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Summer 2008
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Taking Up the Challenge
Keynote speaker urges GIS users to action

What kind of a world do we want to live in?

That simple question was put to attendees of the Esri International User Conference as they listened to the keynote address by world-renowned biodiversity expert Dr. Peter Raven. The address concluded a daylong Plenary Session on the opening day of the world's largest GIS conference, held August 4–8, 2008, in San Diego, California.

Dr. Peter Raven
Dr. Peter Raven

Raven is a botanist; environmentalist; and president of the oldest public garden in the United States, the Missouri Botanical Garden. In his introductory remarks, he described the extent to which the overall biosphere is losing species diversity as the human population burgeons. These losses are accelerating at a time when people are relying more on biology to furnish the new foods, medicines, and biotechnical innovations needed for civilization to survive and advance.

He reminded listeners that during 2 million years of our existence, we have depended exclusively on the living world to sustain us. Our ability to grow crops and raise livestock just 10,000 years ago made civilization possible. While thousands of plant species have been consumed by man during that time, "just over 100 kinds of plants now provide over 90 percent of the calories we consume, either directly or indirectly. And just three kinds of plants, all in the grass family, namely, corn, wheat, and rice, provide about 60 percent of our calories."

Threats to these "precious grains" from topsoil loss, climate change, and restrictions on the availability of fresh water endanger the food supply as the population continues to climb from about 2 billion when he was born to 6.7 billion now.

click to enlarge map of Missouri Botanical GardensHowever, rates of consumption, not just the increase in population numbers, are putting intolerable pressures on the world's resources. He repeated Mahatma Gandhi's statement, "The world provides enough for every man's need, but not for every man's greed." While he said, "It is easy to regard our existence as exceptional," he challenged the audience to realign their goals and aspirations in an era in which the world's food supply is seriously stressed.

The study of living systems has been Raven's lifelong passion. He noted that the world is changing more rapidly than ever—at a rate that "we can scarcely comprehend with our relatively short lives…Is this magnificent place going to go on supporting us indefinitely?"

He emphasized that right now we are collectively determining what kind of world we want to live in. Decisions and actions today will dictate "how much fresh air; clean water; stable climates; biological diversity to serve us to exist simply for its own right, to make life beautiful and interesting" will exist.

Raven's presentation segued to a demonstration by Trish Consiglioe, a research scientist at the Missouri Botanical Garden. She showed how she uses GIS for managing the world's largest electronic plant database and measuring species diversity and factors that affect it.

The balance of Raven's remarks concerned what the GIS professionals in the audience could do to ensure a livable and rich world in the future. "If we're going to win, if we are going to be a team that knows how to get the job done, and if you in this room are not a team that knows how to get the job done, I don't know where to find one," he said.

Just prior to Raven's speech, Jack Dangermond, president of Esri, summarized the morning's presentations that highlighted the achievements of GIS users, developments in Esri software, and Esri's vision for the coming year. He also provided an update on the activities of last year's keynote speaker, Greenbelt Movement founder Wangari Maathai. She is improving the environment and the economy of Kenya by planting thousands of trees.

After showing a brief video on Greenbelt's current work, Dangermond said, "As great as that is and as emotional as that is, I think I also have to say something else, which is: Your actions are doing exactly that same thing." He enumerated the ways that the work of GIS is supporting richer, more sustainable economic development, improving human health, and mitigating conflicts of many kinds. "I would assert to you that GIS is actually having an effect—you're actually having an effect."

Dangermond related the morning's presentations to the conference theme, "GIS in Action." He emphasized that much remains to be done. "GIS professionals leveraging the kind of technology we've been talking about can change, I think, the course of human action, change that footprint. But more than technology is required," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work, a vision, dedication to this purpose, and a lot of hard work."

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