Through the Looking Glass

A 21st Century Vision

Dr. Timothy W. Foresman is President of the International Centre for Remote Sensing Education. He has been director of United Nations Environment Programme's Division of Early Warning and Assessment (Nairobi, Kenya) and national program manager for NASA's Digital Earth (Washington, D.C.). He is editor of The History of Geographic Information Systems, 1998, Prentice Hall. Dr. Foresman is currently the Director-General for the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth (

The 19th century experience of Alice, in passing through the looking glass, placed her in an environment of the absurd, with nonsensical politics and with life based on an illogical game of chess. We seem to have passed through the same mirror in the 21st Century as we gaze upon our reflections of senseless violence and ineffectual leadership, coupled with fearful threats to our environment and to our lives on this planet. We are confronted by a question that accompanies our increasing use of the modern looking glass: Will the new viewing technologies improve life in this illogical world?

Digital Earth geobrowsers are capable of radically changing the public's ability to view the world by whetting their appetites for wondrous applications and entertainment. Unfortunately, at one end of the spectrum, the mainstream media have joined with the public's questionable taste by pandering heinous video clips of criminal actions, which then take on a life of their own through YouTube and other Web outlets.

On the other end of the spectrum, selfless advocate groups are harnessing 3D visualization to expose corporate destruction of the planet's ecological goods and services and to give evidence of genocidal assaults on innocent villagers in far-off lands. Our 21st Century Looking Glass is indeed a phenomenal invention.

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the science-consensus view that the Earth is warming as a result of increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, a symptom of our addiction to burning fossil fuels. Developed and developing countries alike are being tarred and feathered as the culprits. Walt Kelly's Pogo said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

In a bizarre twist, China and the United States have united politically to dilute these scientific findings as “inconvenient truths” that act against their perceived economic interests. Meanwhile, the Earth heats up and the weather patterns are going berserk in the midst of the planet's 6th major episode of mass species
extinction, the most recent of which involved the demise of the dinosaurs. Maybe we can look our children in the eyes and claim to be doing something. It's time to use Alice's looking glass to reflect the absurdities of our own time.

The role of remote sensing, along with that of its geospatial cohorts (GIS, GPS, and Digital Earth) is rising again to the top as a primary technology and medium for addressing many of the ills of climate change. But the technology cannot drive itself. The 21st Century Looking Glass must be held up properly and must be driven by leadership in the community.

That leadership is showing signs of emanating from the midst of our corporate community and is demonstrating promise for catalyzing action by the necessary coalitions of industry, NGOs, and academia, in partnership with governments.

The French satellite company Spot Image, for example, is shepherding a call for collaboration of key members in the geobrowser/Digital Earth, GIS, and climate change communities. Spot's initiative for a Planet Action Exchange (PAX) is designed to provide focus, technical assistance, and resources for local communities to understand and take action on the impacts and challenges of climate change. While this initiative is nascent, the coalition is targeting January 2008 for the operational kick-off. Spot Image will be announcing the details of the Planet Action Exchange at the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth in Berkeley, California on June 5th.

Spot Image plans to promote a cooperative Web facility that will provide for the access and distribution of many historic satellite images and much data to be used by certified research and action groups (think researchers and NGOs). The build-out of this innovative initiative will enable communities to construct time-series, detailed, and comprehensive visualization decision-support systems–a true 21st Century Looking Glass. Villages and communities will be empowered to consider climate change adaptation, coping strategies, and actions for their survival and for the sustainable continuity of their cultures for generations. Communities around the world will very soon have the capacity to “spot the impacts and engage in action.”

Direct benefit can easily be imagined from extension of the Planet Action Exchange to other sectors than climate change. Recently, a report by Goodman and Finn detailed the expansive network of illegal logging from Burma, Siberia, Indonesia and Africa that feeds the voracious global wood-processing industry along the coast of China (“Corruption Stains Timber Trade: Forests Destroyed in China's Race to Feed Global Wood-Processing Industry,” Washington Post Foreign Service, April 1, 2007). The World Bank calculates losses of $10 billion annually among the poorest nations from this silvicultural raping of their ecological goods and services.

In the United States, retail shoppers pick up these “price-smart” illegally logged wood products from Ikea, Home Depot, and Lowes. The Forest Stewardship Council and these aforementioned businesses admit to being able to account for only around 5% of their wood products as being legal and/or based on best forest-management practices. In the meantime, we can sit at our spinning globe browsers and see exactly where these rapacious and environmentally egregious acts are occurring in the world's tropical jungles, evidenced by gaping scars on the landscape.

Along the human dimensions, an initiative by Michael Graham and colleagues at the Holocaust Museum has poignantly demonstrated the power of the 21st Century Looking Glass with their multi-media experience for monitoring the atrocities in Darfur (“Museum, Google Zoom In on Darfur,” Nora Boustany, Washington Post Foreign Service, April 14, 2007). We can now assuredly switch channels to watch, in almost real-time, the various pogroms offered for our viewing pleasure from the safety of our living rooms.

“No one can any longer say they don't know. This tool will bring a spotlight to a very dark corner of the earth, a torch that will indirectly help protect the victims,” said John Prendergast, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. “It is David versus Goliath, and Google Earth just gave David a stone for his slingshot.”

Our industry should accept these milestones as wake-up calls to recognize that we now have the capacity to give all the Davids of the world the ammunition needed, in terms of visualized information, to proactively stem the tides of genocide, ameliorate ecological destruction, and take charge of the destinies of every village and town. Questions posed under these realities are:

  • Do we have the leadership capacity to begin collaboratively addressing the technical side of the 21st Century Looking Glass?
  • Is there political will by the citizens and agencies to make use of the Looking Glass perspectives? I'll paraphrase an old adage: “You can lead a horse to data, but you can't make him think.”
  • Can we take the actions we need to take, in time to make a difference?

The Digital Earth community, represented by many nationalities and all walks of life, will be convening on the grassy hillside of the U.C. Berkeley campus on June 5-9, 2007, to consider the issues related to the 21st Century Looking Glass. We hope to see some real partnerships and action come from this 5th symposium in the series of international meetings. We believe that we can make a difference and we desperately want to celebrate hope.

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