Taking Action Online
for the environment, social justice and sustainable development

by Adam Rogers / available January 2021

Preface: Connecting the Dots

 

With its emergence in the 1960s as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the internet, as it is known today, was originally developed by the US military as a tool for communication with and command of its forces and weapons around the world. With the help of Tim Berners-Lee in the 1990s, it quickly expanded into a network of networks that today offers the greatest opportunity for peace this world has ever seen.

It is a beautiful irony that something that was once created for war now offers our best chance at creating everlasting peace—prospering as diverse communities in harmony with the environment and with each other. Never has it been as possible for nearly everyone, everywhere to take part in and take action for creating a better world. We can reach across oceans and connect with people we may never meet in person. We can access information and knowledge about nearly everything under the sun on our smartphones. We can and must all be aware of the problems plaguing our planet and how we each may be at least partially responsible for them. No matter where we are located, if we have a phone or a computer, we can take action online to address environmental challenges, to support social justice for all, and to advance sustainable development.

But opportunities require work to become realities, and peace is still an elusive concept for many people. Since 1945, despite a half century of nuclear standoff and multiple smaller conflicts, big wars don't seem to happen anymore. However, although deaths from conflict have been steadily declining since the Spanish Civil War, there is much work to do until we can finally declare Peace on Earth.

Another obstacle to peace: despite enormous progress in the last 20 years, a third of the world's population lives in extreme poverty, while more than 15,000 children die daily from preventable causes. Carbon continues to build up in the earth’s atmosphere, influencing global weather patterns with unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences for the people below. Most projections of the effects of climate change envisage intense competition for increasingly scarce resources–leading to regional instability, social unrest, and wars over water. Despite advances in modern medicine, many countries lack adequate health infrastructure or are shackled by corruption and insurance schemes that exclude massive segments of the population—making them more vulnerable when health emergencies arise. In many countries, although laws are in place to safeguard human rights and justice for all, huge gaps remain in how these laws are applied and for whom.

There are now more than 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide, about a third of the planet’s population. This ubiquitous presence makes social media an unavoidable part of any strategy to support, fundraise, and advocate for and/or contribute to the achievement of the social, environmental, and political causes like the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Unlike the past, where campaigners blindly communicated and hoped for the best, social media enables you to target and engage with potential supporters, partners, and like-minded activists in real time.

A bit of history

The insights I share in this book are based on 25 years of active online experience advocating for social and environmental causes and from research and interviews with hundreds of online activists for various projects.

In the early 1990s, when I was editor of the Los Angeles publication Earth News, I was quite active on CompuServe, the first major commercial online service provider in the United States and Canada. CompuServe was built on a client-server protocol, meaning that the client, a software package distributed on floppy disk, had to dial a phone number to connect to a server through an analog modem that screeched gutturally as if it were clearing its throat, before finally connecting with the remote server. Once connected, a graphical user interface (what we called a GUI) exchanged information with the server and enabled simple text messages to be shared among the subscribers. Message forums formed around a variety of topics (many focusing on environmental issues and concerns), and the first online games were launched. CompuServe also gave birth to a popular graphics format for animated pictures that is widespread today—the GIF (Graphics Interchange Format).

 

In 1993, I joined an organization led by Ella Cisneros, a philanthropist from Venezuela who had an epiphanic vision to connect environmental organizations around the world through a virtual network to share information and empower each another. The prospect seemed wonderfully exciting at the time, and in retrospect, incredibly ahead of its time. Through a partnership with the University of Vermont, this organization, the Together Foundation for Global Unity, established several servers around the world that connected their users and then mirrored each other’s content at night. The network, which Ella created with technology guru Jim MacIntyre, came to be called TogetherNet.

We were able to get all the Permanent Missions to the United Nations onto our network and then convince the UN Department of Information to provide us with access to the Daily Journal—the official calendar of events that took place at the UN each day. That way, the ambassadors would not have to send a driver down to the Secretariat each morning to pick up the paper version; they could simply fire up their computers, log into our network, and open it up.

In April 1994, TogetherNet facilitated the world’s first online broadcast of a UN conference—the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States—through a partnership between the Together Foundation, the Governor-General of Barbados and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). This was the first big follow-up meeting after the Earth Summit in 1992, and the second in a long string of events to follow in Cairo, Copenhagen, Istanbul, and Beijing.

Today, all UN conferences are available online through a variety of channels. At the time, however, what we managed to achieve was unique and groundbreaking. We would gather up the printed version of the statements before or during delivery, have them scanned (or if possible, made available on disk), and then we would upload them to our network for users to read in real time around the world. As part of our agreement with UNDP, we would also download them to their “gopher” server, a now antiquated platform that was designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the internet. The gopher was mostly accessed through a command line user interface, or just “CLI” to the cognoscenti.

Not long after the conference in Barbados, and just following the Paris negotiations for the UN Convention on Desertification, I headed to Le Locle, Switzerland to set up the European server for TogetherNet with our partner, Luc Tissot—CEO of the watch company with the same name. While there, Luc invited me to Geneva to meet with a friend of his who worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, CERN. We arrived at CERN late in the morning on a warm summer day and, after all the requisite security clearances, proceeded to a massive, temperature-controlled room the size of an aircraft hangar. The warehouse was filled with computer servers, all presumably crunching data from the particle accelerator. In a far corner, however, sat one nondescript box out of which a few wires ran out, connecting to a mainframe somewhere. Little did I know at the time, but the bits and bytes within formed the embryo for what would later turn the entire world of communication upside down and forever transform the way humans access information and connect with one another.

While the brilliant scientists of the world remained focused on their search for the “God Particle,” Tim Berners-Lee was busy figuring out how simple consumer computers could access and present information to their users graphically through a system he was developing called Hypertext Transfer Protocol—or simply HTTP. Those are the first four letters in a full website address, known as a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). The new computer language that Tim developed became known as Hypertext Markup Language, or simply HTML.

At the time, CERN was the largest internet node in Europe, and Tim saw an opportunity to join hypertext with it. After much trial-and-error and through a collaboration he had with an American, Marc Andreessen (who developed the world’s first browser, Mosaic) Tim set up the world’s first website, info.cern.ch, running on a NeXT computer at CERN.

Tim made his idea available without charge, with no patent and no royalties. The World Wide Web Consortium, which he established in 1994, decided that its standards should be based on royalty-free technology for easy adoption by anyone.

 

When I returned to Burlington with my stories from CERN and an idea to port our entire system from First Class to HTML (and to use the emerging internet for connectivity rather than having our clients dial up to distributed servers), I was met with resistance. Not knowing enough about the technology to convince them, I simply gave up and accepted a request from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to travel to their headquarters in Nairobi and to write a book which was later published as Taking Action: an environmental guide for you and your community.

Taking Action was designed as a manual for communities and individuals to help achieve the vision of Agenda 21, the landmark document that emerged from the Earth Summit in 1992 on how to save humanity from self-destruction. The book, which was published jointly in 1995 by UNEP and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS), described the challenges facing humanity and suggested solutions, but called upon the reader to take action in his or her daily life. “After all,” I wrote in the preface, “the decisions we make daily as consumers, as professionals, and even as parents will shape the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.”

 

Although I resumed my work as a researcher and writer on environmental issues, little did I know at the time that my cyber-adventure was just getting started. Upon arriving in New York, my old friend Bob Zangrillo, who had recently graduated with an MBA from Stanford, told me he was playing tennis the following weekend with George Soros but currently wanted my help with a business plan.  The result of that plan beefed up an ongoing initiative, led by Michael Donahue and Patrick Leung, called the InterWorld Corporation.  Soros provided the first round of financing, followed by Paul Allen of Microsoft.  The company went public two years later.

 

Although eventually we developed the server-side e-commerce architecture for many Fortune 500 firms—from Disney to Marks & Spencer—one of our first and most memorable clients was the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group known for its work on issues including climate change, ecosystem restoration, oceans, human health, and species extinction. Since everybody and their uncle was setting up a website in those days, EDF wanted one too. To help engage visitors and keep them on the EDF site, one of our programmers came up with the brilliant idea to develop a memory game with endangered animals. There were 36 squares on the screen and when you clicked on one, it would flip over and present an animal. You had to remember where each one was so you could eventually pick a pair. When you did this, the two would disappear; make all the animals disappear, and you win the game. It was hard for the programmers to understand why this was not a great idea for an organization working to save endangered animals from disappearing forever.

 

Early adopters of the new technology

Everett M. Rogers was an eminent American communication theorist and sociologist who came up with the diffusion of innovations theory and introduced the term early adopter. I based my master’s thesis on his work and had the honor of interviewing him about a week before his death in October 2004. Diffusion of innovations seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. Rogers argued that diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated over time among the participants in a social system. He proposed that four main elements influence the spread of a new idea: the innovation itself, communication channels, time, and a social system. This process relies heavily on human capital. The innovation must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain. Within the rate of adoption, there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass. Those who adopt a new technology and use it are generalized as 1) innovators, 2) early adopters, 3) early majority, 4) late majority, and 5) laggards.  In other words, if you bought the first smart phone (the Apple Newton) in 1993, you were an early adopter; if you waited until everyone else had one, and an iPhone in 2020, you are a laggard.

Those individuals and organizations who leveraged the internet to advance their concerns and priorities followed the same curve.  Heather Mansfield believes that nonprofit organizations and social activists were the innovators and early adopters of the technology. “While big corporate brands and institutions were having meetings (and panic attacks) about whether they should risk using social media,” wrote Mansfield in 2012, “nonprofits were already active on Myspace, YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook.”

Nonprofit organizations and cause-motivated activists are a great example of a segment of social media with its own unique elements and expectations. Initiatives motivated by causes to make this world a better place for everyone, everywhere present a great opportunity to put social media to good use for its best use. Although social media is often associated with celebrity gossip, @RealDonaldTrump, and fashion “trends,” I believe the fit for which it is best suited is social and environmental causes.

For the most part, social media adoption has now reached critical mass among the general public, bringing with it enormous opportunities for all sectors of society. The private sector has embraced it en force, selling everything from sex to sandals. In fact, many of the problems the nonprofit sector is now combatting were probably exacerbated by the internet phenomenon. It is now up to us to use the internet in every way we can to solve the many challenges the world is facing.

 

What you can expect from this book

It is my hope that Taking Action Online will serve as a foundation upon which you will build your own knowledge and initiatives. While reading this book, pause repeatedly and search online using keywords gleaned from the pages to expand your knowledge yet further. When searching, try not to get stuck using one engine—they can be biased and led by commercial interests. Remember, you can also “google” information on duckduckgo.com, dogpile.com, ecosia.org (which plants trees with your searches) and bing.com.

In the pages ahead, I provide a review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the process that led to their creation. To give a better understanding of what the internet is, how the various bits link together, and what it can do for you, I cover its evolution from the establishment of static websites to the emergence of social media. I also provide advice on how to set up and grow online communities, how to craft and package messages that work, and how to use the various channels to get your messages across to those targeted audiences who may be able to influence your desired outcomes. I cover how to select, how to reach, and then how to engage with your audiences. As pictures can tell a thousand words, I also discuss the effective and strategic use of photography and videography in cause-related social media.

Because nothing great is ever accomplished without planning, I cover the basics of strategy linked to outputs and outcomes—how to plan your work so you can work your plan. Also, as we all need to eat and pay our bills so we can continue our work, I discuss fundraising and crowdsourcing through social media.  Lastly, I look at the role of social media in organizing street protests and civil disobedience, from the Arab Spring and Hong Kong to Ukraine and Belorussia.

 

Discovering our piece of the puzzle

The American author Mark Twain said the two most important days of your life “are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” I believe the “why” is connected to a “how”—your gift, what you are good at. I believe we each possess a unique and specific talent that we can use to make the world a better place for everyone, everywhere. No one can tell you what your talent is; you must discover it for yourself. I like to call this your “#SDGTalent.”

Most talents are best used locally, perhaps improving the life of just one person or small group of people. Sometimes you can take your local experiences and contribute to global solutions through social media and the internet. Sometimes you can reach out and inspire someone halfway around the globe to take the same actions you did to reach out and improve a life or situation locally. We each hold a piece of a giant puzzle, a puzzle that will never be solved or complete until each of us knows where we fit into the big picture.

We are each a dot in a constellation of possibilities. On our own, we can discover, refine, and contribute our talents to the greater good. But when we are inspired by others, learn from others, and join forces with others, we become an unstoppable movement. Social media enables and empowers us to connect with others across time and space, connecting the dots to form a picture of us as we were meant to be—an “us” without a “them.” When we have realized our collective potential as a human race, we will no longer need a “them” to blame for our problems. For ultimately there is no them, there is only us, currently 7.53 billion of us on a warm rock spinning through cold space, trying to figure things out.

So, let’s get busy and connect the dots.