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Google Earth Emerges as a Critical Tool for Environmental and Social Justice Activists

Life on Google Earth CoverThe first known maps were carved into stone some millennia ago. Still, the map as a tool for social justice and environmental activists is a relatively new phenomenon. Google Earth has been something of a novelty since its release in 2006. Bloggers post images of their neighborhoods, roadside attractions, sunbathers, even suspected UFOs. But for communities stretching from the Amazonian rainforest to a Santa Cruz Canyon, Google Earth is seeding a revolution.

This month’s issue of Conscious Choice profiles the work of Google’s Rebecca Moore, who used Google Earth to spark a successful campaign to stop a utility company from obtaining logging rights in the Santa Cruz Mountains near her home. “When Moore turned to her new employer’s software to identify which parcels of land the utility company owned,” reporter E.B. Boyd writes, “she was acting only as a private citizen concerned about a local land use issue. But her effort to understand what was happening in her own backyard led to a breakthrough that has had worldwide ramifications for environmental and humanitarian organizations seeking to communicate the significance of their causes.”

“Moore dumped her parcel information into the software and looked for the utility company’s land. The results alarmed her: it was a six-mile swath jutting straight up the canyon, right below private homes, schools and churches. The roads the loggers would take were a mess of hairpin turns. Just recently, a local woman’s car had been crushed after logs had rolled off another logging truck. These are the roads kids use to walk to school, Moore thought. There will be more accidents.

“The creek at the base of the canyon provides water for 100,000 people living in the mountains and in nearby Silicon Valley. Soil erosion from the logging would surely degrade water quality, Moore thought, if not gum up the filtration machinery altogether. Plus landslides were already common; the removal of so many trees would certainly precipitate more slides.”

Moore took her Google Earth map to a meeting of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging (NAIL). Suddenly, the organization’s fight had a potent tool to fight the utility company.

Moore’s work led to the creation of Google Earth Outreach. The project website says its purpose is to “give nonprofits and public benefit organizations the knowledge and resources to reach minds and hearts.”

Google Earth Outreach has a YouTube page and features a striking eight-minute documentary chronicling Moore’s work training over 20 indigenous tribes in the Amazon on using the Internet to preserve their land and their way of life.

Here’s the video:

And here are a few more places you can go to learn about social justice and environmental activists using maps as an organizing tool:

Raising Global Awareness with Google Earth, by Rebecca Moore

Green Map System 

Google Earth Outreach case studies

Ogle Earth blog (don't miss the Gaza map collection)