Sensible Sense-Making From Sensor Observations for Sensitive Environmental Decisions


The theme of the CWRA 2016 conference in Montreal was “Water Management at all Scales: Reducing Vulnerability and Increasing Resilience”. Three days of presentations related to this theme got me thinking about what we need to be doing better in order to be better custodians of damaged, threatened and pristine water systems.

We are the inheritors of a legacy of misguided decisions that have left many water sources (e.g. hillslopes, springs, wetlands), waterways, and sinks (e.g. oceans and deep aquifers) in an unhealthy state.

There are many water sources, waterways and sinks that are managed in an unsustainably functional state. These are systems that have undiagnosed pathologies of progressive over-use, misuse or abuse. The absence of a history of failure provides false guidance. In some cases, evidence of threat may be actively ignored while in other cases there is no evidence of impending threat.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Absence of evidence may be evidence of willful ignorance.

There is, or at least should be, another category of water sources, waterways and sinks. These are ones that support a wealthy and diverse economy; profound social quality and spiritual traditions; and a flourishing ecology with diverse benthic, lotic, lentic and riparian communities nourished by dynamic abiotic renewal.

If we really are intelligent, sentient beings we should be able to figure out how to have fewer of the former and more of the latter. The prevailing evidence is that we are neither intelligent nor sentient.

I am reminded of previous discussions on Environmental Intelligence. If you think of an intelligent being, it is one that is sensitive to it’s environment in a way that transcends simple reactive response. The transition from reaction to comprehension requires:

  1. ‘Sensing’ the environment at a meaningful resolution of the most impactful variables
  2. Making sense of the form, relationships, and dynamics of these variables
  3. Making inference based on ‘sense-making’
  4. Testing the gained understanding of the environment by new sensing to prove the understanding is ‘sensible’

This is inherently an iterative process that loops through sensor observations to develop an evidence-based comprehension of what things are most important to know about the environment.

Most discussions about environmental management, vulnerabilities, threats and resilience are top-down, from the perspectives of social agendas, political expedience or economic necessities. There is a lot of talk of frameworks, processes, policies and regulations. There is value in figuring out if, and maybe how, we can learn to cooperate and if, and maybe how, we can learn to divide the shared resource in a fair and sustainable way. We are more likely to agree-and-mitigate rather that disagree-and-exacerbate, if we can develop a comprehensive understanding of how the environment is reacting to our actions.

We need to be sentient to how the environment is sensing and reacting to us.

There is sense to be made from what our sensor observations are telling us. Unfortunately, we lack a high fidelity sensation of what the environment is experiencing and how it is responding. We don’t have enough sensors in the right places, at the right times, monitoring the right things. This willful ignorance is proof enough that we have not reached a state of sufficient comprehension of the environment to move beyond simple reactive management. To do so will require more, and better, sensor observations so that we can improve our sense-making to guide sensible choices that are sensitive to our environment.


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