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Visions of Change
Jamais Cascio, 11 Jun 05

One Planet, Many Peopleis the UN Environment Program's new atlas, released last week in connection with World Environment Day. Using satellite photos, it documents the ways in which human activities have changed the planet's environment. A hardcover version costs $150, but the book can be downloaded chapter by chapter as PDFs, in resolutions suitable for screen or for print display (warning: the print versions are significantly larger in file size).

Although the book contains a wide variety of images and graphs, the heart of the atlas is found in the before-after shots, comparing satellite photos of various locations -- usually cities, but not always -- from recent years and from a decade or more ago. The image to the right (clicking leads to a much larger version) compares Las Vegas in 1973 and in 2000. This is what we mean when we talk about "sprawl."

Many of the pictures are, in a word, stunning. They show ways in which the landscape is shaped by human activity, but they can also show the sheer beauty of the planet, even when reshaped. The chapters include scientific explanations of the various phenomena (atmospheric effects, urbanization patterns, changes in grasslands and forest coverage), but much the accompanying text is largely given for context, focusing on unusual aspects of the images or why some otherwise obscure features may be important.

It's easy -- and overly simplistic -- to look at the images as damning evidence of the corrupting effect of the human hand on nature. It's impossible (at least with current technology) for humans to live on Earth without altering and reshaping the landscape. The issue, then, isn't whether changes to the planet have happened -- they has, and they will continue -- but how such changes can be managed. Not all of the images in the atlas show unfettered expansion or ruin; some display caution and even repair. The value of One Planet, Many People for me is as a guidebook, ofttimes showing what not to do, but occasionally showing examples of what can work.

If you're more interested in the pictures than in the text, many of the shots can be downloaded from this FTP site in either JPEG or TIF format. A select set of images can be found here, with explanation in French. If you do want some explanation to accompany the images, but don't want to deal with paging through a book, a series of PDF posters can be downloaded from the main book site, covering a variety of cities around the world (although, oddly, none from Asia).

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