If 2020 has felt like an ever escalating series of disasters—a pandemic, an economic crisis, and an overdue racial justice reckoning all compounding one another and occurring against the backdrop of climate breakdown—it is also the year in which a better future came into sharp focus. For humanity to thrive on Earth in the 21st century and beyond, we need to reinvent our relationship with the planet and each other.
And however we choose to rebuild from the literal scorched earth of this dreadful year, the Internet will play a vital role. Driven by the necessity of social distancing, workplaces and classrooms have moved onto our computers and into the cloud; even after a coronavirus vaccine is available, remote working and learning will likely remain the norm for many. The digitization of our relationships also accelerated this year, and our new, screen based rituals for socializing with coworkers, going on dates, celebrating life events, and mourning lost loved ones are leaving an indelible mark on our culture.
But if the Internet is going to help liberate us from the overheated morass of 21st century capitalism, it, too, will need to evolve. While borne out of ideals of equity and knowledge sharing, today’s web mirrors the realities of a world dominated by Kochs and Bezoses: It disproportionately benefits the wealthy and privileged while treating the rest of us as monetizable commodities, encouraging mindless consumption from an endless buffet of digital information. Hosted on servers and transmitted via networks that are powered by fossil fuels, our use of the Internet makes a significant contribution to the climate crisis—one that is rarely acknowledged and largely unknown.
Branch is an attempt to envision something radically different: An Internet that was created for all of us and the planet we depend on. Within its pages, you’ll find essays, presentations, art pieces, and interviews with designers, software engineers, activists and more that sketch a picture of what a cleaner and more just digital world could look like. The picture is far from complete, but after spending some time exploring Branch, I’ve started to see the contours of a sustainable Internet more clearly. And the prospect of building it is incredibly exciting.
The pieces in Branch push the conversation far beyond the green capitalism discourse championed by the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, which is focused on cleaning up the energy supply powering the web while keeping its profit-driven motive — premised on endless digital growth — intact. Instead, they depict new kinds of virtual spaces in which principles of climate justice and even degrowth are baked into the digital architecture. Rather than treating climate action as an accounting problem that can be solved with clever math, Branch asserts that true sustainability requires an intersectional approach that considers the climate impact of our online lives alongside user experience, accessibility, and digital rights.
The results are as clever as they are surprising. For instance, what if instead of automatically serving every website visitor the same selection of banner ads and autoplay videos, sites adapted throughout the day to reflect the amount of renewable power they are currently running on? That’s one of the fascinating ideas put forth in “10 Rules for Building a Low-Impact Website,” a primer on climate friendly web design by sustainable apparel maker Organic Basics’ Jesper Hyldahl Fogh. Or what if individuals could be nudged into making more climate conscious choices online? In “Design for Carbon Aware Digital Experience” sustainable interaction designer Lu Ye describes a Chrome extension she built that alerts users when their web browsing is having a high climate impact and suggests that they switch to activities that use less data.
As many submissions note, designing for the environment and humans often goes hand in hand: A decluttered website will load much more smoothly on an aging phone than a digitally bloated one will, perhaps encouraging that user to hang onto the old device for longer. Still, as internet governance advocate Michael Oghia reminds us in his essay “Interconnected: Sustainability on the Agenda,” people can’t have sustainable online experiences if they are unable to log online at all. Ensuring everyone has a reliable, affordable internet connection and access to content in their native language might be the most overlooked sustainable development challenge of the 21st century.
In order to meet that challenge — and the inseparable challenge of climate change — we can’t wait for big corporations to do the right thing. Rather, we need to hold them accountable for their failure to act with the urgency this moment requires.
Several pieces in Branch show what a new culture of climate accountability could look like in tech. In “Today Google Stops Funding Climate Change Deniers,” a parody press release originally published on Earth Day, activists at Extinction Rebellion apologize to the public for “putting profit over the planet by funding climate change deniers” and commit to dropping all contracts with those seeking to block climate action or accelerate fossil fuel production. In “The Hidden Life of an Amazon User,” artist and researcher Joana Moll offers viewers a peek into the labyrinthian world of code that is involuntarily loaded and run as she goes through the standard process of purchasing Jeff Bezos’ book on Amazon. By revealing the whopping 8,724 pages, or 30 watt-hours, worth of scripts chugging away during this single transaction — many of them written with the intention of collecting data on the shopper — Moll illustrates how Amazon’s “aggressive exploitation of its users” imparts an insidious climate burden.
The pieces in Branch are vignettes; the collection as a whole a starting point. Ultimately, if we are going to extract ourselves from a web optimized to extract our attention, we’re all going to have to work together to build what comes next.
And there are myriad ways you can get started. You can take steps to align your digital life with your values, whether by hosting your website on renewable energy or choosing to repair an old device rather than replace it. You can share these choices with your friends, family and colleagues; research shows that behavioral changes not only change who we are and what we’re willing to fight for, but are often contagious.
You can raise internet justice and sustainability at work. Let your bosses know that developing an aggressive carbon reduction plan will put them on the right side of history. If management isn’t receptive to that message, speaking out publicly is one of the most powerful actions you can take. Organize your workplace so that you can demand increasingly ambitious plans and greater accountability from the company leaders promising to make them happen.
If all of that feels like a lot, know that by simply recognizing that today’s web is unjust and unsustainable, you are taking a radical first step. Equally radical is the notion that we have the power to change that. If we do so today, then perhaps, in a generation, 2020 will mark a clear turning point in the strata of Internet history, littered with fossils of a bygone era we chose to discard and keep in the ground.
About the author
Maddie Stone is a science journalist and a doctor of Earth and environmental sciences. She is the former science editor of Gizmodo founder of Earther. She writes for Vice, Grist, National Geographic, The Atlantic and Washington Post.