A Complete Accounting of Ecosystem Death

Google Earth Engine tracks environmental destruction in near real time

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There is a common misconception concerning the environmentally destructive actions of governments and corporations. And, unfortunately, Google’s new Earth Engine application—with good intentions paving the way—falls prey to the fallacy.

When governments or corporations sanction or engage in ecologically harmful practices, such as clear cutting forests, people who believe the ecologically harmful practices in question are bad ideas often wonder at why governments or corporations would authorize such obviously destructive actions.

The answer to such wondering is usually served in one of two flavors: the government/corporation is greedy and evil, thus having no concern for the environment; or, the government/corporation does not have access to the facts it needs to make good decisions, thus ecologically harmful decisions are made out of ignorance. Google’s Earth Engine makes the pitch for the latter, postulating that lack of access to facts is the prime driver in ecologically destructive decision making by governments and corporations. If only they were right.

Using satellite images from the United States Geologic Survey, Google Earth Engine displays the physical attributes of landscapes such as forests or deserts. The satellite images can be updated on a daily basis, allowing users to see changes to the landscape in near real time. Google says its new application will allow people to monitor deforestation, for example, and to produce accurate, timely assessments of ecosystems.

So, now you can sit at your computer, fire up Google Earth Engine and watch day after day as the forest near your community is cut. And then what? Complain to your neighbors about the destruction of the forest? Watch quietly on your computer while trees are chopped down and churned into pulp? Take bets on how many acres will be cut by next Tuesday?

According to promotional videos produced by Google, the next step in the equation is having people take information gleaned from Google Earth Engine about, say, deforestation, and present it to the world via the application. This process is described in one of Google’s promotional videos featuring members of the Surui, an indigenous Brazilian tribe. After the chief of the Surui describes how wonderful Google is and how the new technology will help us live together on a better planet, Google’s Rebecca Moore tells us that should the Surui discover illegal logging in their community forests, they can present that information to the world (which, presumably, includes legislators and regulators) using Google Earth Engine.

And herein lies the problem.

As Derrick Jensen and George Draffan explain in their 2003 book, “Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests,” illegal and destructive logging practices are par for the course for nations around the globe and for timber giants such as Weyerhauser, Simpson and Plum Creek. The reason illegal logging or clear cutting continues is not because political leaders or timber companies are unaware of the situation. To the contrary, Jensen and Draffan describe a timber, pulp and paper industry based in large part on illegal logging, ecosystem ruination and enormous subsidies. Perhaps it’s a cynical perspective, but considering Jensen and Draffan’s reportage, it’s hard to imagine Brazilian authorities meeting with the Surui to discuss illegal logging the tribe is monitoring with Google Earth Engine and then springing into action.

Surely there are scores of worthy uses for Google Earth Engine—hundreds of instances where it will prove helpful to university students or scientists conducting research on ecosystems around the world. But, curiously, Google has decided to sell the new application as a tool in the defense of the environment. While a noble idea, economic and political realities also make it horribly naïve; deforestation is not the result of governments and corporations lacking knowledge of what is happening, rather it is the result of governments and corporations knowing exactly what is happening.

David Lawlor was a writer in the Development department. His environmental activism stems from an affinity for nature and the deep ecology philosophy espoused by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess.