A recent GIS user's conference delivered more than cool technology to the thousands of people who attended from around the world. As only GIS images from space can do, it put conditions on the ground were put in perspective. And what I saw when ESRI founder Jack Dangermond spoke about the future of planet Earth was, quite simply, alarming.

Sustainability of the Earth and its resources is at a critical juncture. Everyday, 250,000 new souls populate the planet, most born in developing countries. The idea that natural attrition will balance out this burgeoning growth is erroneous. Each year, there are 80 million more births than deaths, according to The United Nations Environment and Development UK Committee (UNED-UK). And 25 percent of the world's population consumes 75 percent of Earth's resources. That same portion of population is responsible for the vast majority of environmental damage done to the planet.

Dangermond said he toned down his warnings about Earth's critical condition at his wife's request - she worried about scaring the audience. He did say, however, that humans have now overshot the planet's ability to regenerate natural resources by 20 percent. "We're consuming about 1.2 earths in terms of sustaining human life," he said.

The very economic and technological progress that is exerting negative pressures on the planet holds the greatest hope for saving it. Faster and better communication systems make isolation an outmoded concept; the Internet and new wireless technologies promise the dissemination of medical resources as never before. Genetic research is producing stronger strains of agricultural products, and although we cannot control the weather, we can certainly predict it with incredible accuracy. Technology also offers educational opportunities that increasingly defy the divides of place and economic resources. Although most of the world's population still does not have access to the Internet, according to a Nua Ltd. survey, many of the planet's significant challenges can be mitigated with appropriately implemented technologies if human will is there.

The backbone of this remedial process is GIS. Images captured by satellites and aerial cameras integrated with information on specific topics, such as forests lost to development and fires, the spread of infectious diseases, characteristics of populations and myriad other conditions, gives us tools to manage the future, despite the uncertainties it holds. Done in a deliberative manner, the development of a "spatial data infrastructure" is elemental to achieving sustainability, according to Dangermond.

Governments have begun to recognize the value of geo-spatial systems. Once considered a curious specialty, GIS now supports hundreds of mainstream government operations and emergency services, as dramatically demonstrated by New York City after 9-11. Now, as geo-spatial systems are integrated with other information systems, interoperable and standards-based GIS resources can be applied to meet global challenges.

Granted, most of us are preoccupied with the daily business of life, but the world also is home to leaders who think beyond the horizon and have visions that outlive their own mortality. Dangermond qualifies as one such visionary - he wants to build a distributed network of geo-spatial data that will alter the course of "spaceship Earth," - moving it to a path that allows better management of the planet's resources and supports enhanced quality of life for its people.

Our more limited use of technology today is perhaps a necessary precursor to realizing such global dreams about how to leverage the future with the magnificent tools that are the namesake of the Information Age.

Darby Patterson  |  Editor in Chief