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Green Machines
The Rise of Techno-Conservationism

If you’re going to craft a policy, you better have a solid understanding of the system you’re trying to change. Unfortunately, green policymakers frequently fail on that account, and overlook the innate complexities and unknowns of the natural world to push through clunky schema with their eyes on some pie-in-the-sky vision of the future. But there is good news for a smarter brand of environmentalists to grab on to: technological advances are helping us untie the Gordian knot that is our natural world. In an essay for Foreign Affairs (that’s well-worth a read this Sunday), Jon Hoekstra highlights some new technologies that could help advance a better conservation movement. Two in particular stand out:

First, an open-source software called inVEST uses relatively simple inputs to measure a location’s natural capital, such as the levels of timber, fish, and water. It organizes the data into maps, graphs and balance sheets that are used in developmental planning. China, one of the most environmentally trashed countries in the world, is using inVEST to map the establishment of “ecosystem function conservation areas”. These environmentally strategic areas, where development will be restricted, represent 25 percent of the country.

The second bit of technology uses lasers, of all things, to better quantify forests’ carbon storage capacity (the amount of carbon dioxide a forest “stores” through photosynthesis). LIDAR, a technology developed by Stanford ecologist Greg Asner, uses advanced lasers and “hyperspectral” sensors mounted to planes to map and diagnose large swaths of forest. The end result: a more accurate understanding of the climate change-fighting capabilities of forests, which will help policymakers make better land use decisions.

Environmentalists are quick to get behind massive policy pipe dreams like the Global Climate Treaty, but they’d be better served focusing on collecting data to achieve smaller, more achievable goals. Employing existing technologies—like those covered in Hoekstra’s essay—in clever and efficient ways to achieve calculable, usable information about the natural world is something we can get behind.

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