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TIMES BOARD OF ADVISORS

Ready to Upload the Next Era of Eco-Activism?

August 18, 1996|MICHAEL SCHRAGE | MICHAEL SCHRAGE is a consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of "No More Teams! Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration."

Even as the eco-experts debate greenhouse effects, sustainability and global warming, no reasonable Green would disagree that these are the dog days--or silent spring--of environmental activism. The romantic idealism of Earth Days has yielded to the petty nuisance of recycling and the evil pyrotechnics of the Unabomber's manifesto. Politically speaking, the National Rifle Assn. still packs more firepower than the environmental lobby.

To be sure, people still care about the fate of the Earth. However, they seem more than a little tired of messages of doom about limits to growth and perennial threats to the ecosphere. The direct result is that traditional forms of eco-activism--the kind that captured media attention and/or public sympathy--in the 1970s and '80s now seem like embarrassing anachronisms.

Images of Greenpeace boats chivying French waste dumpers now look more foolhardy than daring. And EarthFirst condoned acts of eco-terrorism--such as hammering nails into trees to shatter chain saws--assuredly alienated more supporters than they created. Society has moved on. Have the environmentalists?

Of course, all special pleaders run the risk of having their moral fervor devolve into the telltale trinity of lobbying, litigation and direct mail. Given current leadership, that may indeed be the political future of the environmental movement. But chances are very, very good that new technology is about to foster a new generation of eco-activism. This activism may be run legally or not, it may be conducted ethically or not, it may actively involve the public or not. But there should be no question that it could transform environmental debates both locally and globally.

What is this "new technology"? I'm sorry to say that it's the Internet.

No, no, no--the environmental movement isn't going to be changed because activists can communicate better or because every foundation-funded green group has its own home page. That exists today. What I'm talking about represents a fundamental shift in how this technology might be integrated into new forms of aggressive activism. It actually requires environmentalists to literally pay more attention to the environments they purport to protect.

The reality is that the Internet doesn't have to be about electronic mail and high-bandwidth browsers; it can also be about networking the ecosystem. It would require only a little ingenuity--and very little money--to devise, say, ground water sensors that could be linked to the Net. Similarly, people already have linked very cheap video cameras to their personal computers and the Net--why not use the cameras to monitor smokestack emissions and wetlands?

This concept of Internetting the environment is simple, straightforward and destined to become ever cheaper. The idea of activists collaborating to eco-monitor waste disposal sites near aquifers--and posting the concentrations of pollutants in real time on the Internet--is something that could be accomplished in less than a month. In fact, most of the technology to monitor the ecosphere already exists. The real challenge is innovating, not inventing.

Cheap, ubiquitous sensors--for air, water and ground pollution--and digital cameras--infrared and otherwise--represent a tremendous opportunity to bring the environment into the Net. Stick tiny, low-power transmitters in them and you have a medium for real-time monitoring of environmental phenomenon--a global, electronic nervous system for the environment. Clever eco-hackers would figure out how to aggregate, analyze and display data in ways that could command both the public's attention and legal standing.

Activists could hype and promote their sites as aggressively as commercial enterprises do today. The incentive for visiting them? Many people actually care if a local facility is polluting their ground water. Indeed, one can envision urban activists planting sensors on individual city streets to see which are the most congested with particulates and other pollutants.

Don't forget that the Internet is a global phenomenon. Just how is that waste being disposed of in France? Tanzania? China? Brazil? How would activists monitor and collaborate across borders? Where are there genuine prospects for improving an environmental issue by coordinated monitoring.

Of course, where does one draw the line between legal eco-monitoring and guerrilla eco-monitoring? Surely, it counts as trespassing and invasion of privacy if eco-activists plant sensors on company grounds to see just how much heavy metal is being released. Yes, surreptitious surveillance may be seen as an unethical activity for activists. Do they use these technologies to spy on their neighbors' garbage cans and recycling bins?

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