Zen and The Art of Data Maintenance: What’s the Truth About the Environment?

What is the truth regarding environmental issues and how much is made up? Will our human race, as we know it, come to an end if we don’t take dramatic actions? Is this just hype? Are the issues often overstated and not that cataclysmic?

Below are some truths. Which ones do you think are true?

“Climate change now represents a near to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”[1]

“Climate change is real, but it’s not the end of the world. It is not even our most serious environmental problem. Most environmental trends, including population, pollution, and resource use, are all going in the right direction. The left profits from hyping climate change as apocalypse while opposing obvious solutions.” [2]

“We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”[3]

“One billion people will live in insufferable heat within 50 years – study.”[4]

“There is no climate emergency. Therefore, there is no cause for panic.”[5]

Data and Stories

According to the TDWI glossary: “Data storytelling is the practice of building a narrative around a set of data and its accompanying visualizations to help convey the meaning of that data in a powerful and compelling fashion.” [6]

Data storytelling is an important and useful discipline. It helps engage an audience and relate data in compelling and practical ways. This is why data storytelling is essential, useful, and beneficial in creating real business value and inspiring quality decisions and actions. However, the human mind is a storytelling machine. We create stories from almost everything. Quite often, our stories have huge jumps in facts and logic that can skew and distort the data in order to present points that we are seeking to prove. The above assertions are examples of stories. Many of these stories are based upon the same data, however, they are communicating completely different and conflicting stories.

Zen and the Human Mind

As I have previously written in this column on data and Zen, the practice of Zen (meaning awareness), is highly related to data disciplines. The first thing that happens in the mind is that we take in data with our senses. The second thing that happens is that from this data, we create meaning, stories, opinions, judgements (e.g., ‘I like this’, ‘I do not like that’). This is similar to what happens in computer systems. Each system takes in data and then interprets, processes, and creates meaning from the data.

An extremely useful exercise is to distinguish stories from facts so that we are fully aware.

In the book, Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,[7] NY Times best-selling authors, Kerry Patterson, Joseph GrennyRon McMillan, and Al Switzler emphasize the importance of distinguishing facts from stories and that ‘Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories.” They recommend sticking to the facts during a crucial conversation where the stakes are high. I would contend that the stakes are high regarding the environment. The authors write: “Get back to the facts. Abandon your absolute certainty by distinguishing between hard facts and your invented story” (Patterson, Kerry, et al., pg 129).

What is the Data? What are the Facts?

There is a great deal of statistics that are published about the environment. However, it can be difficult to assess the precise accuracy of this information. Nonetheless, the following references provide statistics that have been reported about our environment. Please understand that I am not even claiming that the below data points are absolute facts since I cannot verify the data, however, it is factual that the below data points have been published.

Air Pollution: The World Health Organization stated that “an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to ambient air pollution, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in children.” [8]

CO2 level: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies stated that as of June 2020 there were 414 ppm (parts per million) carbon dioxide levels in the air and that this their highest in 650,000 years (see Figure 1): [9]

Figure 1[10]
Click the image to see larger version.

Global Raise in Temperature: NASA stated that the latest average annual anomaly (how much warmer than average the most recent year was globally) was higher by 1.78 degrees Fahrenheit (compared with the average temperature from 1951-1980). They also said nineteen of the twenty warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.[11]

Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals said that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the earth’s climate is warming and that climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. [12]

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, recently forecasted a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.[13]

Artic Sea Ice: Arctic sea ice reaches its minimum each September. NASA reported that September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 12.85 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. [14]

Ice Sheets: Data from NASA’s GRACE and GRACE Follow-On satellites show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland have been losing mass since 2002. The rate of change is they are losing mass at 147.0 Gigatons per year. [15]

The National Ocean Service stated that “Global sea level has been rising over the past century, and the rate has increased in recent decades. In 2014, global sea level was 2.6 inches above the 1993 average—the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993-present). Sea level continues to rise at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year.” [16]

Plastics: A Globalcitizen.org article claims that “since the 1950s, around 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. Plastic is killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals every year. The average person eats 70,000 microplastics each year.” [17]

A UN Report claims that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. More than 40% of amphibian species, almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.” [18]

COVID-19 Environmental Data

ABC News reported that “deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose more than 50% in the first three months of 2020 compared to the same three-month period last year, according to preliminary satellite data released by the Brazilian Space Agency’s deforestation monitoring system.” [19]

Nature Climate Change reported that “daily global CO2 emissions decreased by about 17% by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by 26% on average.” [20]

A ‘Global Food, Environment and Economic Dynamics’ article writes that “the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved twenty times more lives in China than have currently been lost directly due to infection with the virus in that country.” [21]

The UN Environment program says that “ecosystem integrity underlines human health and development. Human-induced environmental changes modify wildlife population structure and reduce biodiversity, resulting in new environmental conditions that favor particular hosts, vectors, and/or pathogens.” [22]

What Does This Data Mean?

Here’s the rub! The same data can be interpreted so many different ways depending on one’s motivations and mindset. For example, when I asked what the environmental data really means to Michael Potts, former CEO for Rocky Mountain Institute and a prominent environmental science research firm, his opinion was that there is a massive amount of data that is very difficult to assess, integrate, and interpret accurately and that our assessments are influenced by the psychology and biases of the researcher.

It seems that people create meaning and stories from the data.

For example, if the average temperature, as reported by NASA, is 1.78 Degrees Fahrenheit higher than average, what does this mean?

The New York Times reports, “The science is clear: The world is warming dangerously, humans are the cause of it, and a failure to act today will deeply affect the future of the Earth.” They further state that “… impacts that scientists predicted years ago—including severe storms, heat waves and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets—are accelerating.” [23] In another article, they write, “A landmark report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”

On the other hand, Forbes reported, “Objective science proves extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and droughts have become less frequent and less severe as a result of the Earth’s recent modest warming.” They also stated, “Australia’s highest recorded temperature occurred more than half a century ago, and only two of Australia’s seven states have set their all-time temperature record during the past 40 years.” [24]

In his book ‘Apocalypse Never’, Michael Shellenberger states: “Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. [25] Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.” 25

Another source, ‘Climate.gov’, reports that “The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago.” [26]

So, What is the Truth?

This is where data literacy comes into play. For example, what do we do when different sources show contradicting data? We need to assess data using data literacy tools (see article about this on Data Literacy). So, for example, if some sources (like the aforementioned quote from ‘Apocalypse Never’) say that the rate of carbon emissions have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade, yet other data sources, such as the above quote from climate.gov, say that carbon emissions have been increasing, then it is important to take some time, check the data sources, consider context, use statistics, assess how much data is there supporting each statement, and do a gut check. Using these methods, it seems that the preponderance of evidence from many credible sources shows that CO2 levels are the highest they have even been in hundreds of thousands of years and this leads to higher temperatures.

Is population growth a big issue? The assertion that was made at the beginning of this article that population is going ‘in the right direction’ needs more context. While it is true that the rate of population growth is slowing, our population is growing. Let’s add some additional data and context. Our World In Data says, “The world population increased from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion today.” And “The world population growth rate declined from 2.2% per year 50 years ago to 1.05% per year.” Thus, while the rate of growth may not be increasing, population growth is increasing, and this is an important and challenging issue. [27]

Global warming, artic sea ice declining, sea levels rising, usage of plastics, extinction of many species, acceleration of severe storms and heat waves, and many other environment issues affect the quality of life now and in the future.

The way I see it, and the story I tell myself, is that it is important to care for our environment to reduce tremendously harmful outcomes and positively contribute to a better life and world. Individual actions matter, just like an individual vote doesn’t change an election, yet it is important for us each to vote and likewise, do our part as a world citizen regarding our environment.

Zen and the Decision to Do Nothing

Meaningful action is a requirement of Zen. Being Zen is when one calmly makes a decision and takes an effective action. This effective action is undertaken with full awareness, wisdom, loving intentions, commitment and precision.

Like a master swordsman facing a ferocious opponent, the key is that the decision to do nothing is fatal. Applying this to the wider world, we undertake an assessment of the situation and quite simply, if the situation requires action, then take it. There is little doubt that sea levels are higher, oceans are warmer, storms are stronger. Like a Zen master or expert swordsman, the decision is not whether to act, but what action to take.

Data science and data management grew up in the imperfect world of decision making in business. In this world, when faced with imperfect information and a clear need to take action, it is data science and data management that gives us the clues to make the best decisions we can. These best decisions may not always be the optimal decisions according to others, but they are powerful since they are decisions to act.

What Can We Do Regarding the Environment?

Be aware and then take appropriate action. This is what Zen is.

Let’s be aware of what the data is and what the stories are.

Then let’s act. For example, we could reduce our personal carbon emissions, use more renewable energy resources, change our business model to be greener, or a host of other actions that provide contributions to a better world.

Another possible action is to participate in the ‘Eco-data group,’ a group of data professionals and industry leaders who are focused on helping the environment. The mission of this group is to cultivate awareness and inspire action to help our environment, using data related skills. These include the application of data literacy, data storytelling, data visualization, data integration, data governance, data science, and a host of other related data practices. In carrying out our mission, we want to provide data about the environment in as objective a fashion as possible. If you would like to explore participation in our group, please contact us at ecodatagrp@gmail.com or visit www.ecodatagroup.org where you can find more information.

“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” Eckhart Tolle. Thank you to Annette Quintana, Andrew Cardno, Lorie Nelson, and Mark Peco for their contributions to this article.


[1] Spratt, D., Dunlap, I., ‘Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach’, May, 2019 https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/148cb0_b2c0c79dc4344b279bcf2365336ff23b.pdf

[2] Shellenberger, Michael, ‘Apocalypse Never’ 2020, HarperCollins Publishers https://www.amazon.com/dp/0063001691/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

[3] Extinction Rebellion Web Site, https://extinctionrebellion.uk/the-truth/

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/05/one-billion-people-will-live-in-insufferable-heat-within-50-years-study

[5] https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/there-is-no-climate-emergency-say-500-experts-in-letter-to-the-united-nations/

[6] https://tdwi.org/portals/what-is-data-storytelling-definition.aspx#:~:text=Data%20storytelling%20is%20the%20practice,a%20powerful%20and%20compelling%20fashion.

[7] Patterson, Kerry. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Internet resource. https://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Talking-Stakes-Second/dp/0071771328/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI8bfYu73u6gIVkYbACh25fg3pEAAYAiAAEgKPSvD_BwE&hvadid=241922115746&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=9028741&hvnetw=g&hvqmt=e&hvrand=14583476154272049548&hvtargid=kwd-4445527466&hydadcr=24632_10399690&keywords=crucial+conversations&qid=1595888912&sr=8-2&tag=googhydr-20

[8] https://www.who.int/airpollution/ambient/health-impacts/en/

[9] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/

[10] https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

[11] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/

[12] https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

[13] https://climate.nasa.gov/effects/

[14] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/

[15] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/ice-sheets/

[16] https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sealevel.html#:~:text=Sea%20level%20continues%20to%20rise,of%20an%20inch%20per%20year.&text=The%20two%20major%20causes%20of,as%20glaciers%20and%20ice%20sheets.

[17] https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/plastic-pollution-facts/

[18] UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

[19] https://abcnews.go.com/International/deforestation-amazon-rainforest-accelerates-amid-covid-19-pandemic/story?id=70526188

[20] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0797-x

[21] http://www.g-feed.com/2020/03/covid-19-reduces-economic-activity.html

[22] https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/six-nature-facts-related-coronaviruses

[23] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/19/climate/climate-crash-course-1.html

[24] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/2015/02/09/top-10-global-warming-lies-that-may-shock-you/#20bf1f1e53a5

[25] Shellenberger, Michael, ‘Apocalypse Never’ 2020, HarperCollins Publishers, Page 26 states that “In Europe, emissions in 2018 were 23 percent below 1990 levels. In the U.S., emissions fell 15 percent from 2005 to 2016.”

[26] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%20decade%2C%20however,age%2011%2C000%2D17%2C000%20years%20ago.

[27] https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth

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Len Silverston

Len Silverston

Len Silverston is a best-selling author, consultant, speaker and internationally acclaimed expert and thought leader in the fields of data governance, data modeling, data management, and in the human dynamics of integrating information data. He is the author of The Data Model Resource Book series (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), which describe hundreds of reusable data models. The volume 1 book was rated #12 on the Computer Literacy Best Seller List and his volume 1 and 2 books have been translated into Chinese and in 2009, he co-authored “The Data Model Resource Book, Volume 3, Universal Patterns for Data Modeling”, which has been translated into Korean. Mr. Silverston has published many articles and has been a keynote speaker at many international data conferences. He is the winner of the DAMA (Data Administration Management Association) International Professional Achievement Award and the DAMA International Community Award. He has given many keynotes and has received the highest speaker rating at several international conferences. Mr. Silverston's company, Universal Data Models, LLC, http://www.universaldatamodels.com provides consulting, training, publications, and software to enable information integration as well as people integration. - He is also a personal and corporate mindfulness coach, trainer, and teacher and has studied and taught many forms of spirituality and life development skills for over thirty years. He has attended, staffed and/or led hundreds of days of silent, intensive retreats as well as dozens of life development workshops. After intensive practice in Zen, he was ordained as a Zen Priest in 2011. ‘Kensho’ Len Silverston provides ongoing ‘Zen With Len’ (http://www.zenwithlen.com) individual and corporate coaching, seminars, meditation gatherings, and retreats.

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