Learning in the open

This post is part of the Green Web Fellowship 2021. Fellows are exploring how to advance climate justice among internet practitioners and reflecting honestly on what they learn. Read more about the fellowship goals and beliefs and the reading list being compiled in Zotero.

Reframing the #LetsGreenTheWeb campaign in a climate justice context

Dear diary,

In February 2021 I ran a campaign with ClimateAction.tech called #LetsGreenTheWeb. The idea was simple: we aimed to raise awareness of the fact that websites and internet infrastructure creates carbon emissions, and we wanted to help website owners take positive action to make theirs better. The campaign was hard work, but it was a success and recently people have been asking if we’ll do it again.

Most certainly – I am keen to lead this campaign again. It clearly gained some traction and recognition which is rewarding to see. I’m a fan of building on and improving something that already exists, so it makes sense to explore a rerun of the campaign.

But honestly, something has been bothering me about the campaign and its aims now I look at them afresh, and as I also consider them in the context of climate justice.

Whilst it is important to make websites more performant and reduce their CO2 emissions, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What do I mean by that?

What I mean is that as I appreciate the importance and breadth of climate justice, I realise that CO2 emissions are a symptom of deeper problems. They’re maybe more like a surface issue. I’m not knocking the gravity of CO2 emissions, they need to be sorted and quick sharp. But I’m thinking the underlying causes need to be addressed in the right way so they stay fixed.

Conventional medical wisdom recommends that you treat the patient and not the disease.

As a gardener, I understand only too well that if you want strong healthy plants you pay attention to the care of its roots.

A tree lives by it's root. Change the roots and you change the tree. Change the trees and you change the forest.
Found on Pinterest

As a coder, I dislike being asked to patch up a bug without time to fully understand and address the underlying root cause. The bug inevitably pops up again, probably on the weekend or during some important demo.

We have a bug. We fix the bug. Now we have 2 bugs. Now we have 3 bugs.

Focusing on website CO2 emissions feels kinda like treating the disease, polishing plant leaves or slapping a quick patch on your code. Yes it gives us something tangible and immediate to fix and point to and that’s a nice feeling. But if that’s all we’re doing we’re missing the bigger picture. We’re missing the more juicy opportunities to actually fix stuff once and for all.

We need to get into the mindset of treating the patient, caring for the roots in the soil or refactoring our code. In climate justice terms, we need to look at how humans and which humans make decisions, what they value, how they behave, and how our systems support that and then we need to address the shortcomings. The #LetsGreenTheWeb campaign would be of far more value to the greater good if it helped people apply this level of thinking to their digital technologies.

In one of my previous posts, Drawing a diagram to show the complexities of climate justice, I drew a diagram in an attempt to articulate how small carbon emissions are in the grand scheme of things.

The challenge of climate justice diagram

Electric cars are a good example of focusing on the wrong solutions

Electric cars are gaining popularity because they are seen as a solution to reduce CO2 emissions. They don’t use fossil fuels to the same extent, so by switching to them we will reduce CO2 emissions. Win!

But hang on, what are we replacing the fossil fuels with?

Currently we’re replacing the fossil fuels with battery technology that requires cobalt and lithium. Both require extensive use of extractive methods eg mining. Not only does mining have severe environmental impacts such as devastated landscapes, water pollution, contaminated crops and a loss of soil fertility, but these create knock on social effects to the populations that have to bear the brunt of this damage to the land they rely on. Read How the race for cobalt risks turning it from miracle metal to deadly chemical by the Guardian or A Power Struggle Over Cobalt Rattles the Clean Energy Revolution in the New York Times.

And who profits from the mining? Sadly, not the local populations whose land is being torn to shreds, or who can’t get enough food or water to drink. Nope, it’s those big, faceless, multi-national firms who don’t have any skin in the game. They literally get away with murder as they put shareholder profits over local people time and time and time again. And we let them get away with it. Sound like anyone else you know? Looking at you fossil fuel companies 👀

The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result

And I haven’t even got into talking about the other impacts of cars, social and environmental things like: congestion and traffic jams, safe spaces inside cities, sedentary lifestyles, parking and charging sites replacing social spaces – the list goes on.

Four types of lego traffic jam: petrol cars, diesel cars, electric cars and self-driving cars
Click to enlarge. Photo from plasticplanners.org – Problems that electric cars won’t solve

So coming back to my opening thoughts, the aim of the #LetsGreenTheWeb campaign needs some fresh thinking and needs to help technologists take action and ask questions beyond carbon emissions.

I still think there’s some value in using the website carbon emissions as a hook, or a rallying cry. Afterall the scope of climate justice and climate change is huge, and people need an entry point they can relate to for getting started. But once we get people interested, we need to help them build an awareness of the wider climate justice context. We’ve got a limited amount of time to take drastic action. We need to act quickly but we also need to act on the right things and in the right way.

Next steps

I don’t have the answers for this yet, but I think I might have the seed of where this can go and how we can support technologists into a meaningful climate justice journey. Chris wrote a post on TGWF blog a little while back Three levers for change as a technologist: Consumption, Intensity, and Direction, and I think this could be a good starting point. I’d like to take those ideas and apply them to websites. It’ll be interesting to see what others will have to say…

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