by Bob Cole, Director of Exploratory Initiatives and Partnerships (DLINQ), with Dr. Juliano Calil, Sr. Fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy

People are aware that they cannot continue in the same old way, but are immobilized because they cannot imagine an alternative. We need a vision that recognizes that we are at one of the great turning points in human history when the survival of our planet and the restoration of our humanity require a great sea change in our ecological, economic, political, and spiritual values. 

—Grace Lee Boggs (from Design Justice- Community Led Practices to Build the World We Need p.104)

A key question we’re asking in this year’s detox is how might digital technologies support the work of environmental action, and how do we weigh the benefits and trade-offs? In previous posts we’ve reflected on the hidden structures, energy, and resources that power the web, how our technologies mediate and are used to manipulate our relationship with the natural world, and more hopefully, how we’re banding together through collaborative networked communities to share knowledge, explore, and repair. In this post, I’d like to continue an exploration of the role of communities, focusing specifically on the role of community engagement and education in spurring action.

Environmental literacy has been shown to be a critical building block for future decision-making, adaptation, and stewardship. Engaging communities in environmental literacy is a dynamic process of presenting relevant information, building knowledge, and fostering an emotional connection with issues so that citizens are inspired to get involved and take action.

An emerging approach to helping spur environmental literacy, community engagement, and action has been the use of sophisticated media like 3D modeling, photogrammetry (mapping with image data from drones), and virtual reality (VR) to capture and envision future environmental impacts within small, localized settings. This media is then woven into interactive stories that are shared at community events, with a special focus on engaging the public who live within the target settings. Juliano Calil, a climate scientist, drone enthusiast, and adjunct professor in the International Environmental Policy program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey is one of a number of pioneering scientists taking this creative approach to communicating science research. He is doing so with help from Virtual Planet Technologies, a company that he co-founded a few years ago as he began to connect his studies of climate and social vulnerability with his passions for drone photography and video gaming.

The multidisciplinary team of scientists, technicians, and media designers at Virtual Planet partners with conservation groups, municipal governments, and local residents to create uniquely place-based immersive virtual experiences designed to engage communities in environmental resiliency planning. I learned that this type of broad-based multi-stakeholder engagement is known as vulnerability assessment or climate action adaptation planning. It is focused on helping communities understand and be responsive to potential risks from any number of projected impacts of climate change.

In the past two years, Virtual Planet has collaborated with groups like the Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit, and coastal communities in Maryland and California to better visualize the projected impacts of sea level rise. In a recent article in the open access journal Water, Juliano and coauthors describe the role that these collaborations have in engaging communities in dialog about conservation, preserving community assets, and protecting natural resources. “Dealing with sea level rise and adapting to it will require awareness and engagement from every citizen, from coastal communities to the government. The engagement of every citizen is essential for the successful implementation of mitigation plans.” (p. 6).

To date, Virtual Planet has created six immersive experiences, each co-designed with partners for a specific geographic locale and environmental issue. During early development, the team hosts listening sessions to understand how people think about climate issues and to build relationships. Later, at community outreach events, the VR experiences supplement traditional informational presentations, physical models, and maps. The public can also engage with these experiences for free in a number of ways: through a web browser, using their mobile device, or in person using a special VR headset. The ultimate goal of the six modules is to provide a catalyst for meaningful dialog. The immersive educational experience helps scientists, community organizers, and planners communicate with the public around an identified environmental issue in new ways, and helps to collect feedback on proposed solutions that could help mitigate or prevent harmful future impacts from climate change.

Four of the Virtual Planet experiences focus on sea level rise (in Elkhorn Slough, Santa Cruz, and Long Beach, CA, as well as in Turner Station, MD). Another experience focuses on the topic of wildfires, specifically exploring the devastating Paradise, CA, fire from 2020. The newest experience titled “Dive” offers an immersive journey through California’s Marine Protected Areas.

Exploring Virtual Sea Level Rise in My Own Community

In fall 2021 we held a DiscoTech (discover technology) event in the Digital Learning Commons at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, at which participating students, staff, and faculty had the opportunity to try out these different Virtual Planet immersive experiences using a VR headset. In the section that follows, I share my own experience with the Elkhorn Slough Sea Level Rise Explorer.

Bob Cole in a VR simulation

For locals to the Monterey peninsula, Elkhorn Slough is a special place. I’ve had the chance to go hiking, bird watching, and kayaking there. I was excited to try out the Elkhorn Slough VR experience using a headset and hand controllers that Juliano brought down from Santa Cruz. The effect of immersion was almost immediate. The physical room disappeared and I was transported to a visitor center where I was oriented to the project. I looked around the room and then at a table with a hyper-realistic interactive map of the slough and Moss Landing Harbor. A narrator guided me with clear data and information about projected sea level rise as I used the hand controllers to adjust an animated slider to simulate flooding impacts on the wetlands, a coastal highway, and a critical railway line. The flooding transformed the landscape and I felt a sense of loss.

Next, I was virtually brought up into a blimp with an incredible 360 degree birds-eye view of the area. The view from that vantage point was awe-inspiring. It did not feel like a simulation. From the blimp, I worked the sea level slider to flood the models while I learned about a number of possible options for nature-based adaptations we could make to preserve the rich wetlands and maintain our transportation infrastructure. It was like looking into a portal to the future. When I took the headset off, I felt disoriented but excited to talk about what I’d learned.

Before Juliano left that day he told me that he was beginning to read more about hope. He reminded me that as much as we are challenged by the uncertainty of environmental issues, when we look at the projections we need, to remember that the future is not a fixed point. We are creative and we have multiple pathways and tools to help us. Through community partnerships and with the help of new media, perhaps we can create meaningful local connections to complex environmental issues like climate change so that we can reimagine more resilient futures together.

Take Action

  • Join us on Tuesday, February 1st at 1:00pm Pacific / 4:00pm Eastern for a live conversation with Dr. Juliano Calil. You can submit questions for Dr. Calil here.
  • Explore one of Virtual Planet’s immersive virtual experiences online
  • Find out if your local community has a climate vulnerability assessment or CAPS (climate action adaption plan) and see if you can get involved
  • Juliano recommends thinking about what your personal resilience and adaptation plan might look like

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