Let’s Skip “Hacking The Earth” And Think About Technology For Disaster Risk Reduction

Monica Sanders
2 min readOct 26, 2023

The term “hacking the earth” has been used by some “tech for good” advocates as a metaphor for using innovative technology to address pressing global challenges, such as climate change and disaster risk reduction. While the intention may be to convey a sense of urgency and innovation, the use of this language can be problematic for several reasons.

1. Oversimplification of Complex Issues: Referring to complex and multifaceted challenges like climate change and disaster risk reduction as “hacking” can oversimplify these problems. Such issues require comprehensive, science-based solutions and long-term strategies, and reducing them to the concept of hacking can trivialize their complexity.

2. Ethical Concerns: The term “hacking” is often associated with unauthorized or unethical activities in the context of computer systems and cybersecurity. There is also the ongoing challenge of bias in many systems which could create additional harm to the most vulnerable groups. Using this language to describe efforts to address global challenges may inadvertently convey an unethical or even destructive approach, which is counterproductive to the ethical principles often promoted by “tech for good” advocates.

3. Risk of Unintended Consequences: Hacking implies a quick and potentially disruptive approach to problem-solving. When applied to complex ecological and environmental issues, this approach can lead to unintended consequences. Solutions to climate change and disaster risk reduction require careful consideration of potential side effects and long-term impacts.

4. Public Misunderstanding: The use of “hacking the earth” language may confuse the public and create unrealistic expectations about the speed and ease with which these challenges can be addressed. Climate change and disaster risk reduction require collaborative, scientifically informed, and often gradual approaches.

5. Lack of Respect for Natural Systems: Describing efforts to address climate change and disaster risk reduction as “hacking” may inadvertently convey a sense of control over natural systems that doesn’t exist. This could undermine the importance of respecting the limits and boundaries of the environment.

In my Forbes.com article on a similar topic, I pointed out that technology does not always have to be the latest and most fascinating “thing”. Artificial Intelligence, large language models, GIS, and crowdsourcing can all be great tools in responding to disasters and addressing climate change.

The same can be true for cleaning ditches and water management systems or making sure a community’s Internet and communication infrastructure is up to date, as we do at The Undivide Project. That way, those impacted by the solution or “hack” if you will, have an opportunity to receive and analyze information and solutions for themselves. In short, climate action does need to happen quickly. It also has to happen deliberately and with a sense of reality, respect and empathy.

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Monica Sanders

Founder, The Undivide Project (www.theundivideproject.org); Activist-Scholar; Professor@Georgetown; Senior Fellow, Tulane Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy