World leaders are busy this week trying to downplay expectations for the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been fretting about a lack of consensus on a draft text for weeks. On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he’d be skipping the meeting. While the White House hasn’t made an official statement either way, it’s highly unlikely President Obama will jet off to Rio in the heat of the election (even more so now that he’s announced Hillary Clinton will be headed down to Brazil).
Which is all bad news for the planet. The political heat the President would get from Republicans is nothing compared to the physical heat from, say, the fires ravaging New Mexico and Colorado right now, or the heat-wave that broke 15,000 temperature records across the United States this March.
Watching the world over the last twelve months has been like watching an old car overheat: things break, systems malfunction, there is often fire. And while it’s tempting to label the planet a lemon and trade in for an upgrade, it looks like we’re going to be stuck with our current vehicle for the foreseeable future. Which means that we’re going to have to do our best to fix it up, converting our gas-run beater into a sleek, new electric vehicle.
While most of the people headed down to Rio+20 this month are focused on how we’re going to power our converted planet – what combination of solar, wind, and other renewables will keep the engine humming – another group of conference-goers are focused on fixing up another part of the machine: the wiring.
Back at the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the internet was just a flicker in the eyes of a nerds and military-geeks. Cell phones were still the size of footballs and a face book was still the printed booklet that showed your cute new college classmates. Now, when asked what was the best way to convince President Obama to attend Rio+20, Ban Ki Moon responded, “tweet, tweet, tweet.” It’s not hard to imagine the confusion such a response would have caused in 1992.
The world has changed. The rapid spread of the internet and pervasiveness of social media mean the planet is more interconnected than ever before. But what does all this have to do with sustainability? Is Facebook really a tool that could help solve climate change or is it just a distraction?
So far, the answer seems to be: a little of both. Five years ago, a group of college friends and I founded a small new climate campaign called 350.org. We’d just run a national day of climate protests in the United States and were eager to see if we could extend the model of distributed local action to the international level. Since there were seven of us, each of us took a continent to organize (the guy who got Antarctica also took the web, since it’s kind of a continent onto itself).
As we went to work trying to connect with activists around the world, it soon became clear that the type of network we were attempting to construct wouldn’t have been possible even a few years before. Activists in Zaire were only a short Google Search and Skype call away. When I needed to find an organizer in Brunei, I quickly found someone from the country on Facebook who was posting environmental content, messaged him, and we had a 350 Brunei group up a few days later.
The web really shown when we could combine online and offline action. For our first international day of climate action on October 24, 2009, we rigged up a email@example.com email account to directly deposit into Flickr photos from events around the world. In less than 24 hours, we maxed out three Gmail accounts forwarding nearly 20,000 photos into our Flickr stream. The system nearly crashed, but it worked wonders: mere minutes after photos came in online, we were able to project them on the giant screens in Times Square, providing the first digital snapshot of a growing global climate movement.
At the same time, the rise of “clicktivism,” the somewhat derogatory term for the trend of adopting online petitions instead of real-world organizing, has made our job more difficult. With organizations walking around comparing the size of their email lists, grassroots groups are often stuck making the “quality not quantity” argument. Sure, an email with the subject line “24 Hours to Stop Sarah Palin from Defunding NPR” can get a high open rate, but the petition signatures probably won’t amount to much.
Over the last year at 350.org, we’ve tried to mix up the online and offline action as much as possible. In the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, we started the campaign with “hard” actions, like getting 1,200 people to take part in civil disobedience at the White House, and only later added in the easier action of driving 800,000 online messages to Congress further on down the road.
Activism isn’t the only field where the web has opened up new possibilities, however. Mobile apps can help farmers predict a drought before it hits, allowing them to adapt to changing conditions in real time. Smart meters hooked up to WiFi networks can help families or businesses use less energy. By mixing social networks and behavioral research, people are finding new ways to encourage people to drive less or conserve more by getting them to compete with their neighbors.
Once your start listing them, the possibilities seem endless. Help businesses set up carpool networks that work with Facebook and basic mapping tools so employees can save money getting to the job. Integrate mobile apps with a smart grid and people could track how much energy they’re putting into the system from the solar panels on their roof. Create an online database of open-source climate solutions – the latest innovations in small-scale renewable energy or urban farming – so that people around the world can improve and implement them.
Governments and businesses should continue to find ways to invest in these new technologies and solutions. A smart idea for how to make the electricity grid more accessible to everyday consumers won’t get off the ground if a utility stands adamantly in the way. Consumers won’t be able to see the carbon intensity of the goods their buying if businesses don’t track the emissions associated with production.
These are just some of the ideas that will likely be shared (and tweeted about) down in Rio over the coming weeks. Entire events, like the Rio+Social, are dedicated to exploring the brave new frontier of online sustainability.
If you’re not going to be in Rio, there are still plenty of ways to participate. The Rio+Social event is going to be streaming online and tweeting away throughout the talks. In the lead up to the summit, 350.org is teaming up with groups like Avaaz, Natural Resources Defense Council, World Wildlife Fund, and others to organize a “Twitter Storm,” an 24-hour online push to get as many tweets as possible of the same hashtag, #endfossilfuelsubsidies. We’ll see if by flooding the online airwaves before the summit we can help push world leaders to cut the nearly $1 trillion in subsidies that go to the fossil fuel industry every year. Here’s the link where you can join the push:
Tweeting won’t stop the glaciers from melting and posting on Facebook won’t protect the Amazon, but social media and internet technology is opening up an exciting new world of possibilities, whether you’re looking to build a global grassroots movement of activists or help people understand what sea level rise will mean for their community. Only the future will tell if we’ll be able to pull the planet out of this destructive spiral. Either way, we’ll be tweeting about it.