From: Issue 39
The Web of Sustainability
Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world's first website in 1991. Two decades later his World Wide Web has become a force for environmental and social good.
Berners-Lee couldn’t have known he would spark a technological revolution that is making us more efficient, more adaptable, and better stewards of the planet.
In early 2011, hundreds of residents of Haining, China, began complaining to local authorities about a noxious smell in the air. The source of the problem, they insisted, was a solar-panel manufacturing facility operated by Jinko Solar, a Chinese company publicly listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Over the months that followed, Chinese officials did little to address the complaints. But the dynamics of the situation shifted dramatically that September, when reports of dead fish in a nearby river – directly tying a fluoride leak from Jinko Solar’s factory to local health issues – began spreading through social networking sites and blogs. With citizen journalism in full gear and the world now watching, local protests grew quickly and became more violent. Fearing the situation would spiral out of control, the government was soon forced to halt production at the factory.
A decade ago such an event would have unfolded differently. The protesters likely would have been ignored (or silenced) and the company would have continued to operate with impunity at the expense of the community’s health and environment. But with the evolution of the Internet, and its hyper-linked layer called the World Wide Web, has come a new era of governance for corporations and countries that in the past may have ridden roughshod over the rights of citizens and the environment.
The impact has even been felt in countries with relatively strict regulations. Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, told attendees at this year’s GLOBE Conference in Vancouver that the emergence of the web helped push the industry to take corporate social responsibility more seriously. “There grew a far greater ability of networks of people to shine a light on an industry that was largely out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
We take it for granted, but the reach and accessibility of the web we have spun have enhanced global sustainability efforts in a way that few could have anticipated in the pre-Google era. The ubiquity of wireless communications and the falling cost of data-gathering sensors have fed the trend and inspired a new generation of innovators determined to turn the “Internet of things” – a virtually unlimited mix of web-connected, information-collecting objects – into a force for good.
The story spins far beyond heightened transparency and accountability. And it builds on older, but no less important, notions of telework and telecommuting. There’s little doubt that web-based e-mail and video conferencing can shrink our environmental footprint by reducing the need for travel and paper. But something much bigger is going on. The web is enabling more sustainable business models, smarter buildings and cities, and our ability to deploy low-carbon energy systems. It is giving us better ways to measure and understand the planet’s health, while also helping us adapt to our changing climate.
“It’s distributed and collaborative, and it scales not top-down but to lateral power,” said American economist and author Jeremy Rifkin. “What’s interesting is you have 2.2 billion people that can now connect, send their own video, and text each other with more distributed and collaborative potential than ever. We’ve really democratized information in terms of transaction costs.” (See Q&A with Rifkin HERE.)