The relationship between corporations and the globe's forests has always ranged from cooperation to conflict.
Henry Ford drove his company deep into the Amazon in an ill-fated attempt to create an empire of rubber for the manufacture of car tires. The founder of the modern conservation movement and the Sierra Club, John Muir, was a close friend to major capitalist barons of his era who possessed a conservationist bent, including railroad magnet Edward Henry Harriman, whose historic purchase of Union Pacific included a bet on the value of the railroad-owned timber land.
Today's version of the cooperation and conflict between business and environmental interests is a little different.
Take computer scientist Rebecca Moore, engineering manager for Google Earth Engine, a global-scale data-mining initiative that crunches information from satellite imagery so the technology can be applied to social issues. Moore also heads Google Earth Outreach, which supports nonprofits and global communities.
When Google Earth was first launched, most people didn't know what to do with it, other than look at their neighbor's backyard. Moore said. She had other ideas, though—using the satellite imagery from Google Earth to prove that a logging plan was illegal in her own "backyard."
"I used it myself to stop logging of a thousand acres of Redwoods in my community. That was seen as the first environmental grass roots use of it, and then NGOs started contacting me," Moore said.
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Now, the forest surveillance state has gone global, and while Google Earth Engine data-crunching might is the technology backbone, it's an effort that involves some of the biggest consumer products companies in the world, Nestlé and Unilever, working in conjunction with one of the largest global conservation NGOs, the World Resources Institute.
Early efforts to apply Moore's local experiment to global forest issues took Google's technology to Brazil, where Google Earth imagery was able to help indigenous chiefs map incursions into tribal areas by logging—showing in stark relief the border between a verdant stretch of Amazon and a clear-cut landscape. But while Google Earth was great for visualization, the technology that was really needed by scientists was a means to use satellite data to monitor change in forests over time. The world is losing more than a million acres a year to deforestation and much of it is illegal and often in areas lacking good, if any, law enforcement.
"Scientists told us methods exist to analyze daily satellite data and detect change and issue alerts, but the scale of data was so enormous they couldn't do it on their own computers," Moore said.
In the coming years, anyone, anywhere in the world will be able to use a computer to zoom in on forests around the globe, in real-time and in high resolution, and down to the level of 1 meter of physical space, watching what an orangutan in Borneo is up to in the trees. In other words, all the world's environmental data will be captured by NASA and private satellites and crunched by Google Earth Engine into a living and breathing model of the planet.
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