simultaneously achieve both goals is likely to spark similar efforts in other companies.

Who speaks for Nature?

Enthusiasm for ecological altruism isn’t universal, however, and not all court decisions have gone in Nature’s favor. In 2020, for example, the city of Toledo, Ohio, adopted the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. The state of Ohio, however, argued that Ohio’s government – not its residents – has the legal responsibility for environmental regulation. A federal judge subsequently ruled that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is “invalid in its entirety.”

Which leads to an obvious question: Who has the right – and the knowledge – to advocate for Nature in all its complexity? Many indigenous communities have played this role for millennia; countless government and NGO organizations have taken up the cause in modern times. But is there an incontrovertible way to let Nature plead its case with an unassailable voice that all can understand?

In a landmark 2020 article in Forbes, the founder of ESRI, a satellite-mapping software company, argued that technology is currently the only option for letting Nature speak . . . using the universal language of science.

“Leaders must understand our impact on the health of the places we occupy,” ESRI founder Jack Dangermond wrote. “Connectivity isn’t enough to deliver that understanding. Data isn’t enough. Neither are business intelligence and even artificial intelligence. … Only when we anchor these technologies in geospatial thinking – incorporating the context of time and place – can we clearly see the impacts of our actions, manage those actions so as to preserve the health of the complex systems that make up their context, and design a future that’s sustainable.”

Using technology to consider Earth as a stakeholder

What Dangermond advocates is a technology- and science-based approach to understanding and advocating for Nature. How might that work? A joint effort by NASA and the European Space Agency to map and measure Earth’s surface waters from space is a prime example.

In December 2022, the agencies launched the Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Since then, SWOT has been conducting the first global survey of Earth’s surface water – the freshwater rivers, lakes and streams used for drinking, agriculture, thermoelectric power and hundreds of industries. The satellite can measure the depth of all surface water to an accuracy of 10 centimeters and circumnavigates the entire planet every 21 days. Field readings are used to test and validate the accuracy of satellite data, giving scientists confidence in the results.

“The data SWOT collects can measure how floodplains and wetlands change over time and the coastal processes related to fisheries, ship navigation, shoreline erosion and pollutants,” an article about SWOT in the University of North Carolina’s research magazine, Endeavors, reports. In a nutshell, the satellite measures water level changes in all of the Earth’s water bodies simultaneously. As data accumulates, researchers can track historical shifts, understand hydrological processes and predict future changes.

This ability to look at data in the context of time, using the past to extrapolate and predict the future, makes virtual twins a particularly powerful way to “hear” what Mother Nature is saying to us.

Ultimately and ideally, all of the data collected from SWOT and other ocean survey efforts will be available to the Global Ocean Observing System, a joint effort by UNESCO, the World Meteorological Society, the UN Environmental Program and the International Science Council to understand ocean ecology and dynamics. And that effort can provide a template for understanding Nature’s other systems – including those on land, in the air and among all species.

Virtual twins – with their ability to look back and forward in time, to understand when, where and how data was collected, and to understand what it means via AI – is crucial to making sense of so much data, especially when it has been collected over decades using different devices, protocols and measurement standards.

Medical researchers worldwide are collaborating to create a virtual twin of the human body that captures the complexity of anatomy, biology and chemistry in a single dynamic model, which can be customized to specific individuals and used to virtually test and validate treatments and surgeries. If a virtual twin can capture, interpret and decode the complexities of the human body, maybe it can do the same for Nature.

Two Earth twins currently in development

Two parallel efforts to create a virtual twin of the entire planet – one public and one launched by two major French companies with backing from the French government– are underway in Europe and have potential to help us consider Earth as a stakeholder.

Destination Earth – known as DestinE – is a joint initiative of the European Union (EU) and three organizations: the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organization for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. The EU describes the effort as “a novel information system with unprecedented levels of detail, quality and interactivity that will enable users to understand and explore how the Earth system will evolve under different scenarios. Sectors likely to be impacted by extreme events and climate change, such as agriculture, forestry, energy, public health and water resources, will significantly benefit.”

DestinE’s first two twins focus primarily on understanding and predicting extreme weather events.

In France, meanwhile, virtual twin modeling experts at Dassault Systèmes have teamed up with satellite monitoring experts at Airbus Defense and Space – under the auspices of France’s National Centre for Space Studies – to create the “Virtual Twin of the Earth.”

By virtually modeling and analyzing human activity, the team aims to understand humanity’s impact on the environment and model ever-changing and complex phenomena that only artificial intelligence (AI) has the power to recognize and analyze. Goals of the project include optimizing energy performance; assessing and reducing noise pollution; anticipating climate change in the context of urban planning; and providing tailored analysis and recommendations to improve cooperation among decision-makers.

“For example, simulating rising water levels in advance can help develop infrastructure or optimize emergency responses,” said Frédéric Gille, an industry business consultant with SIMULIA, the Dassault Systèmes brand for simulation of complex systems and environments.

Funding for the project is provided by France Relance, a governmental investment plan of 100 billion euros, aimed at helping France recover from the economic impacts of COVID and prepare its economy for 2030 in three areas: ecology, competitiveness and cohesion.

Proven power of virtual twins to consider Earth as a stakeholder

The Dassault Systèmes and Airbus teams are confident of their ability to build a virtual twin capable of delivering deep insights into Earth’s interrelated systems – known in engineering as “systems of systems” – because they’ve been building sophisticated virtual twins for industrial settings for decades. Earth will be a bigger challenge, of course, but the foundations of their Virtual Twin of Earth project are well established. Some examples:

Interstellar Lab

One way to better understand the complex interconnections of Earth is to create a virtual twin of a similar environment on a smaller scale. Interstellar Lab, a French-American startup, is driven by an ambition to create systems that will enable us to understand Earth’s biodiversity and prepare humanity to settle other planets. The lab’s team of scientists, engineers and architects uses its virtual twin to design environmentally controlled, closed-loop systems inspired by aerospace technologies. The goal is to create an environment that, like Earth, will produce and recycle almost everything, making water, air and food as renewable as possible to live in total autonomy.

“It’s not about running away from Earth,” said Barbara Belvisi, the lab’s founder and director. “We are building a new environment for sustainable life on Earth and providing a test bed for future space missions.”

NAAREA XAMR micro reactor

Nuclear energy is a carbon-free power source, but requires massive amounts of water for cooling and produces radioactive waste that is accumulating worldwide because no safe way has been found to process it. NAAREA aims to solve those challenges with its XAMR (eXtrasmall Advanced Modular Reactor). The French company’s design focuses on using long-life nuclear waste as its fuel and molten salt – not water – as a coolant.

Any new, unproven nuclear activity comes with risks, however, so NAAREA is developing a virtual twin of its reactor to perfect the design before building anything in the real world. NAAREA also is using the twin to plan its engineering and manufacturing processes virtually, ensuring safe construction and operations.

“We want to be on the market by 2030, so we need to move fast,” CEO Jean-Luc Alexandre said. “The best solution to achieve our goal is a virtual twin. It’s a fantastic accelerator [and] one of the best features is that we can design and simulate as we go so we can test our ideas and see if they’re worth progressing.”

ECCUS underground work spaces

Covering Earth with concrete is another destructive trend that consumes land and destroys greenery. Swiss design firm ECCUS thinks it has found the answer: instead of covering the land, tunnel under it.

“I founded ECCUS after reading about a massive data center project in the Zurich area,” said Andrew Bourget, the company’s CEO and founder. “The land surface required was huge and created very few job opportunities. Land scarcity is not only driving up prices, but there is a greater understanding among the general public that land cannot be wasted.”

The ECCUS ECO-Caverne™ is installed underground, freeing up surface land, and its integrated thermal management system dispenses heat energy inside the unit or captures it for use in existing surface buildings. The company starts each design with its virtual twin, then customizes the project to the specifics of its location. “We could rapidly design underground structures while managing the interaction between geology and civil structures,” Bourget said.

Evolectric upcycled commercial e-vehicles

As the world moves to electric vehicles, millions of archaic gasoline-powered vehicles will become waste – a challenge that is particularly tricky for owners of large commercial vehicles created at high cost to have lives that span decades. California-based Evolectric aims to solve this problem by upgrading fossil-fuel powered vehicles into electric vehicles, protecting their lifespan and their owners’ investments.

“There are around 340 million commercial vehicles worldwide, which would be hugely challenging to replace with new EVs,” said Jakson Alvarez, co-founder and co-CEO at Evolectric. “Instead, we’re here to extract the most value from each vehicle by repurposing it to be 100% electric and smart.”

Many commercial vehicles are built to last for 1 million miles each, but are being scrapped after achieving less than half their potential. Converting the vehicles to electric power, Alvarez said, costs 45% less than buying a new EV and eliminates 50% of the carbon emissions involved in building a new vehicle. Maintenance costs for EVs also can be less than half those of maintaining a diesel vehicle.

Simulating each vehicle as a virtual twin allows Evolectric to tailor its CircularEVs to each customer’s requirements, analyze the designs for functionality and accuracy, define the manufacturing process and – in the future – roll out real-time updates to the vehicles’ software. Operational data from the renovated vehicles is also fed back into each vehicle’s virtual twin; this helps Evolectric guide owners in getting the best performance from their fleet, from charging efficiency to driving performance.

Virtual worlds affect the real

Although the full realization of a comprehensive virtual twin of Earth may be years away, these examples demonstrate the technology’s ability to support extremely complex simulations. Every day, new data is being accumulated worldwide from satellites and ground-based sensors, laying the groundwork to build a sophisticated twin that captures and explains much of Nature’s complexity.

The increasingly powerful AI capabilities built into these twins will make it possible to discover patterns and trends in the data, well beyond the limits of human observation. Just as a human virtual twin lets the human body answer physicians’ questions and plan treatments and surgeries customized to a specific individual’s unique physiology, a virtual twin of Earth offers the potential for Nature to speak to us in language even we humans can understand.


Stay up to date

Receive monthly updates on content you won’t want to miss


Register here to receive a monthly update on our newest content.